Over the next fortnight, the Herald will feature 12 Kiwi athletes or teams to keep an eye on at the Games - whether for their medal potential, rapid global rise, or captivating road to Tokyo. This is the story of Ella Williams.
By the age of eight, Ella Williams knew what she wanted to do with her life. But unlike the many who abandon their childhood dreams as they get older, Williams kept hers visible, written on her wall – being reminded daily of what she wanted to achieve.
"It was pretty early on when you think about it," the New Zealand Olympic surfer told the Herald.
"I was watching the likes of Layne Beachley, Stephanie Gilmore, Kelly Slater... I'd be looking up to all these amazing surfers thinking 'wow, they're on the big stage doing it'. I was just obsessed with it, so by about eight years old I realised this was what I want to do; I want to be a world champion."
Learning her craft in the Raglan waves before refining it on the East Coast when her family relocated from Hamilton to Whangamatā, Williams knew she could make the sport her career. The move to the Coromandel town, where her parents Dean and Janine opened a surf shop, helped to facilitate and reinforce her love of the sport.
Williams grew up living and breathing surfing. After school, she could head straight to the water. She would watch surfing DVDs in her spare time and began working in her parents' store.
In 2013, Williams left school and set out on her first campaign as a professional surfer – joining the World Surf League's junior series. It didn't seem it early in her campaign, but it was a decision that gave her career the ultimate kickstart.
While primarily on the junior circuit, Williams was granted a wild card entry into the World Championship Tour event at Fitzroy Beach in Taranaki in April that year, where she was competing with the best in the world. She also competed in events on the qualifying series, where athletes compete for spots on the following year's CT.
It was a year of learning for Williams and, as she says, a lot of losing.
"I got to Australia at the end of the year and was in a pro junior and lost. It was my last one for the year and I thought 'oh no'. It hit me at that stage. I was wondering what was going on. I had these high hopes for myself getting out of school; leaving school early and coming to be the best surfer in the world and it wasn't happening – especially in that first year – and I was quite heartbroken.
"I remember chatting to my family, asking if I had done the right thing; I didn't have a backup plan – that was all I wanted to do. We sat down, we had a good think and I remember mum saying, 'just keep at it'. Dad and (older brother) Braedon said, 'you've got the talent, you just have to stick with it'. So I did."
Having not qualified for the junior World Championships in Brazil and all but switching out of competition mode ahead of summer, Williams got a message that changed her year. Two athletes had pulled out of the major event of the junior series, and she got the call-up.
"It just happened that I was next in line. I was so ecstatic and said, 'yes I'll come to Brazil. I'll be there', and I hadn't talked to my parents about it – I just emailed back, 'I'll be there'," Williams says. "Obviously, later on I asked them if we could go to Brazil. At the time they were like, 'I don't know if we can afford to, but we'll try and make it happen'. We made it happen; I fundraised and my family supported me to get me there and it paid off."
With no expectations and just happy to be involved, Williams went out and surfed with some freedom, winning one heat, then the next, then the next...
After five successful heats, she had realised the goal she wrote on her wall years before.
"I had a world title. My life just blew up after that.
"It was an amazing stepping stone, and it's funny what it does to your confidence. It really boosted my confidence and helped me to believe in myself again. It sounds funny but it's sometimes so hard to find that belief when you're not winning. That's what makes you a true champion, I guess – when you're losing, to believe in yourself. Then once you get that win it's like 'yes, this is why you do it. This is why you dream big – because anything is possible'."
Williams' was a historic win as she became the first Kiwi to win the junior World Championship. Six years later she made history again by becoming the first Kiwi surfer to qualify for the Olympic Games.
The 26-year-old was the highest-placed eligible athlete from the Oceania region at the 2019 International Surfing Association World Games, provisionally qualifying for Tokyo. Her place in the 20-woman Games lineup was confirmed at the conclusion of the 2021 World Games.
Like her success in 2013, the 2019 contest came at the end of a long string of tough contests across Europe. She hadn't had the success she had hoped for on the European leg, and was looking forward to returning home.
"I had been in Europe for the two months before that with my mum, Janine. We had been travelling around, sleeping on couches; our bodies were sore, we were over travelling and living out of a suitcase, and we kind of just got over it. It was just two months of grovel and grind. I hadn't won any contests, I hadn't gotten through too many heats, so I was trying to pick myself back up, find that enthusiasm and that spark and that drive.
"We got there one night, and the next day I had to compete. I think we got in at, like, 1 o'clock in the morning and I was just trying to find my feet let alone surf a heat the next day. It was pretty rough, I was feeling pretty knackered and tired – coming from Europe, it's a big flight so I was pretty drained."
Williams got through her first heat, before being eliminated from the main draw and into the repechage rounds. From there, just like in her 2013 triumph, she made one heat, then another, before eventually hitting the mark required for qualification.
"To qualify for the Olympics was an absolute dream. I don't think it sunk it properly for a long time. It's an incredible achievement and I felt very proud of myself. It just showed you can overcome anything, no matter how much you're losing; tomorrow's a new day and you can pick yourself up and you can do amazing things. You just have to believe in yourself and in your ability; it will take you so far."
For most athletes in the surfing realm, big results on the world stage are hard to come by. While travelling around the world to surf is an attractive idea and looks great on Instagram, the reality is a much different story.
For surfers who aren't winning events or making it through to finals day, prize money is often not enough to rely on. For the top qualifying series events, an early-round exit sees athletes pocket around US$750 on the women's circuit, while a win in a lower-level event might only return around US$1500.
"Being on tour is a challenge; it's not easy. It's easy to glamorise it online – these days you can see anything online and it makes it paint a picture of what it can look like, but behind closed doors it can be pretty hard," Williams admits.
"You're living out of a suitcase for two to three months on end and you don't have a break; you don't get to go home, you don't get to have a routine – you're jumping on an airplane, or you're having to stay in the airport overnight because you can't get accommodation or it's too expensive.
"They don't see you crying in your hotel room just because you wanted that win so bad and you've just come halfway across the world to compete in this event only to get knocked in the first heat and it's like 'OK, go home now or go to the next comp' and you really have to pick yourself up and pull yourself onto the next one with the same emotion and the same enthusiasm."
Like many sporting children, Williams imagined one day representing her country at the Olympic Games, but knowing it was not going to be something she'd achieve once her love of surfing took over.
So, to be in a position to be one of the first Kiwis to represent the country in surfing, alongside Billy Stairmand in the men's event, was something that Williams did not take for granted.
Heading into the historic event, Williams' experiences throughout her professional career loom large given the quality of waves Japanese breaks usually produce.
On the qualifying series, the vast majority of events are contested in mediocre, sloppy swells with little size to them and, while like any natural break it can have its days, Japan's Shidashita Beach can be tough to navigate at times.
"You never know what you're going to get, so I'm preparing for a bit of everything and definitely working on the grovelling; fine-tuning a lot of things.
"Either way, you're out there in the water with Mother Nature, the waves will come, the waves will go. It's the same environment for us, so I'm feeling quite happy, calm and excited about it.
"I'm taking it as another comp. I know it's going to be a beach; we're going to have waves – I don't know how big or how small – but I know I'm preparing myself for that side of things and the rest will be taken care of."