She’s only 13, but Christchurch surfer Ava Henderson is punching way above her weight, taking on the Under 16s, Under 18s and Under 20s like an athlete on a mission. And she’s the whole package: nice as pie to chat to after a heat, friendly and smart. But even her mum describes her as “a bulldog” when the contest rashshirt slips on. If she carries on her current trajectory then this girl could be New Zealand’s next big thing.
“Yes,” she smiles. “I can get pretty brutal, like a bulldog, I guess. When you’re there to win, you’ll do whatever it takes to win a competition. I hate to say that, but that’s the truth. I push it pretty far, but not to the point of getting an interference call against me.”
At the 2019 Surfing Nationals, while defending her Under 14 title, Ava did get an interference in the final. It cost her the title.
“That was an accident,” she assures me. “I got second because of it – lost my whole second score. It was accidental, I didn’t see them and after my wave I could see them turning their board around and I though, ‘oh, crap’. Then they announced it – I was so gutted. I only had a score of seven to go off. I had been hoping to defend my title.”
Ava grew up at Sumner Beach in Christchurch, born into a family of surfers. She’s been surfing since she was six or seven. She started competing after the family joined North Wai Boardriders.
“The first three years I was pretty chilled and just getting into it with the family and doing club comps,” Ava explains. “I discovered I quite liked competing. The next year I got into it more. My mum and my dad both surfed and my mum runs a surf school – they were Quiksilver and Roxy reps.”
Her family expanded when her mum, Donna, and Nolan Hungerford got together. Her younger brothers Travis, 9, and George, 11, then became eight when joining with Nolan’s three daughters: Eden, 11, Caoimhe, 14, and Estella, 17. They all surf. Eden and Estella are both top competitive surfers, also. Counting their two dogs, that makes a household of 10.
“We have two dogs; a foxy, Shanzi, and a black lab cross greyhound, Sparky – she was bred for hunting but she never liked the sound of gunshots and just cowers,” Ava smiles. “They were going to shoot her, but then we took her in.”
There is no question that it is a full draw of surfers, enough to start from the semifinals for each session.
“We alternate houses, but it is really busy when we are all together. We can walk to the beach so that definitely helps.”
It wasn’t until the 2016 Primary School Surfing Championships that Ava realised she might have an opportunity in surfing.
“I got third at the primary school nationals in 2016 and that was the first time I felt that I was at the national level,” she recalls. “That made me want to do more to get better. There weren’t enough girls to make a Year 6 division so I competed against the Year 8 girls who were all a couple of years older than me. I got second the next year and then first last year … I finally got there,” she laughs.
Perseverance is one of the biggest allies of any competitive surfer. For Ava, who attends Avonside Girls’ High School, perseverance has paid out in 2019 with a string of superb results from all corners of the country.
“One of my biggest highlights from this season would be winning three divisions at the Duke Festival,” she admits, referring to her hat-trick in the Under 16s, Under 18s and Under 20s division at the event. “That felt good. And winning the Under 16s at the Piha and Whangamata New Zealand Billabong Grom Series rounds up in the North Island.”
She said she surfed up “a division or two” (or three) to challenge herself and gain experience against new surfers.
“It is a little daunting surfing against the older girls,” she admits. “They have more experience, know what they’re doing and are less likely to mess up in a heat.”
“The level of competition in New Zealand is really high now,” Ava asserts. “Everyone is surfing quite tight – there isn’t any one standout. Having other girls giving each other a run for your money at each event does help to push the standard.”
“I can get pretty brutal, like a bulldog, I guess. When you’re there to win, you’ll do whatever it takes to win a competition. I hate to say that, but that’s the truth. I push it pretty far, but not to the point of getting an interference call against me.”
Often when you have an outlier in terms of athletic performance there is an equal and opposite driving force – usually a nemesis of some kind. For Ava, that’s everyone.
“Everyone in my division is my rival,” she laughs. “I haven’t been in a heat with Ella Williams or any of the super famous girls, but what her and Paige are doing helps. It makes you feel like it can be achieved. Paige is from Taranaki and Ella is from Whangamata and they’re making it on the world stage. It makes me realise that we can do well coming from New Zealand. I want to keep going and pushing myself.”
Ella Williams quite famously wrote on her bedroom wall, when she was just six, that she would be come World Champion one day. She was crowned Junior World Champion in 2013. I ask Ava if that is also in her mind?
“I guess so – it sounds pretty far-fetched,” she laughs. “But anything is possible – you just have to train hard and work for it.”
Part of that work is about getting her mental game in order. Ava believes she is on track, but not everyone deserves to bear the brunt of her psychological game.
