Fresh from an exhilarating win, surfer Sophie McCulloch is ready to shine on the global stage. 

The 24-year-old from the Sunshine Coast is back home after qualifying for the elite division of women’s surfing for the first time, securing her place on the 2023 Championship Tour with a final-round victory in the second tier of the World Surf League. 

McCulloch entered the Hawaii event earlier this month as an underdog but snatched victory to claim the final spot in next year’s top division, where she will compete against the likes of Stephanie Gilmore and Tyler Wright. 

Woman in red surfing large wave
Sunshine Coast surfer Sophie McCulloch competing in the Challenger Series event in Haleiwa, Hawaii.(Supplied: World Surf League, Tony Heff)

After returning home to a hero’s welcome, she is now soaking up her achievement ahead of a bumper year. 

“I was greeted at the airport by a bunch of family and friends … that was really special and there were a lot of tears,” she said. 

McCulloch said the win is a “huge step” in her journey from amateur to pro – but the pressure is on to perform early in the season. 

“If I’m not in the top 10 women after the first five events on tour, I’m back in the Challenger Series.

“It’s definitely hard coming in as a rookie with less experience,” she said.

Woman in flower crown holding trophy smiling
Sunshine Coast surfer Sophie McCulloch has qualified for the 2023 Championship Tour after winning the Challenger Series event in Hawaii.(Supplied: World Surf League, Brent Bielmann)

Surfing is an expensive exercise for athletes on the cusp. McCulloch relies on sponsorships and prize money to cover about $50,000 a year in expenses. 

“We travel all across the world and it is a huge financial cost, but at the end of the day you just back yourself in being able to perform,” she said. 

‘She jumped up straight away’

McCulloch started surfing at the age of five with her siblings at the Maroochy Surf School where she was taught by former surfing pro Grant Thomas. He is still her coach today. 

Young woman with surfboard pointing at waves with male coach in sunglasses
Grant Thomas says delaying a key to Sophie McCulloch from competing as a child has been a key to her success.(ABC Sunshine Coast, Josh Dye)

Thomas remembers McCulloch’s enthusiasm and natural ability in jumping to her feet on the first wave. 

“But a lot of five-year-olds can show that,” he said.

“It’s obviously what you do with ability that produces champions down the track.”

Thomas said while all surfers experienced peaks and troughs in their development, McCulloch’s consistency stood out. 

Woman on beach holding surfboard with male coach
Grant Thomas says McCulloch showed strong consistency throughout her development.(ABC Sunshine Coast, Josh Dye)

As a coach, Thomas was conscious of holding McCulloch back from competing as a child and making sure she peaked at the right time. 

“If you compete a lot, you get stuck at a level rather than progressing all the time because you’re always thinking about the next event,” he said.

“There’s a huge emphasis these days on winning everything when you’re 14, 15, 16 years old.

“But then a lot of those kids, by the time they’re 22, are gone.”

‘Sometimes less is more’

As next year looms, McCulloch said she felt “nervous [and] excited”. 

“It’s going to be daunting and I know I’m going to be feeling a lot of discomfort, but I’m just excited to have the opportunity to surf the world’s best waves … push my limits and just get better at surfing.” 

Woman on beach holding surfboard and laughing with man
Sophie McCulloch(ABC Sunshine Coast, Josh Dye)

McCulloch said she struggled to “switch off” from surfing and seeing a sports psychologist had helped her realise that “sometimes less is more”. 

“You get to the biggest stage and you automatically feel like you need to be doing more because you’re up against the best in the world,” she said. 

Whatever next year holds, McCulloch is ready for the ride of her life. 

“There’s been a lot of highs and lows leading up to this. And I know there’s still going to be a lot more highs and lows,” she said.