Justine Dupont | The Big Interview

From riding giants to Olympic dreams, meet surfing’s French renaissance woman

Featured Image: Dom Daher / Red Bull Content Pool

26th November 2018, Jaws, Maui: A huge swell has seen the world’s best big wave surfers convene on the Hawaiian Island of Maui’s north coast for the most anticipated stop on the WSL Big Wave Tour, the Jaws Challenge.

Having successfully qualified for the final after posting one of the highest scores of the event in her semi, France’s Justine Dupont has just completed a ride when a huge set of waves blackens the horizon. Caught in the ‘impact zone’, well beyond the reach of the safety teams on jetskis, Dupont readies herself just as she’d trained to do, time and time again.

“I could hear everybody screaming for the big set, I was paddling out, but not enough to escape.” With her safety vest only partially inflated, the 28-year-old knew she would be in for a rough ride when the wave hit.

“I think it’s funny to get blasted by a big wave. But it wasn’t funny this time, I’ve never felt so much violence underwater”

“I just got destroyed. Normally I almost laugh in that situation, I think it’s funny to get blasted by a big wave. But it wasn’t funny this time, I’ve never felt so much violence underwater. Luckily, my leash broke before the board could do any more damage to my knee.”

Taking the full weight of one the biggest Pacific winter swells forecast in recent years on the head, Justine was hyperextended underwater, dislocating her shoulder and knee, rendering her essentially immobile, unable even to kick for the surface.

“I knew, underwater, my contest was over. When I came up I was seeing stars, and then the next wave hit. Before I went under again, I was saying to myself ‘Take a breath, keep calm.’

The wave after this one is the one that ripped Justine’s arm and leg out of their sockets. Photo: WSL

With the surf world watching the drama unfold live on the World Surf League’s broadcast, a water safety ski raced in after the second wave to make the rescue.

With only one arm and one leg functioning, it was always going to be a tricky pick up to get the stricken surfer up on the sled behind the jetski. In the melée, the ski capsized as further waves hit.

“Eventually we got back on, got back to the safety boat and that’s when I saw Fred (boyfriend and big wave surfer Fred David), who took one look at me and said, ‘OK. Just relax’. I could tell by his voice it was kinda bad.”


A few months later Justine is in very good hands at the CERS sports rehab centre in Capbreton, France, where we meet on a stormy evening in late January. Specialising in knee injuries to professional sportspeople, famous former patients include the likes of (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, Michael Schumacher and Pep Guardiola.

Having rushed back too early from an elbow injury back in 2013 when on the Women’s World Championship Tour – something that ultimately cost Justine her status among the women’s Top 16 –  this time she’s taking her time to recover fully. Nevertheless, she’s planning on being back on the proverbial horse before the current North Atlantic big wave season concludes.

“I want to surf a big wave at Nazaré before this winter is over,” she admits with a glint in her eye. Optimistic, sure, but hardly gung ho; Justine exudes the measured self confidence of the meticulously well-prepared.

Photo: Dom Daher / Red Bull Content Pool

Referring the legendary big wave spot in Portugal that’s been her adopted home for the last couple of years, Nazaré has since become ground zero for big wave world record attempts by tow surfers, as well the Atlantic epicentre for big wave paddling.

The unusual thing about Nazaré, compared to most big wave spots around the world is the consistency. Rather than waiting weeks or months in season for the spot to fire to life in rare, spectacular displays, a unique bathymetry means even medium sized swells produce big waves almost continually between the autumn and spring equinoxes, for a handful of dedicated disciples.

“I want to surf big waves better”

Alongside the like of Garrett McNamara, Lucas Chianca, Andrew Cotton and Maya Gabeira, among several others, Justine and partner Fred are based at Nazaré throughout the winter season, endlessly fine tuning equipment, fitness and rescue protocol in between headline sessions.

Physical fitness has always come naturally to Justine, and her athleticism, as well as a rounded approach has seen her gain uniquely versalite set of accolades in wave riding. Arguably more versatile, at a higher level, than anyone else in the sport.

A former elite WCT surfer (only the 3rd European woman ever to qualify), she’s also competed for Longboard World Titles (finishing no.2 in the world aged just 15), finished no. 2 in the world on the Women’s Big Wave Tour in 2016, the very first time a women’s division was run… she’s even got a World Title Runner-Up in Stand Up Paddling.

