Lilly Pollard: Winning Pipe On A Whim
Two decades after she started competing professionally and eight years after she quit, veteran bodyboarder Lilly Pollard has figured out the key to dealing with pre-contest butterflies: last-second planning.
Lilly speaks to Dan Dobbin about the brief lead up to her latest Hawaiian trip and the success that followed.
Swellnet: Congrats on your win. Are we right in saying this was your second Pipeline contest victory?
Lilly Pollard: So, so stoked on the win - thanks hey. It really is such an incredible place for an event. Pipe is just so beautiful, intimidating, exhilarating, ferocious, and fascinating...and sometimes even pretty fun. We scored pretty fun, clean conditions at Pipe and Backdoor for that day.
Yes to my second win - I actually won in 2014. I think that was the last time I stepped foot in Hawaii until this year.
Much has been made of the World Surf League women competing at Pipeline this year. How many times have you competed in a Pipeline event?
I was so stoked to see the WSL send the women to Pipe this year. It was definitely part of my inspiration to get back there myself. Yeah the bodyboard girls have been competing there since 1990.
Ahhh...so how many times have I competed? I’m terrible at keeping records or remembering my bodyboarding history...
I first competed at Pipe in 2000, I think? I would have been 19. I visited Hawaii almost every year until 2014, so I reckon I competed at ten Pipe contests.
Pipe is such a moody monster hey. Over the years the women's bodyboarding event has been blessed and cursed with all kinds of conditions, ranging from pumping 4-6 foot, to 10 foot-plus Second Reef bombs, to late season Pipe where so much sand had already moved in that Pipe was like a righthand sand bar.
Another year we had endless rain and floods which created a 3 foot muddy brown polluted Pipe with dead cows floating in the lineup. We even had a shark scare us in during the final on that muddy year. I watched the big fin approach Aoi Koike with speed then suddenly switch directions and splash her, then it beached itself alongside me chasing a fish. The four finalists all agreed to split the win instead of paddling back out that year.
So yeah, I actually just realised I have kind of won Pipe three times if we include that crazy year [laughs].
Which other competitors impressed you? Were there any other Australian competitors?
The Aussie bodyboarding contingent was pretty small this year. I remember back in the early 2000's there would literally be hundreds of Aussie bodyboarders crowding the Pipe lineup. This year we had a little posse of four cheering each other on. Two boys and two girls: Kaylah Pisani, Ryan Hardy, Josh Kirkman and I.
The men had their day at Pipe the day before us. It was 8-10 foot, nuts Pipe. Was insane to watch Josh and Ryan getting some mega kegs.
On the women’s day we had a few 6 foot sets in the morning which was pretty sick. Beautiful and clean. My first heat I actually got to share it with Kaylah, it was her first time to ever even paddle out at Pipe. Once we made it out the back she had a little nervous vomit [lauhs] and then we were on!
I hooted her into a couple. She’s such a strong rider, so all she had to do was dig deep, paddle hard, and push past that Pipe-hype-fear we all get. It was so sick to watch her take it on and charge a couple of solid ones. She actually got second behind me in that first heat, so we moved on through together which was just amazing.
This event brought together the full spectrum of young and old women bodyboarders - it was like a reunion. Lots of girls who hadn’t competed in a while came together for it. We had Claudia Ferrari, who competed at the first ever Women's Pipeline contest in 1990, back here competing this year, 32 years later. I was stoked to share a heat with her. And then also to share a heat with a 14-year old Kauai Grom, Aarya Tabalno, she was tearing. Loved watching her DK skills too.
Best barrel rider at the event for sure was Leila Alli. I have forever appreciated her smooth strong style and barrel wrangling skills but I forgot how cool and calm she is in big surf too. Leila has been living on the North Shore for the past 18 years or so, and is often out riding some wild bombies and big wave locations. She makes riding Pipe look so damn easy when we all know its not. I would have put money on Leila to win Pipe this year too!
She just got unlucky dealing with shitty surf at Ehukai in the Semis - we had to move there for the Semis due to the bodysurfing event sharing the day with us.
So it was a good vibe amoungst the competitors..?
So good. As I said, it was a sick reunion for old school riders and the next gen. I was hooting on the girls in my heat when they would take off on a sick one! Insane vibes! How can you not be stoked to be sharing Pipe and Backdoor with just three other girls!
Are we right in understanding that this was a grassroots, collaborative effort to make the event happen?
Yeah, hats off to all the organisers, especially Carol Phillips and Traci Effinger. The girls threw this event together in two weeks. The permit had three days to hold a men's bodyboarding, a bodysurfing, and a womens bodyboarding event. Each division running their own show and needing to complete in one day, and negotiate who gets what day. No-one really had money or sponsors, and the added stress and organisation of bloody COVID protocols to follow. I'm just amazed they did it and so so grateful.
You seemed to make the decision to compete just before the event kicked off. What spurred you to throw your hat in the ring at the last minute?
[Laughs] Yeah, I am a slow decision-maker at the best of times. I like to deliberate on every scenario before making a decision. Cafes with big menus suck!
