Meet Lola Bleakley

Lola Bleakley burst onto the scene after winning the English Junior Longboard Surfing Championships in 2022 at Watergate Bay, Newquay aged just 14, and now the surfer, based in West Cornwall, has her sights set on bigger prizes. The 15-year-old is competing at the prestigious Mexi Log Fest in Saladita this year, and will soon be competing at the very top of the sport.

Here she talks to LK about many areas from her early years, heroes, training through to nutrition and her plans ahead...

Tell us about your first success in your sport? My first big success in sport would be winning the English Junior Longboard Surfing Championships in 2022 at Watergate Bay, Newquay. It was my first national title aged 14, but in the U18 category. In same season I was won the British U18 Longboard Tour and finished in Silver in the European Junior Longboard Championships. So it was a very special year, and also involved winning a number of other regional and national contests.  

What would you say to someone thinking about trying your sport? My surfing category is longboarding (on 9 feet plus ‘longboards’ as opposed to 6 feet ‘shortboards’) and although a longboard is pretty big (9 feet or longer), longboards actually work really well in small waves. And they are beautiful to ride in small waves. So it means longboarding is quite accessible for people to get in the water when the conditions are really safe and easy. I would also suggest reading a lot about surfing, find some surfers you find inspiring and supportive, and learn about it through any friends and family you have access to who already surf. There are also really amazing surf schools and surf clubs all around the country to get started with.

What do you wish you’d known when you first started out? I think when you're learning it's OK to take a lot of risks trying new manoeuvres and recognising that wiping out (falling) is part of the way we learn new things. So looking back I probably would have taken more risks with learning to ride the nose (the front of the longboard) in a hang 10 (all toes over the front of the board) and stay on the nose for longer so I had that all figured out so much better when I was younger.

What initiatives are happening to get people into your sport? Surf schools all over the country are really accessible, usually open all summer, and in-land surfing sites like The Wave in Bristol have a lot of initiatives to support people to access waveriding. I think one of the best initiatives happening is The Wave Project that is NHS funded and uses surfing as a form of therapy for kids and teenagers in need of support physically and mentally. They do amazing work. It’s really inspiring. 

Which sportspeople do you admire now, and why? I admire longboarders like Women's World Longboard Champion Solei Errico (from California) and World Tour Hawaiian surfer Kelis Kaleopaa because they both have such strong and elegant styles. They showcase a beautiful combination of the feminine elegance, but with drive and control. Stylistically I think they are great inspirations.

How often do you train? I surf most days, usually five days a week. We live close to the beach, so I can often walk down, especially in the summer, or the winter we can drive to more sheltered surf spots within twenty minutes if we need to. 

Describe a typical training session... Typical training sessions involve video and photo analysis and then a session feedback on how I was surfing. But if my Dad (who coaches me, but in a very relaxed, positive and informal way) is out filming in the water, we often work on the feedback there and then. But even when not documenting the sessions, when I am surfing with my Dad we are often working on things together as he spots what’s working, where things are strong and what I can be improving. We talk about it a lot before and after each surf. 

What is your favourite training session/exercise/drill? I think one of the secrets of a good training session in the surf is to have a particular manoeuvre to work on and try that over and over until you start to feel more confident doing it. It many involve a lot of falling, but that’s OK because it can be how we learn to push the boundaries. At the moment I'm really working on my noseriding and trying to stay on the nose for as long as possible through sections.
Best piece of advice from your coach?I work a lot with my Dad as my coach because he's been a multiple European Longboard Champion, British Champion and World Tour surfer, and is still very much involved in surfing, particularly longboarding. He also works as a commentator at the World Longboard Championships. And I get a lot of support and coaching from Ben Skinner and ride his Skindog Surfboards. Ben is 11 times European Longboard Champion and has been very close to winning a World Title many times. From Dad I really appreciate the role of style, flow, footwork and finesse in longboarding. And from Ben I'm really learning about the importance of surfing in the critical section of the wave and doing things with a high degree of difficulty to get the biggest scores in competition.

Which part of your body suffers the most in your sport? Longboarding is about style, flow and grace, so it's almost more of a dance, and therefore flexibility and balance are key. So a strong and loose back and strong knees are really important. I think back strength and knee strength probably are the most important things.

What’s the toughest thing about being an athlete? Really when it comes to professional surfing, competition is such a crucial element of the sport. But you do also have to work a lot with the media to generate coverage for video and photo material. That can be a lot of fun, but does take planning and commitment and organisation and working with the right people in a positive way. But when it comes to competition, one of the big elements is the psychological drive to pick yourself back up after having a poor performance, or not taking a win. And to strike a good balance when competing, it’s important to still really enjoying it because surfing is such a beautiful sport and we all want to really continue to enjoy it, even though we might be trying aiming to compete and perform at the highest level.
What’s the hardest part/skill in your sport to master?One of the arts of longboarding is about making the difficult look easy, so you want to do critical noseride through a steep part of the wave, or a powerful turn, but make it look effortless. I find that turning and manoeuvring on rail has come naturally to me with a big board, but it's the nuances of standing with five or ten toes over the nose through long sections that I'm really needing to pay most attention to if I want to achieve the best out of my longboarding career. I’m working really hard on that and it’s paying off, and combined with using good equipment I am really starting to noseride in a strong and committed, but stylish and technically hard way.

What's your training mantra? I feel so grateful to live in West Cornwall so every time I'm out surfing and training I always remind myself even if I'm having a bad session that this is one of the most beautiful parts of the world. And therefore I just want to be grateful for all the opportunities I get with surfing, even through those crazy winter storms when it's freezing cold and the rain is spitting on your skin, or contests battling the elements in wild conditions.
How do you keep going mentally when things get tough? I think it's important to have a balance in your life so your sport isn't the only thing you do, and being able to get away from the competition scene, and spend time with friends who aren't so close to surfing. That’s really healthy because it keeps things in perspective mentally.