“It’s pretty brutal,” she offers. “You know, death stares and hustling. Sometimes I talk to people – when I’m losing I’m chatting away to try to brighten up the mood. Everyone hates that. They probably think I’m annoying.”
She’s very good at maintaining friendly relationships with her rivals out of the water. In Dunedin she has become good friends with rising surf stars Anika Ayson and Jaya Reardon – both super friendly and at the same time incisive competitors. I ask Ava if they cop the same wrath in the fury of a heat against her?
“I couldn’t give Anika the death stare – she’s too nice,” she laughs. “We just chat about whether we kooked our waves or not. I don’t really give Jaya the death stare, but maybe a little hustling with her. She’s pretty good at it, too.”
When I drill into her strategy for each heat she reveals a simple formula.
“The first thing I do in a heat is to try to catch a wave early – a confidence booster,” she shares. “Then, I usually stay way too active and I often get to my wave limit. That’s not a smart idea. Having one wave left adds a lot of extra pressure. So I just try to get better waves as the heat goes on.”
For most Kiwi surfers with an armful of talent Australia is the next big step. Ava isn’t in any major hurry.
“We’ve looked at some of the Australian comps and we’ve been to a few, but they’re not a big focus just yet,” she explains. “I’m still quite young. They cost a lot of money also, with insurance and all the travel. Here in New Zealand we have a camper so we don’t have to pay for accommodation. It’s hard to get up to the North Island comps, because everyone has to work and I have school.”
“Right now I honestly don’t know whether Australia will be a part of my plan,” she adds. “I guess it would be good to experience the level of competition outside New Zealand. From what I have heard, you just have to do your very best in every single heat. The Occy comp last year was a good example. I got knocked out early. I was just surfing too safe and didn’t find a back-up wave. It was pretty annoying, because there were two New Zealanders in that division and they put us in the same heat. It was disappointing to get knocked out first round, but we caught up with friends and went surfing for a few days. It was still a good time.”
Despite her achievements and obvious talent, Ava doesn’t have a sponsor. She runs a Stoked sticker on her boards to promote her Dad, Callum’s surf shop, and her Mum’s surf school, but that’s the extent of it.
“I’d love to get some support from a big brand,” she laughs. “I do really like RPM. They’re very cool.”
While I am chatting with her she’s wearing a red and black checked Swanndri and carries it well. I suggest she might be tapping into a new sponsorship there. She laughs.
“Yeah, brah,” she laughs, with her big smile. “That would be pretty funny.”
While Stoked also had a surf school arm, Ava said she hadn’t really been getting coached by anyone.
“I just get a few tips from people at comps – I really should start going more in-depth with my surfing, but I am only 13,” she reminds herself.
“It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t work for me. I have the rest of my life ahead of me. Surfing has taught me to deal with failures and to learn to cope with it.”
I ask her if she does that a lot – reminds herself that she’s only 13.
“Yeah, I do,” she admits. “It’s not the end of the world if something doesn’t work for me. I have the rest of my life ahead of me. Surfing has taught me to deal with failures and to learn to cope with it.”
“Sometimes I don’t do that well,” she smiles. “You just have to do that quietly. I don’t throw my toys.”
When I ask most surfers about their favourite part of surfing they leap to a magical free-surfing moment in a perfect lineup. Not Ava.
“My favourite waves are two-foot and onshore. That’s when I surf my best,” she tells me. “That is the golden formula for me at a competition. I’m probably going to jinx myself now.”
“If it’s free-surfing then two-foot and glassy is my preference, but Sumner doesn’t get to two-foot much. I don’t mind bigger waves, but we just don’t get them that often. We had one afternoon session at Stent Road during the Nationals and nobody was out apart from me and a couple of friends and it was three-foot and offshore – that was so good.”
“My favourite waves are two-foot and onshore. That’s when I surf my best. That is the golden formula for me at a competition. I’m probably going to jinx myself now.”
When she recalls a single individual standout wave it is straight back to the contest vest for Ava.
“The waves where I surfed to their full potential in a competition are the ones that stick in my mind,” she concedes. “There’s not any one wave outside of competition – I have never been barreled or done an air or anything like that. I have those to look forward to, but I don’t really try. My focus is more on my foundations: reos, cutbacks and making them solid.”
I like to ask athletes where they see themselves in five years. The responses are never predictable. For Ava she’ll be just 18 in five years’ time. She pauses to think before answering.
“I’d love to try to make it to surf in the Worlds if I can,” she considers. “And just keeping up with my surfing and still doing it – not giving up and doing other things. I think it will be quite hard to still be enjoying it in five years’ time – that is a lot of competitions. I honestly don’t know.”
She pauses again and thinks about it as she gazes out to the ocean.
“Hopefully still surfing and enjoying it and not grinding away.”