When I first heard about the Pipe event I got excited. It’s Pipe after all! But I also had a bit of a niggling shoulder issue, and besides a fair bit of bodyboarding and mountain biking, I hadn’t been training much. And the biggest reality was finances. I haven’t had a lot of work lately, and aside from all the travel expenses and loss of income at home, what if I got COVID over there and had to stay longer? I run a small bodyboard school and I’ve suffered the past few years due to COVID, then needing surgery, then a horrendous summer of wild weather, waves, cyclones, storms, tsunamis, sharks, bluebottles etcetera. It has been almost comical just how ridiculous the conditions have been and impossible to run coaching so often.
I got another job and they also suffered through COVID so I didn’t get much work there either.
So yeah, anyway, being broke and the real estate putting up our rent the same week, then I looked at the long-range forecast and it looked like the late season at Pipe was going to receive a dose of rain and bad winds and north-east swell. So I just put Pipe out of my mind.
But then, I think it was the day before the Pipe comp was starting, I woke up from a dream and said to my partner "I need to go to Pipe" [Laughs].
I checked the forecast again and it looked pretty sick. Checked flights and COVID requirements to travel and they seemed doable. Couldn’t find accommodation anywhere though. I texted everyone I knew. I searched campgrounds. Even considered taking the swag and camping in the bush, but apparently that’s illegal there. No love anywhere. I gave up again. Then I got a text from Leila saying “come stay”.
That was the sign I needed. My partner Kelly also just got a contract for a new job that day too, so at least one of us had some decent work to come back to.
I hadn’t trained much, but my shoulder was feeling better and I know how to ride a barrel, and I’m aware I’m getting older, and all I could think was, 'If not now, then when?' It's those risks you don’t take that you always regret, hey?
We booked it that night and left the very next day.
Did you receive any help from any Australian surfing bodies in being able to travel to the event?
No, I didn’t.
I spent many years competing on the world bodyboard tour and I never had much support from anyone. I used to work multiple jobs, go travel, compete, find a new job, start again. I got into too much debt trying to live my dreams. I never secured any decent sponsorship. I got free stuff from companies and sometimes a couple hundred dollars here and there, which I did appreciate.
I found it especially frustrating when I asked my sponsors in 2014 to help me to get to the last world tour event to compete and fight for a world title, they offered nothing. I missed the last event, and the girl that I was fighting for the title got knocked first round, so I probably would have got that world title win that year. I had won events over the years, but never the world title.
But yeah, after that I was pretty over it. I gave up on competing in my sport. Went home and worked hard to repay my debts. Yeah, I’m a little bitter about that ending, but I don’t regret the life I’ve had chasing waves, interacting with nature, and making friendships around the world. And I’m always highly aware that my complaints in life are tiny compared to other people’s struggles. I really can only feel gratitude for the life I’ve had.
So yeah, this year’s Pipe event, as soon as I announced I was going to Hawaii, I actually had some friends contact me saying they would donate money for me to go. It actually made me quite emotional, hey. I’m just blown away that with all this chaos in the world, that there are some people that want to see a girl go to Hawaii and charge Pipe and even help pay for her to do that.
I’m still so shocked and grateful.
The donations helped drive me to compete for everyone, not just for myself. I had to surf four times at Pipe in one day, and by the Final my body was hammered, but my mind was absolutely determined to not give in or to give up. Even when I was behind until the dying minutes, I was absolutely on the hunt for a good Backdoor barrel, and although it was a bit inconsistent by the Final and I kept seeing the other girls getting fun Pipe barrels, I just knew Backdoor was more hollow and open, and the potential for a better ride was higher.
Bloody stoked on my last wave. I think I scored a 10.
To be honest, I find most things in life confusing and depressing. Especially the state of our environment and our government fuelling its demise. But amongst the chaos, the one solid thing that I have no doubt about in my mind is that I was always meant to be in the ocean, it feels like home. This trip to Hawaii reminded me of that. The day after the event, I had an incredible time kayaking with whales all day on Maui. How bloody lucky are we to enjoy the ocean and its magical wonders, hey?
I hope every surfer and bodyboarder that reads this interview reflects on this and goes and takes action by joining groups like Surfers For Climate and Take 3 For The Sea and puts some action into helping save our seas.
Do you have any plans to pursue the new IBC world tour and pursue a world championship?
Hmmm...no, I don’t see it happening. The events are in South America and Europe, its an expensive looking tour coming from Australia, and I don’t really enjoy supporting a tour that still supports inequality. The men's events have three to five times more prizemoney than the women's. We have less competitors than the men's but without the support there why would you expect more? It’s the usual chicken and egg scenario hey? I look forward to the future where women are given the same support, opportunity, and respect as the men in sport.
Any other shout outs or comments you'd like to include feel free here!
I have to say a massive thanks to everyone who donated to the fundraiser for Kaylah and I to compete at Pipe.
Thanks to my partner Kelly for her unwavering support and encouraging me to follow my dreams, and big thanks to Ryan Hardy who also coached and supported me at the event. Ryan runs a small bodyboarding business, Hardyshapes boards and Reeflex Wetsuits, and supported me the best he could. I appreciate it so much.
// Interview by DAN DOBBIN