Do you have a mental exercise you complete or something/someone you think about? I think it's really good to visualise the rides before you surf, particularly in competition. If you really want to be performing on a particular wave in a particular part of the beach, you can watch some of the empty set waves roll through and visualise yourself on those waves doing exactly the things you want to be doing.

What’s been your greatest sporting moment so far? I had a really special year last year (in 2022) winning the English and British Junior Longboard Championships and a few regional and national comps. I also watched the World Championships in Malibu, California. And at that event I was invited to participate in something called Rising Tides that gathers junior talent from around the world. But getting Second and Silver in the European Junior Championships in Portugal in 2022 was by far my greatest sporting moment. It was really frustrating to lose because it was on the last ride that the woman who got gold moved from 4th to 1st, and I had been in 1st for a good part of the final. But in some ways I think that was a good experience to really learn how to lose at that level. And it was a huge achievement for me just at the age of 14 back then to be in the U18s and surfing with the best in Europe and nearly winning the European Title. I'm very proud looking back and that has given me a lot of drive moving forward because I know what it feels like to come so close and I now really believe that I have the ability, determination and drive to win big international competitions. I think the mental side is such a big part of competition. You can have all the skills, but you have to be able to perform under pressure. And having the best equipment is also essential.

How do you deal with defeats/set-backs? In some ways in sport and competition the setbacks are what makes you stronger. If you win everything you don't learn to experience those feelings of set back and you don't develop that inner drive to want to do better and go further. So I think all sports people who experience those setbacks get a lot of extra determination and drive. I think also injuries are something that are likely in sport and you have to be able to be patient with the recovery and come back stronger. 

What do you do to freshen-up your training routine? I've had my first experience at the in-land surf site The Wave in Bristol recently with the English Junior Squad. I spent my whole life training and surfing in the sea, and now I recognise that surfing lakes can be an amazing place to train, particularly on your backside stance. I’m really keen to train more at The Wave and work on aspects that are harder to do in the ocean, where you can really benefit from the repetitive nature of the waves.

What performance foods do you enjoy most and why? I like to bake energy snacks with dates, bananas, oats, peanut butter, natural chocolate. Those are things can be really good to take to competitions. Sometimes a spoonful of honey can be a nice snack before a surf to perk you up a bit.

What are you go-to feel-good treats? Energy balls with things like dates, nuts, seeds, honey, oats, are really good feel good treats.

How does nutrition improve your performance? Nutrition is so important for surfing. First of all you need to have the energy stored up from a good meal the day before, and then during a competition day, or a busy day of surfing, you don't want any heavy food, you want a lot of light food that perks you up but doesn't weigh you down. But you know that it's the healthy proteins and carbohydrates and vegetables that you ate the night before that are really keeping you going.

Have you got a favourite recipe you can share? I love to have pasta and vegetables before a competition. Just simple pasta, broccoli, peas, pesto is a favourite. Any go-to fitness tips you can recommend? Perhaps a 3 or 4 step move you recommendI'm just starting to get into yoga because of the calming benefits of the breathing and also the stretching benefits to keep me agile and able to flow as beautifully as possible on a longboard. And I think the simple sun-salutation is a really great go to fitness tip.

What’s the hardest skill in your sport to perfect? A lot of longboarders find rail turning hard. I feel as if my turning arcs are one of my strong points. Footwork is also a super strong point of mine and it was something that my Dad taught me very early in my longboarding to have really good cross-stepping footwork because that's the building blocks of the way you noserides and rail turn and how you move round a longboard. A lot of people struggle with footwork, but I learned that early. But I think that mastering the noseriding in the hanging 10 is definitely the hardest part to perfect in longboard surfing.

Advice on preparing mentally to get involved... I think it's just really important mentally to visualise things that you want to achieve. And to watch other surfers who can do something you're learning. And then try to be inspired by the way they do it and then put that visual onto the wave you're watching and really believe that you can do what you set out to do. Belief is so important.  Can you share three quirky facts not many people know about youI used to go to ballet and I think that really helped me to develop into a strong and elegant longboarder. Although I learned to surf a lot in Cornwall, my first prone wave was in tandem with my Dad in Barbados just three months old! And my first stand alone stand up ride was in Hainan, China aged 3 when my Dad was working out there at a world longboard competition. 

Are there any sports you aren’t good at? I like to play all sports at school, but one time I was selected to do the shot-put and I was absolutely horrendous! 

How do you unwind away from sport? I really find painting and drawing is a great way to unwind from surfing, especially being able to put on some really nice music and create art.

What’s the strangest thing that’s happened during competition? My dad still competes in a lot of contests in the UK and sometimes we're in a heat after each other in our different divisions. And one time at a competition in Polzeath we were sharing a watch and he paddled out and I was just finishing and it was really nice surfing sports watch and I threw it to him but he dropped it and it sunk never to be found again!

What are plans, aims and hope from July 2023 onwards? I'm going to a prestigious competition called the Mexi Log Fest in Saladita very soon. This is at a long left hand point break and I'm proud to go there because it's an invitational and I won a spot by winning a national competition called The Smooth Movers in Cornwall last summer. I was one spot from getting in the British Senior Team for a World event in El Salvador which was a shame. But I look forward to being first choice for the selection panel in the future. I'm going to be competing on the British tour in the Junior division and the Senior division, and I'm also going to compete at the World Surf League European events. I'm really ambitious to start to lay the foundations to get onto the World Longboard Tour (top 20). But my biggest aim for the summer is to represent England at the European Junior Longboard Championships and really put my heart and soul into the event and do my very best.

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