Sofia Mulanovich for sofiaproyecto.com

River Bennett (photographer River Bennett / Camila Toro)

It was a story I had to tell. 

He was a boy who lived in an orphanage by the ocean, in the city of Lima, in Peru, South America.  He had no money, no education, no family to call his own. The community in which he had lived suffered from violence, divisions of race and wealth. He was underprivileged and unknown - yet somehow, in his search for freedom this boy found the ocean,  "a place where everyone was equal."

The words of this documentary that had been sent to my email echoed in my mind for days. "He found the ocean. A place where everyone was equal." 

Isn't this the goal? Isn't this what every human on the planet craves? To feel equal? To be known? 

The email that arrived that day was an invitation from Swatch to meet South American Pro Surfer, Sofia Mulanovich. Two weeks later I hopped on a plane and found myself at the Roxy Pro Surf event on the Gold Coast interviewing Sofia for TheWolfpackMrs. It was a meeting I'll never forget.  

It was Sofia who had found that unknown boy in the ocean, the boy I had been thinking about for days. She had shared waves with him, invested in a new surfboard for him, and taught him some of the disciplines that had led her to the Pro Surfing titles.

Sofia’s life as a professional surfer started at the age of 14yrs. and has taken her on a wild journey across the globe touring surf events and surf comps. With the entire South American nation behind her she made history in 2004 as she won the World Title claiming her as the very first South American to ever win that title. She then in 2007 was inducted into the Surfers Hall of Fame, again being the first South American to receive such a high honour.

It was this incredible platform that she used to invest back into the country and the people who had supported her for years.

When it came time to retire from Pro Surfing at the early age of 23yrs. Sofia realised that she, "didn't have the passion for surfing anymore. I lost interest in it and felt I needed to do more.” 

Sofia, seeing the young surfing talent that graced the coast of Peru, started a High Performance Youth Academy Scholarship Program - “Sofia Mulanovich Proyecto” for the young surfers in her community.

"My years of experience that I’d had in surfing and training for world titles - I needed to share it. I needed to pass it on. I needed to tell the next generation of South American surfers that they could pursue their passion for surfing, and I needed also to give them the opportunity to do what they love.”

Sofia grew up in a small beach town called Punta Hermosa which is one hour away from the city of Lima.  

"I lived in front of the ocean. It’s a summer town. People love to go there in summer, but because my parents were surfers they decided to stay there all year long. I had to drive every day to the city for school but it was worth it.”

At the age of 5yrs. Sofia started bodyboarding until, inspired by her mother’s surfing ability, she traded her bodyboard for her first ever shortboard.

“My dad bought me and my brother a surfboard for Christmas. It has a cool painting on it and I would stare at it all the time. It was the best Christmas ever! I wanted to be like my mum and as a little girl I would dream about surfing and becoming a Pro."

Sofia pursued surfing with discipline and sheer determination.

“I won my first surfing competition in Brazil at the age of 14yrs. It was really big for me and gave me the confidence to keep going.”

She continued to crush the competition and soon became the first South American ever to win the World Title, which she did in 2004. 

 What did it feel like holding that World Title trophy above your head?

It felt so good! I think the thing that was most important for me was that I had worked so hard to train and mentally prepare myself. And then to get a good result out of it - that to me is the best feeling! When your surfing is really good, and you feel like you deserve to win -  that’s the best!

When I went in comps and won, I would have to sleep the whole next day because I had drained myself mentally and physically. There are a lot of ups and downs on tours. When I didn’t win I would be so down, but I had to understand that there was always going to be another comp. If I did well once, I could do it again. I reminded myself that I had the best job in the whole world and it was worth all the hard work. I remember going to France, like, 15 times and never actually “seeing” the country because I was so focused.

If you didn't pursue surfing what would you have done? 

I started my career really young. I had been sponsored by Roxy when I was like 15yrs. or 16yrs. so my path was already fixed at a young age. I became the first world champion from Peru, and as Peru has never even had a professional surfer, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I felt the weight of their support and I wanted to do them proud. I felt a lot of pressure. The media was intense and because I was so young I felt that pressure. But as soon as I went out into the water the pressure would disappear and I would give it my best.

When did the idea of investing back into the lives of young surfers drop in your heart? 

