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Sarah Baum struts her stuff at the World Surf League championships. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sarah Baum struts her stuff at the World Surf League championships. Picture: SUPPLIED

Surfer Sarah Baum’s entire life to date has been something of a breaking story.

Her bread and butter comes from being a queen of the surfing break, a sublime skill that sees her proudly part and parcel of Team SA for this year’s Olympic Games in France.

Excepting for the fact she’ll be almost 15,000km from France as the surfing competition plays out in the French Polynesian island of Tahiti.

Growing up in Amanzimtoti, KwaZulu-Natal, she credits father Chris as the force behind her passion.

“Dad’s always been a surfer,” she says from Newcastle [not the KZN version, but rather the Aussie city of the same name where she’s now based].

“There was a river that ran down to the beach and when it was high tide he’d put me on the board and let me play about in the high-tide waves — I was only three at the time.”

Chris’ occupation as a chemical engineer took the family to Melbourne, Australia and then the UK for a spell before getting back to Durban just after she’d turned seven.

Encouraged by her dad to take it more seriously, she surfed her first competition at the age of eight and impressed so much that she was offered a sponsorship that saw her missing huge chunks of school as she travelled about the country competing.

“When I was 14, I won the Ripcurl Grom Series and got a ticket to Australia to the international version of the Grom Series — dad and I went to Bells Beach and I ended up getting third. It was massive at the time for me to get a foot in the door, coming from such a small surfing country.”

She visited Newcastle for the first time on that trip and went back every year to surf a competition there while her dad, if he wasn’t able to travel to a new country with her, would suss out the scene of every new international venue and lay out a path for her to feel at home.

Baum senior is a proud dad. “She took on a lot more interest in surfing after the family got back after travelling about quite a bit when she was very young.

“She then went up through the ranks as Under-12/14/16/18 champion and was a multiple Open champion.

“That Grom Series trip to Bells Beach was her first international exposure and the rest is history.”

He confirms that the young Sarah was always an active kid. “If she wasn’t in the sea she was on a skateboard, skating about the house.

Sarah Baum is heading for the Olympics. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sarah Baum is heading for the Olympics. Picture: SUPPLIED

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride... we’ve done a lot of travelling away and these days we’ve managed to fit in a few noncontest trips which is great. J-Bay is coming up now and it’s such a big stoke to get to surf with your kid and watch her rip.

“She’s really gone through the ranks and I’ve watched her mature as a very special child and special athlete and a great role for young kids!”

When Sarah was 17 she had a breakthrough year and just missed out qualifying for the WCT (World Championship tour) by a few 100 points and the next year was almost as close.

But the next break she had to conquer was not the one she’d been hoping for.

“At about 18-19 I started really finding myself, finding out the person who I really am. And it turned out that being part of the LGBTQ community didn’t sit well with my sponsors... it wasn’t the image that they had in mind.”

What followed was a double break. “I told someone I trusted that I was gay and had a girlfriend... almost immediately my sponsors broke things off almost completely, pulling all funding, right at a time I was at my surfing peak.

“I became kind of angry with the surfing community in general. I’d been such a part of them for half my life and then my career was suddenly pulled out from under my feet because of the person I saw myself as.”

So she took a break of her own and for her own good.

“I had a girlfriend at the time and then opted to spend 12 months here in Australia, worked in a cafe, made some good money so I could travel but I was pretty burnt out mentally from having everything set up for me to having nothing... I started surfing for the sheer enjoyment of it, instead of it being a job.”

A few years off the competitive waters were followed by a “permanent” move to Newcastle where she finds herself living a settled life.

“Shortly after I moved back, one of my friends persuaded me to enter a comp down the coast. I ended up winning it and that little fire that had still been glowing deep within me, suddenly had a litre of petrol thrown on it and I was in competition mode again,” she laughs.

Back in the ocean and life’s choppy waters have cleared.

“I met my partner Georgia, we got married a few months ago, we have a little house together and I’m happy. She’s a full-time physiologist [in SA that would be a biokineticist] which is great for me too, she plays football as her passion and she’s helped me get to my peak again, I honestly couldn’t have done it without her and can never thank her enough.”

Onto the Olympic dream though, for the girl who grew up idolising gold-medal swimmer Penny Heyns in the Olympics.

“I wanted to go to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics but just couldn’t finance the trip to qualifying in El Salvador, but thankfully last year I was able to afford that.”

And that’s because sponsors who believe in both Baum the surfer and Baum the human have come on board again — in the shape of O’Neill Australia, her local Sanbah surfshop and 3Fingers sunscreen company.

In 2023 she was back in El Salvador but there was nearly another bad break.

“I did a turn and landed strangely on my foot near the end of one heat and I could barely hobble up the beach.

“I was bawling my eyes out on the physio table when a good mate came up to me and said: ‘Baumy [her nickname] you need to make one more heat to get through’.

“I got my foot strapped up as much as possible and my two opponents in the heat also had qualifying pressure on them, so it was actually quite simple at the end,

“I did a couple of turns, nursed the foot and as I hobbled up the beach the whole team were standing there waiting for me along with ISA [International Surfing Association] president Fernando Aguerre, who told me I’d got my ticket to go the Olympics.”

Talk turns to Tahiti and Baum has big footsteps to follow. Fellow SA surfer Bianca Buitendag’s silver medal was one of only three medals won by Team SA in Tokyo.

“I grew up surfing with Bianca and we had a crazy rivalry. I looked up to her and she pushed me to where I am now. If I could bring back a medal it would be insane, unfathomable.

“But for surfers the Olympics is pretty new, it’s never been the biggest thing for us so I don’t want to put pressure on myself, just make myself happy and be proud of how far I can push.”

In just under two weeks her preparation continues.

“I’m off to Tahiti to suss out the waves we’ll use for the Games. It’s one of the most beautiful, but dangerous waves in the world so I’m going to go and look at the reef and familiarise myself, so it’s not a shock when I get there.”

Baum was born into SA in 1994, the same year as the now late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described our resilient country as the “Rainbow Nation”.

When she paddles out in French Polynesia she’ll also be flying the flag for the LGBTQ “nation” and proudly so.

“One of the reasons I’m still surfing today is because, although my voice may not be the biggest, it may help... it may not reach tens of thousands but if it reaches one, two, three or more people it may help people being restricted.

“That’ll make it worthwhile. The sporting industry is still sexualised to a large degree — things are changing but there’s still a long way to go.”

And if it takes a round-the-world trip to Tahiti to help find her pot of gold at the end of those rainbows, so be it!

Not only is she paddling out — she’s pushing back.

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