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So this is what it looks like when a dream comes true. Nikki van Dijk is home on Phillip Island, fresh from some glorious waves in Hawaii. After a strong showing in Queensland last month, Nikki is now No.5 on the women’s world championship tour, and is widely tipped as the next big thing in women’s surfing. She travels the world surfing awesome waves with a gang of friendly rivals, earning six-figure prizemoney.
Now she’s looking for a house to buy. Pretty sweet for a 22-year-old. “Every day I’m in disbelief,” she says. “My dream was to be a professional surfer. To me it’s a little bizarre – I grew up on Phillip Island, [in] such a little town. When I find myself getting on a plane to Brazil or Europe or getting to visit so many incredible countries, I am filled with gratitude and appreciation.”
This is where it all started. We’re at Nikki’s home on Phillip Island, the house her father – a carpenter – built. In the front garden there’s a boat (her father is a keen fisherman).
On the deck, there are skateboards and towels draped on chairs; inside, vintage surfboards hang from the ceiling. “Dad’s surf museum,” Nikki says, with a smile.
She grew up here, just down the road from Smiths Beach where, when she was four, her dad taught her to surf. “My sister Nina is four years older than me. My dad taught her, I saw her surfing and thought, ‘what? That is so cool! I want to be like that’.”
Nikki was “addicted, so obsessed with it”. She started entering competitions at eight. By 10 she was sponsored by Rip Curl. “I thought ‘this is as good as it gets’.”
At 13 she was surfing against the guys in local contests, and beating them. “I don’t think they liked that too much. There were a couple of girls who surfed round here … Other than that, it was just me and the boys.”
American surfer Lisa Andersen was her hero. “I used to watch videos over and over again of Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley. Lisa was my real inspiration. I know her now. We talk about boards; she doesn’t know how much of an idol she is to me.”
All of her family surfed, Nina, younger brother Joe, now 18 – “an amazing surfer” – and eventually her mother got involved. “She said ‘I guess if I hang at the beach all day I should start surfing as well’.”
By year 7, Nikki was surfing in junior events across Australia. At 15 she went to Sri Lanka and Europe to compete. “I’d rock up to school and they’d say ‘where are you going next?’. I’d do an exam and then head off again. Chaos.”
Her mother is a teacher and Nikki says she “always had a lot of pride in doing well at school”, even if finishing VCE was a tricky juggle. “I had to manage myself time-wise. Once I was travelling with a friend in Portugal at the Azores Islands. We went back to the hotel and I said, ‘I’ve got an exam next week, I have to study’. They’re going to the gym and out to dinner.”
Straight after that trip, she travelled to Bali for the world junior championships – and won. “I came home a couple of days later and had my final exam for VCE. It was such a crazy couple of weeks. It was like I had two worlds: on the tour, and then home, where hardly any of my friends surf.”
In 2014, aged 19, Nikki qualified for the World Surf League tour. “The first couple of years you’ve got to get comfortable on tour, you’re travelling the world … I’m from tiny Phillip Island, it was all pretty new for me.”
Now she hangs out with the best of the best, including Layne Beachley. “Layne is amazing. She has mentored me. We had a contest here at Phillip Island and she kindly came down for the girls. I can’t thank her enough for what she’s done for women’s surfing.”
She talks about the great camaraderie on tour: “The girls are all really good friends. We all want to beat each other when we’re in the water, but you learn to switch it on and off. We’re all great sports.”
What a life it sounds: Brazil, Fiji, Portugal, Hawaii. “Rip Curl has a house right in front of Off The Wall (a break on Hawaii’s North Shore), so you can sit there on the balcony watching the most perfect waves go through.”
But it hasn’t all been perfect. A bad accident at Fiji’s famous Cloudbreak in 2014 led Nikki to re-examine her life and adopt a vegan diet. “I hit the reef and it was really traumatising. I had 16 stitches on my eye and on my face. The whole thing was very scary. I came home, had plastic surgery. It was a couple of weeks before the next contest. I needed to get my body back in order and get healthy. I did a health cleanse.
“After that I thought, ‘Hang on, I do not need anything in my body that doesn’t need to be there’. My sister had already gone vegan, she said, ‘Give it a go’. Since that day I’ve never looked back. I have never felt better.”
When in Australia, she spends part of her week in a rented house in bayside Melbourne to attend the Victorian Institute of Sport in Albert Park. She loves city life but the pull of the ocean is strong. “I go crazy when the sun’s out and I know there are waves on Phillip Island. But I love the city, and have made a lot of friends.”
She’s away most of the year, which is why she cherishes coming home to Phillip Island, where she isn’t treated like a star.
“They’re so used to having me around. I love going surfing with my little brother. I’m away nine months of the year, so when I do come home I’m so appreciative of my local waves. I spent a lot of time in the cold hours at Woolomai and Smiths Beach and when I see all the little girls and little boys getting into it, it’s really exciting because I feel like that was me yesterday. I’m 22. I’m getting old.”
She envisages a life outside surfing. “I’ve always been really interested in study and, seeing my friends at uni right now. I’ll come home in the middle of winter and it’s Wednesday at lunchtime and I’ll say, ‘what’s everyone doing?’ and they say, ‘Nikki, we’re at work, or uni’. This is what a normal person does. I find so much inspiration in everyone’s lives, not just other surfers.”
About the time she joined the world tour, the prizemoney for women surfers increased dramatically, reaching parity with the men’s. Nikki’s career earnings to date exceed $580,000. There are also lucrative sponsorships with Rip Curl, Oakley (sunglasses), Channel Islands (surfboards) and Komunity Project (surf accessories).
“You can make an amazing career out of it,” she says. “I’m looking at buying a house at the moment. It’s like; What? I never would have thought at 22.”
Her favourite part of surfing is getting barrelled. “When it all lines up and you’ve got inside the barrel and you can see everything moving, you feel at peace with the ocean. You know how strong the ocean is and when you’re inside of it, it’s like a little present: ‘Here you go, well done for getting inside, and enjoy this moment while it lasts’.”
Sometimes even she can’t believe her life, which is why she takes a lot of photos on film. “I want to have photos to show my kids. I want to have proof about what I did.”
- Nikki will compete with the world’s best at the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach, April 12-24.
When not touring the world or hanging out with her family on Phillip Island, Nikki loves exploring the best of Melbourne with her friends.
Here are some of her favourite spots.
Moroccan Soup Bar
- 183 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
We’re finding so many amazing little restaurants to go to. The other night, we found this one. The girl said, “Just leave it up to me” and came back with this incredible dish. We were like, how is this possible – another great place? There’s endless fun to be had in Melbourne.
- 4 Union Street, South Melbourne
This is where I go to yoga in the city. It has a great atmosphere, and I love the teachers.
- 72a Acland Street, St Kilda
Their burger buns are the best, All vegan and super delicious.
It’s hard to find a good beach in a city, but I love hanging out at Elwood.
All of the parks
When the beach is too crowded, I find a quiet spot in one of the parks around town and just hang. It’s so relaxing and great people watching.
Terra Madre Organics
- 103 High Street, Northcote
This is such a good health food store. It has all the stuff that I love to buy, but can never find anywhere else.