In 2014, a year after I retired, I wanted to give back to my country. At the same time I met a representative from Swatch who was looking for a project to sponser. I told him all about what I wanted to do. We started talking about how I wanted to coach some kids that showed real talent and maybe one day train them also to be Pro Surfers, or simply to be the best surfers they can. So it became a perfect match. 

 What does the High Performance Youth Surf Academy (Proyecto) Training House look like?

We rent a house which has lockers personally fitted out for each kid, as well as places for the kids to train from 8:30am-4:30pm. We have trainers and a psychologist - which is really important especially because of the background of these kids. We have a housekeeper, and a manger who deals with all the administration. The kids all get a surfboard, and have sponsored clothing. So many of the kids have no education, which is something we actually didn’t consider when we started.

I got to thinking, "How are these kids going to make good choices if they don’t know 2 plus 2?!” So we are now giving them an education too.  

 I remember watching an interview you did once where you said that it would be hard work for you to do this project, but that you were willing to give it a go. You said you were willing to make mistakes and let the kids see you make mistakes. But the important thing for you, is that you do it together. . .

Yes, we have learnt so much together on this. When you have sponsors and support all the time you can take it for granted. I now watch these kids and how much they would want that, how much they would love to live off the sport. This project has taught me to not take things for granted. 

How hard has it been for you to set this program up? What have been some of the biggest challenges?

My whole life I had been dependent solely on myself. I would go into a surfing competition heat and loose or win. The outcome would always be the consequence of myself and how I surfed. But being on a project like this and working with other people was hard initially because I wanted to control everything. So I had to start to trust people. That was a new thing for me. I had to learn to trust people and let go of the control. 

Why do you do it? 

I do this because it is so fulfilling to give these kids the opportunity to become Pro Surfers, to get really good results. I work with a team of coaches who are like my right hand. And together we give our best for these kids.

What are your dreams for these kids in the program? 

I want them to have fun and be the best surfers they can be. 

Favourite South American meal?

Ceviche – it is fish marinated in lemon or lime juice with onions and chilli.  

My mother always said…. 

Too many things! She is always talking!

I am obsessed with…. 

Surfing

I can't live without …. 

The ocean. 

When people read this interview and want to know how they can help with the High Performance Youth Surf Academy, what do we tell them? What would be the best way for them to be involved?

I just need someone to come and teach them English! We also need the kids to be sponsored. We have one girl in particular that is extremely talented but she needs the opportunity to go out and travel and enter comps. She then can learn from other competitors and see for herself what the surf world is all about. She needs to measure herself amongst others and start learning. When you surround yourself with people better than you, you start to copy them and make it your own. She needs exposure. The level in surfing is going up and up all the time. But this girl will get stuck if she doesn’t have the opportunity. She is at the age where this needs to happen.

As a team we need to keep it moving. 

Are there many others kids that you would like see in the program?

So many. This project, I think, has caused Peru to be more motivated. There are more kids that want to be involved. When we train every day we see other kids watching and copying what we do. The parents often come and ask us to take them on, but we have a limited resources and we can’t take them all.

So if you had more resources would you expand this program?

Yeah, for sure. Right now we just work with the kids from Lima. But up north in Peru there is crazy talent too. If we could do projects all the way up the coast it would be incredible. We want everyone who has a real talent in surfing to have an opportunity to be trained. 

I am a huge believer in passing on wisdom and experience to the next generation. Is this something that is important to you too? What would your advice be to other athletes, business women and men, creators, artists, inventors be?

Investing into the next generation is so important. We live and we die, but I believe we need to leave something. I believe that is what counts. It’s leaving a legacy of wisdom that they can add to and make their own.

 

So as I sat on the plane on my way home to Sydney I was again reminded of the importance of investing back into the next generation. I was reminded again how important it was find the "Unknown Boy" and give him place where everyone was given equal opportunity. So many of us are granted platforms of influence.  Some are on a large scale and some are small but I concluded again that day that investing into the lives of others will never shortchange your impact on the planet. And like Sophia and her strong conviction towards others, I was in. I was all in. I was now off to find another "boy in the ocean."

For more info on Sofia Mulanovich Proyecto head to:

www.sofiaproyecto.com

or instagram:

@sofiaproyecto

For more info on Sofia Mulanovich head to:

@smulanovich

 

Special thanks to Swatch :

Swatch.com.au

@swatch

Also Camile Toro:

@onmywaysoon