Photo: Bastien Bonnarme / Red Bull Content Pool

Of course, for an athlete with undeniable competitive drive, all those no.2’s only stoke the competitive fire to burn ever brighter to clinch the coveted top spot – a world title.

“Justine will charge as hard as anybody, any guy out here” said Garrett McNamara live on the WSL’s broadcast at the Nazaré Challenge this winter, lamenting the fact she wasn’t given a wildcard into the men-only event. “She’s that gnarly.”  And while silverware and rankings are the layperson’s best bet for getting a handle on who’s who in any sport, peer respect will always be the most coveted accolade among the athletes themselves, and nowhere more so than in the arena of big wave surfing.

“Justine will charge as hard as anybody”

Having surfed the infamous Aileen’s in Ireland in 2013, earning some serious chops for a huge barrel, Justine then became the first woman to surf Belharra (a rare reef several miles off the coast of SW France), performances that earned her an invitation to the inaugural women’s event at Jaws. Sponsor changes meant her focus changed from World Tour qualifying points to big waves, and after a trip to Nazaré with Fred immediately after her first Jaws event, it was clear to the couple this was the place to be to prepare for a serious big wave career.

At Nazaré teamwork is paramount, and the role of the jetski pilot is not only to put the surfer on to the best waves, but also to race in and get them out of harm’s way after wipeout. With no deep water channel next to the break to allow surfers to get back to the lineup, Nazaré is basically a game of chicken with the world’s biggest waves, breaking directly in front of a 100m vertical cliff. The stakes couldn’t be much higher.

Screenshot: Justine Dupont’s Instagram (@justinedupont33)

And while many couples work together in all sorts of day jobs presenting all sorts of relationship challenges, the unique nature of Justine and Fred’s shared endeavour means the benefits far outway the drawbacks.

“Trust is the biggest thing, having confidence in your tow partner. Fred knows me so well, knows when I’m tired, he’ll say ‘No, you’re not 100%’ even when I want another wave. I trust him to make those calls. I have every confidence in him, after a wave I know he’ll be there to get me. Sometimes he can expect too much from me too, wants me to push harder, which can be… difficult (laughs). But overall there are way more pluses than negatives.”

“She’s that gnarly”

Ironically, it’s in the traditionally macho world of big waves, with its constant talk of a prerequisite of ‘balls’ (or ‘sack’ or ‘gonads carried around in wheelbarrows’ etc etc) that the sport of surfing could well see the most parity between genders.

For all the progression in women’s high performance World Tour surfing, so too has men’s continued to evolve. It would be hard to image 7x World Champ Stephanie Gilmore winning a men’s event against the likes of Gabriel Medina and John John Florence. But in giant wave events, it’s totally conceivable. If and when the right wave came, the likes of Justine have as much chance of nailing the highest score as male counterparts, assuming they were allowed to share the lineup.

Photo: Hugo Silva / Red Bull Content Pool

Something she first laughs at when I put it to her, but then remembers, “During the WSL live tow sessions at Nazaré in November, my friend was working as a cameraman on the cliffs and told me everyone was saying, ‘That guy in the yellow wetsuit surfs good, he’s on fire.’ It was kinda funny, coz that was me. A girl.”

With her recovery almost complete, Justine’s focus naturally turns to the year ahead, a season that will have equal prize money for men and women at WSL World Championship level, and also the last full season before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in which surfing debuts.

“I don’t like to talk about (big wave) world records too much, I just want to beat my own record, and then we’ll see. But not just bigger, I want to surf big waves better, to find better lines, towing and paddling.”

“Whether that’s for surfing big waves or doing an exam at school. The more studying you do, the more confident you’re going to be”

Ever the multi-disciplinarian, Justine will also retake to the Women’s Qualifying Series events (generally held in small, poor, beachbreak conditions) in the hope of getting into the France team and a shot at qualifying for Tokyo. With two spots per country, awarded to the top ten countries, competing in front of the biggest audience in surfing history in the Far East might not be as far away as it seems on this stormy, Biscay evening.

Whatever happens in big surf or in her quest to make history at the biggest sporting event in the world, one thing for certain is that Justine Dupont will leave no stone unturned in her preparation. The 99% perspiration ethos is as evident in the impact zone as it is anywhere else, and not something Justine will ever be found short on.

“Confidence is all about preparation,” she says. “Whether that’s for surfing big waves or doing an exam at school. The more studying you do, the more confident you’re going to be sitting the exam, there are no shortcuts. You put the time in, and the pay off will follow.”

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