Skip to content

Overcoming Fear and surfing bigger waves with Surfer Katie McConnell

FROM CHILE TO OREGON TO PUERTO ESCONDIDO, LEARN HOW KATIE MCCONNELL IS OVERCOMING FEAR TO SURF BIGGER WAVES.

TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHERE YOU LIVE AND WHERE YOU LIKE TO SURF?

I’m currently living in the north of Chile, in the heart of the Atacama Desert, a land of urchin-covered slabs and death-defying bodyboarders. This is one of my favorite corners of the world, and I happened to find myself here as the coronavirus pandemic started ramping up… So I took stock of my few possessions and decided to stay in a little room just steps from some waves. I only recently acquired a board, so I’ve been doing a ton of bodysurfing which has got my swimming strength and barrel time way up. The last two weeks have been a lot of mind surfing, though, as we are all self-isolating at home for the good of the community.

Katie’s demonstrated she’s not afraid of heavy lips and cold water!

WHEN DID YOU LEARN TO SURF?  HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO START RIDING A SHORTBOARD AND/OR SURFING bigger waves?

I grew up going to the beach in Encinitas, California, but I really started surfing when I was in high school. There was a time when I was the only girl in Surf PE and one of the only students there just learning how to surf. I started out struggling on a shortboard until the Surf PE teacher, Lani Madrid, passed me a longboard at Cardiff Reef and told me it was “magic.” He later helped my parents give me my first longboard: an epic 9’1″ Schaper/Bonga Perkins model. It wasn’t until I started college in Santa Cruz, California, that I went back to shortboarding a bit again. I made friends with and moved into a house with some pretty die-hard surfers which had a huge impact on my surfing and life. Eventually, I realized that the wind coming up the faces of the winter waves I was riding was catching the nose of my longboard and not letting me in, so I found myself a 7’10” Vernor minigun on Craigslist… and so it’s progressed, and now on special days I have started riding my own 10′ Linden quad gun with a 1 inch-thick stringer. Swell by swell.

Overcoming_fear
We all take a beating sometimes. It’s all about what we take away from the experience.

HOW DO YOU KNOW YOUR LIMITS? HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHETHER THE SURF IS TOO BIG OR DANGEROUS FOR YOU?  

Humbly, I try to focus less on my limits and more on my capabilities. But to be blunt, deciding whether the surf is too big or dangerous for me ultimately rests in how confident I am that I could self-rescue on a given day at a given spot. With or without a safety team, in critical ocean conditions I must first be self-reliant. I also listen to what the locals have to say and strive to be a team player. Then, I assess whether it actually looks good or not. Like, “Do I even want that right now?”

DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL TACTICS OR PRACTICES YOU USE for overcoming fear BEFORE, DURING, OR AFTER YOU SURF?  (I.E. MEDITATION, VISUALISATION, PHYSICAL TRAINING).

All of the above! I seek out and utilize every available resource so that when the time for surfing bigger waves comes I can send it and stick it. 

Surfing bigger waves swell by swell

TELL US ABOUT YOUR SCARIEST EXPERIENCE(S) IN THE OCEAN.  WHERE WERE YOU? WHAT HAPPENED?

One of my scariest moments surfing was my first time out at Nelscott Reef, Oregon. On my way in, a massive rogue set reared up out the back and I knew that I had no option but to take the whole thing right on the head. The first wave was so tall– I had never been under something so tall!– and as it came down in front of me it was like slow motion. There was only a brief moment to watch in awe and listen to the thunder of the ocean, accept my circumstances, prepare for a new level of thrashing, slow my heart rate and get a good breath, and then leap and dive down away from my gun just before the explosion hit me. I was lucky to break the surface between each of three waves, and was totally fine afterwords, washed into deep water. A guy on a ski running safety came over to give me a ride, and I actually tried to say “no thanks,” until he insisted. Looking back, I should not have wasted precious moments and should have done exactly what he said, immediately. 

Another scary moment was the first time I paddled out at Mavericks. I had been trying to build confidence for years to even begin to think about wanting anything to do with that wave, and finally the day came with the right conditions, amount of crowd, board, fitness, mindset, timing, everything. I paddled out on my own with the goal just to get a look and come back safely, with no expectation to even try for a wave. Given the more mellow ocean conditions, I was actually more afraid of the locals than the wave itself. I searched inside of myself and knew that I was okay out there, that I was ready and prepared, but also tried to be low-key, respectful, maybe even under the radar and definitely approached the whole experience with a student’s perspective. What was awesome was how the guys that day totally reached out to me and made me feel welcome, and after watching for a while and being patient, a sweet little nugget came right to me… so of course I turned and paddled like hell! I was so stoked to nab my first Mavs wave, just before sunset, and am excited to go for some more, someday.

I’ve been to Zicatela twice and both times I’ve gotten totally hammered, washed, exfoliated, punched, slammed, womped, you name it. It’s so gnarly there! I really try to pick the best looking ones and protect myself when the wipeouts or cleanups happen, because they always do! 

WHAT DID YOU DO TO OVERCOME THOSE SPECIFIC EXPERIENCE(S)? 

For me, to overcome fear in certain experiences means cultivating my decision-making practices and situational approach. To me, decision-making strikes a balance between being present, anticipatory, and drawing on past knowledge and experience. I try to open all my senses, to take in and consider as much information as possible while being both quick and accurate. Approach, on the other hand, is based in values such as humility, respect, self-awareness, courage and a very real desire to become more than I currently am by challenging myself to overcome. 

In general, I try to remind myself that fear is natural and that it doesn’t have to be paralyzing: fear can be turned into something positive.

WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT SURFING GOALS? 

At this point I know I need to be able to hold my breath for at least 3 minutes to continue surfing bigger waves. I’m also working on paddling into faster, hollower, heavier waves, not just big ones. 

WHAT IS THE GREATEST LESSON (OR MEANING) SURFING HAS TAUGHT YOU?

Surfing has really been this sort of long quest to redefine what is possible, explore and expand my mind-body-soul, become a better Earth steward, and meet with, learn from and give back to people from all walks of life.

HOW DO THE LESSONS YOU LEARNED IN THE OCEAN CARRY OVER INTO OTHER PARTS OF YOUR LIFE?

Breathing is one of the most important benefits that surfing has given my life, especially in trying times. Breathing helps me slow down and see things clearly so that I can discern whether I should let something go, act or wait… and breathing is one of those beautiful things that you don’t have to be a surfer to benefit from– everyone breathes.

HOW CAN WE FIND YOU?

Follow me on Instagram and feel free to reach out!  @keiti_mar 

Happy surfing 🙂

Check out how other female surfers manage fear while surfing in our “Overcoming Fear Series.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *