lSabella Nichols wears a little piece of her heart on her sleeve. On her right forearm the outline of a mini Viking ship is sketched with tattoo ink. It’s a greeting to her mormor – her Danish grandmother – her birthplace of Denmark and Viking heritage. But it’s also a reminder of the warrior spirit that keeps her afloat as she tries to settle among the elite surfers of the world.
“My grandmother was part of a Viking club,” Nichols says. “Every morning – rain, hail or shine – all the women from the club would go to the beach, get undressed and go for a skinny dip in the ocean. Even if the ocean was frozen over, they would use ice chisels to dig holes in the ice. She did this until she was about 85.”
The same stoic Viking blood seems to run through Nichols’ veins. She made that clear to the world in 2021 when, as a rookie in her first year on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, she cold-bloodedly defeated seven-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore using the tactical wave priority rules at the Newcastle Cup.
Nichols had the lead in the closing minutes of the semi-final and Gilmore needed a wave to win. Footage of the stony-faced rookie sitting in the water just inches from a veteran of the sport, ready to jump any wave that might give Gilmore a chance, showed a relentless lead.
“It’s a professional sport, if you can get an edge over someone, do it. Someone will do it to you if you don’t do it to them,” Nichols says.
The 24-year-old Australian from Coolum on the Sunshine Coast has otherwise remained a mysterious character; a Billabong rider who was not seen “in” with social media cliques formed in other teams like Rip Curl and Roxy. It’s partly why, when Nichols was catapulted into the mainstream by winning the Margaret River Pro in May, the world was stunned by the raw, unadulterated emotion unleashed. It was her first win at a Championship Tour event and the sacrifice made in fulfilling a childhood dream spilled over into tears on the Western Australian beach.
“How did I feel? It’s hard to put into words. When surfing, you lose a lot more than you gain,” she says. “After everything I’ve been through, winning is the most surreal feeling.”
Just a week earlier, Nichols had been knocked out in the second round of the heats at Bells Beach. It meant she didn’t just have to do well at Margaret River to get the WSL’s hard new mid-season cut – she had to win the event.
“The low I felt after Bells was probably as low as I have. I felt this complete devastation. I sat in the portable shower crying my eyes out and crying that I was going to stop surfing,” she says.
But even Viking blood is human. Nichols and her twin sister Helena know this more than most — as children, they were hospitalized when doctors discovered they were living with a rare blood disease called spherocytosis. It classifies them as immunocompromised — a scary label to wear if you qualify for the WSL Championship Tour during a global pandemic.
“I didn’t want to be the first to get Covid, to get it and be the test case,” Nichols says, adding that she got Covid-19 in early 2022 and had a relatively mild case.
Nichols’ expatriate Australian parents moved the family from Denmark to wave-filled Coolum when she was two. When she was nine, her father convinced Nichols to go surfing by promising McMuffins with bacon and eggs as a reward for the company in the water.
The hungry grommet quickly became a star, winning the Australasia junior title in 2015, then claiming the World Junior Championships without losing a heat in 2016. top surfers compete to earn a place on the Championship Tour. Most athletes are only partially or not sponsored at all and pay their own way.
“Mom would take five interest-free credit cards and pay them off in about four years,” Nichols says. “It’s rough, there are a lot of people living penny to penny. You rely on your results and prize money to pay for the next trip.”
Just in case surfing failed, Nichols managed to juggle travel and compete with a degree in mechanical engineering at Deakin University. Her backup plan was to stop and build wave pools if the pressure got too high; she says she came close.
Performance pressure has historically added a dark dimension to emerging young female stars, who had to look a certain way to attract sponsors. However, Nichols insists she has never felt the pressure to become the stereotype of a skinny blonde surfer.
“It’s definitely a tough area to grow up in. Being a female athlete and taking a closer look at your body,” she says. “Luckily I had great role models. I looked at Carissa [Moore]Johanna [Defay]Tyler [Wright] – they are not supermodel skinny; they are fit, athletic people.
“I was a little bit skinny throughput at 57 pounds, and I realized I was too skinny to perform at that athletic level — I went out and gained weight on purpose, which contradicts what most girls do. I wanted quad bikes like Carissa.”
Nichols heads to the next event of the tour – the Roxy Pro at G-land in Indonesia – fourth in the world. Whether or not she achieved her goal of fat quadriceps muscles, the aggressive, thrusting turns she carved into wave walls on the Margaret River certainly sent the surfers old guard a message.
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