Vilassini Sundar On Her Journey From Swimming Champ To Surfing Pro
Tell us about your first surfing experience
First surf! Oh, that’s a memorable one. I had just taken a break from swimming to focus on my studies and got to know about the world of surfing. I had to convince my parents though to experience the sport. I watched the concept in movies and always wondered how it would feel to do it in real life. I was always eager to know how surfers balance on the surfing boards on the huge waves because I knew it’s difficult to swim in the ocean. First couple of waves were tough as I had to get used to the rhythm. I had an adrenaline rush, imagine your first experience on a roller coaster ride, something that is challenging as well as exciting, it was the same kind of feeling. When I first stood on that surfing board, I struggled to balance both my body and my mind all at once. At first I fell into the water, but this sport is an addiction. You will not give up until you master it. I fell, I got up, and I started doing it again and again. That’s how surfing became a part of my life forever.
You are a swimmer turned surfer. How do you to manage these two different sports?
My parents wanted me to be a CA it was nowhere related to me and the things I was excited about. I was not bad at academics but becoming an accountant was something I did not want to do. I was a nerd about sports, swimming and water sports in particular. My coaches wanted me to give my 100% to swimming because there’s no way one can concentrate on three things together. Swimming, surfing and academics were hard to balance. I was the only female surfer from Tamil Nadu and this could prove to be a milestone if I concentrated all my energies into just surfing. Not many girls from Chennai or India are into surfing as it is considered a rough sport for women. So surfing kept me on my feet. Then the Asian Surfing Championship (ASC) schedules happened in 2015 and I was one of the women selected to represent India. That’s how I got into professional surfing, and never looked back.
You are one of the few professional female surfers in India. What are your biggest challenges?
I am still learning to tame the waves and balance on the water. For most Indians, surfing is still an adventurous sport which is considered dangerous. My family was skeptical at first, even now they are worried whenever I go into the water, but things are slowly changing. My relatives keep advising me that why do I have to go for competitive surfing, why can’t I just remain a swimmer which they think I’d be very good at. Initially, my friend circle too were not open about it. But since these days the sport is being promoted by so many people so a lot of people are aware of the nature of the sport and the inherent danger yet they are accepting it.
Surfing is also a part of the Tokyo Olympics 2020. There’s a lot of awareness about it now. But I am looking forward to see more women participating in the sport from India.
Other challenges include financial stability. As the sport is not a popular one in India, we don’t earn much, but the board itself costs big for regular surfers to afford it. In India we don’t have the luxury to afford a good quality board let alone spending a lot on it.
Do you face any criticism and discouragement?
Surfing is not popular and very honestly has no future in India, for now. Challenges come in various ways. Family disapproves your passion because in India if you get tanned by surfing all day under the sun, relatives talk. The criticism never stops, and I do not get a lot of encouragement, although, I take these criticism as external factors. When I am winning for the country I am a champion, nobody there bothers about my tanned body or dark toned skin. And, that’s a dream worth fighting for.
My strategy, I live in the moment. Before I go into the water I empty my mind and am just in the present. I enjoy the waves and water splashing on my face and body
How did your life change with surfing?
Surfing changed me in a way I can’t even begin to explain. When I started swimming my biggest fear was failure. But in surfing, you are your own competition. I failed so many times in the beginning that now I am convinced of the nature of winning. I have to fail to rise again. Surfing is a beautiful sport which kept pushing me to work harder than yesterday and it made me overcome my fear of failure. With swimming I don’t think that was possible. Now I know that to catch a wave I am paddling for a minute or so, even though I miss a wave for the first time I’d have to wait for the next one to come. So it taught me patience. It taught me the attitude of — never giving up!
How is the surf scene in India for women?
If you ask me why women don’t choose surfing as a sport then my reply is that they are concerned about safety issues. And, most importantly women in India fear getting a darker complexion by being outdoors. Also where I surf, there’s a community in Kollam, who have imposed a taboo on women that they cannot touch water let alone getting anywhere near the ocean. Due to which girls never think of surfing at all. Boys, on the other hand, surf like pros. So that one discrimination exists even today.
Earlier there were a few girls surfing in India, but now I am so excited to see that more girls are learning this technique.
Do you struggle to get sponsors?
Yes, every event is a challenge. Equipment is costly and I need financial support.
What do you think India lacks in terms of appreciating all kind of sports?
Though surfing is a part of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 but it is yet to be recognised by the Indian Olympic Association. We have out-dated infrastructure which has not been updated for the younger generation. Many coasts in India have the ambiance to support surfing opportunities but since it is not one of the major sports in the country as it doesn’t bring in much money, authorities are not motivated to build proper facilities.
Could you briefly tell us about your goals and upcoming tournaments?
I am looking forward to participate in National Surfing Championships this month. Also it has an event of stand-up paddling in which we use longer surf boards and paddle through inside the ocean. I am prepping to be the national champion for both the events. We also have an international event coming up — the Asian Surfing Championship.
Your advice to young girls
Ultimately, it’s you against the waves. Unleash your ‘girl power’!
Feature Image Credit: Vilassini Sundar