Meet Surfing's Youngest Ever World Champion

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 1719d ago

At 14-years-old, Rachael Tilly set herself an ambitious target – to win a world title before she graduated from high school.

Fast forward three years and, well, that's done. Ticked off the list. A check in the box, when, at 17-years-old, she won the longboard world championships in China last year – nabbing the crown of youngest ever surfing world champion from Carissa Moore, who was 18 when she took out her first Championship Tour.

Over the past couple of years, things have started to perk up for longboarding. The WSL seems to be committing more media time to push it out to the masses, along with its more mainstream CT events. You may have seen Tilly's viral video on social media last month; gracefully cruising along the face of a rolling 1ft bump, which stacked up hundreds of thousands of views on Facebook.

The youngest surfing champ of all time.

The youngest surfing champ of all time.

© 2021 - WSL

But how did a 17-year-old from San Clemente become surfing's youngest ever champion – particularly when trying to become a professional athlete while balancing high school? And what's next when you've achieved your biggest goal? That's all within as we caught up with Rachael (now 18) recently:

How did you balance surfing professionally and studying?
I finally just graduated high school in June! Throughout my schooling experience, I thought it was more beneficial to stay in full-time school as opposed to home school. Luckily, for the most part, my teachers were really accommodating with my situation and my amount of travelling. I would get all my schoolwork that I would be missing in those weeks and bring it with me on my trips and do it in my free time.

It would always be pretty hectic returning back to school after a trip with making up tests and the remaining work but my high school experience was amazing and I wouldn’t trade it out. It was also awesome to have the support of the school when I was in China and then returning after winning the title.

So, how did a typical day work out for you – surf early, school, surf late?
When I was in school, a typical day was surfing early before school with my high school surf team, then going to school, and after doing homework, land training, or maybe surfing again if I had enough time. Now that it is summer, a typical day looks like surfing in the morning, going to work in the harbour where I am a sailing instructor for kids camps, and then surfing again in the evening.

I’ve been travelling this summer for contests as well so the week or two before I leave, my dad and I work extra hard in training to make sure I’m ready for the event.

© 2021 - Fran Miller

After winning the longboard world title last year, you now hold the title of surfing's youngest ever world title winner – how has that impacted on your headspace this season?
It has definitely given me more confidence in my surfing ability and has helped me stay motivated in training for this upcoming year’s contests and championships. It has also helped me stay relaxed in heats because anything from here just continues to be a bonus so I’m continuing to have more and more fun in these events.

Was your plan always to win world titles? And did you ever think you'd always win one so early in your career?
When I was about 10-years-old, I made the goal to become the youngest world champion. I knew I wanted to become a world champion but to challenge myself more, I put a twist on it to achieve early in life.I knew I wanted to become a world champion This past year was my last chance to win the title and be the youngest to do so, so it was pretty surreal it all came together how it did. I actually just found a letter I wrote to myself when I was in 8th grade (about 14-years-old) and in it I wrote I wanted to win a world title before I graduated high school, so to read that was so satisfying to know that I did it! 

Do you plan to keep on competing in surfing, or are there any other goals you'd like to achieve?
I would love to win another world title! Ultimately, I compete because I love it, not for any specific results, so I look to continue competing for as long as I can. Having goals for high results helps me know what I’m working toward and keep in mind as I am training in and out of the water. With my completive nature, I am always striving to be on the top so in all contests I enter, I have the first place in mind. Eventually, I plan on going to college to get my degree in nursing.

There's a lot of emphasis placed on the women's CT tour – do you feel that longboarding has found its stride or are there still places it can go?
I think the longboard tour still has a long way to go. The WSL seems to be pushing and supporting it now more than ever so I think that is only helping us with the direction we strive to go. It would be great to see more events added to the tour so it isn’t one event that determines the world champion.

© 2021 - WSL

The competitors are working hard to support longboarding and show the world what a beautiful sport it is and why we love it so much. I’m super optimistic for the future and think it can reach where we see it.

What are your thoughts on Riyue Bay in China – do you think the longboard champs are firmly set there or is a new venue needed?
I think the left at Riyue Bay is a really fun wave. It’s long and has various sections that call for different maneuvers. At the beginning there is a great section to get a critical nose ride right off the bat, the wave then tends to fatten up where you can add some cutbacks, and finally the wave finishes off with a racy section to get another nose ride. For contest venues, I think it is important to have a wave that allows for variety.

People often think of Malibu as a fantastic contest venue because its a long right hand point and that’s what longboarders tend to love. While I do love surfing Malibu, I don’t think it is the best location because each wave tends to be repetitive between surfers with awesome, long nose rides but not much else.

Are there any competitors you don't like coming up against?
There are definitely girls I like competing against more than others. Surprisingly, I like coming up against my friends in heats because we both understand it is a job out in the water, but once we hit the beach, we are happy for each other no matter the results because we both put in 100 per cent. I don’t like coming up against girls that act as a bully in the water because I think it should be the surfing that does the talking rather than playing little games.

© 2021 - Edu Bartolome

Who is shaping your boards right now and what sort of dimensions are you riding in competitions?
Josh Martin of Martin Shapes is shaping all of my boards. He is an excellent craftsman in all aspects and not only do we have a great surfer/shaper relationship, but we spend a lot of time together as friends whether it’s down at the beach, in his garden, or working on fun projects like making a chess board with resin squares. I have both high pro boards and logs. [My boards]...have about three inches of rocker all the way through which isn’t for everybody but has made a huge difference in my boards and success. My idea is you ride what is ideal for the conditions. The biggest quality of my high pro boards is rocker. They have about three inches of rocker all the way through which isn’t for everybody but has made a huge difference in my boards and success. For my logs, Josh and I created a board model we call The Travelette and it’s a board that can work for everybody as it allows for long nose rides and solid turns- definitely my go-to log when the conditions call for it.

Noticed the WSL push out a video of you a little while back (mid-July) that seemed to streak across the internet – were you surprised by the interest?
I wouldn’t say I was surprised but I was definitely encouraged. Longboarding is so great and it was fantastic to see all the positive responses to it! I hope that those positive responses will only continue to encourage the support for longboarding to grow.
Is there anything you would like to change about the format of the longboard world tour?
I would really love for there to be more contests meaning more opportunities to compete against the best in the world. I truly love competing so for me it is just about more heat time in a jersey doing what I love.

© 2021 - Dan McKenzie

Favourite types of waves to ride?
I love surfing peaks that allow me to choose if I go left or right. What I love about surfing is that each wave is always different and you have to adapt to something new each time, so I love finding waves that offer the challenge of not exactly knowing what a particular wave will bring. 

If you could give one piece of advice to up-and-coming young surfers, what would it be?
Persistence! You won’t always win every contest so don’t let a certain result get you down. Let the wins be great and the loses a learning experience to help you better yourself for the next event. If it’s your passion, keep at it because it’s really only up to you in the end of how far you go. 

© 2021 - Fran Miller

How did you get started surfing?
My dad used to surf professionally and still competed when I was little. I would always wake up when he would try to sneak out of the house for a dawn patrol and ask to come with him. After a while, it became normal that we always went surfing together and after I did my first contest, I was completely hooked. 

Any special training tips?
I think water time is the most important kind of training. Cross training on land is great, but ultimately the more waves you surf, the easier different types of conditions will become to adapt to. 

Cover shot: Fran Miller