Quitting isn’t usually an option for athletes of a high calibre, but Soli Bailey considered it in the middle of 2018.
He gave it some serious thought when an unfortunate result left him in 17th position on the Qualifying Series (QS) again, seven spots outside the top nine required to make it to the World Surf League’s (WSL) main event, the Championship Tour (CT).
Eight spots may not seem like many, but in a QS that’s as cut-throat as some of the reefs the surfers compete on, it’s a lot of distance to make-up.
“I said to friends and family, ‘I’m sick of this’. I said, ‘Maybe it’s not going to happen’,” Bailey told NIT.
The 23-year-old had similar results in 2017 and 2016, and it seemed like last year was going to repeat the same trend.
“Someone said to me, look at your future. It’s a pretty picture, now you just have to paint it.”
But Bailey, a composed competitor, found the frustration building.
“I was working as hard, harder, than anyone and I was still losing,” Bailey said.
He saw sports psychologists and confided in his supportive family and girlfriend. The search for a solution to his psychological woes became as important as the search for waves. Why couldn’t he convert his talent into wins?
His talent has been recognised for years. At 10 he scored his first sponsorship from Quicksilver, spurred on by a father who would spend hours pushing the enthusiastic grom into Byron Bay waves.
Family friend and former pro Mick Cain joined the Bailey team a year later, providing a second voice to help Soli’s Dad, who was seeing more and more evidence of Soli’s independence.
Cain coached Bailey through his formative years but was unable to travel with him to QS events—which take place in Australia, the US, Europe and Hawaii—due to family commitments.
For several years Bailey travelled and competed on the QS on his own.
Until that changed.
In 2018, a man by the name of Tom Whitaker come on board. The former pro surfer approached Soli to offer his coaching expertise at the perfect moment.
“I had in my head that I was pretty psyched to work with him. He approached me when I was thinking about approaching him,” Soli said.
Whitaker helped with atmosphere, more than anything, during the QS travel throughout the year.
“It was a good environment to travel with. It’s good having someone around to know and reinforce what you’re thinking. To have someone who had been through it himself,” Soli says with sincere gratitude.
The start of 2018 saw another significant change. Bailey and his girlfriend moved out of home in Byron Bay to their first rental in Burleigh Heads. Bailey says his new independence and access to some of the best waves in the country also helped change his fortune.
It all seemed to click into place. By the time the final event rolled around, Bailey had shrugged off 17th, but still needed a great result. He can’t recall how it all unfolded.
“It sort of wasn’t 100% because there were a few more people there waiting, needing results. I had to place one spot higher than another kid.”
The details remain blurred, but the result is clear as water.
Bailey finished just inside the top 9, earning him automatic qualification to the CT in 2019.
It was a dream come true, but it didn’t erase the memory of what it took to get there.
“There’s probably a few years there I was not taking it seriously enough,” Bailey said.
“Positive routine and consistency does everything. If you know you’re putting it in and you’re not getting it out, keep putting it in because it will come eventually.”
Bailey has just returned from his longest break from surfing yet, snowboarding in Japan. He is now getting back into the training.
“I’m struggling to surf right now ‘cause I feel like I’m snowboarding on a surfboard,” he laughs.
And it hasn’t sunk in yet.
He has been told that it will feel real the first time he paddles out on the CT, when the Quicksilver Pro returns to the Gold Coast.
As the second Indigenous surfer to make the CT ever, he will have the nation’s support when he lays rail on his first CT wave.
By Keiran Deck