Soli Bailey had one dream growing up in Suffolk Park (near Byron Bay) – to ride swell in the most beautiful parts of the world with his surfing idols.
Now 23, Soli is among the world top 34 and has made his mark on the World Surf League Championship Tour after competing in the Quiksilver Pro at the beginning of the month.
He is the second ever Indigenous surfer to compete at a championship level full-time.
“Quiksilver Pro was really fun – pretty, I guess exciting, nerve-racking, first world tour event, ever, for me and of the year,” he says smiling in the doorway of Torquay’s Strapper store.
“I had lots of friends and family at home supporting me which was actually a little nerve-racking to have them all there and wanting to do my best and obviously do my best for myself as well. It was really cool, pretty special.”
Soli’s infectious carefree attitude saw him do little to fight his nerves as he launched himself onto the world stage.
“It was pretty easy,” he says before quickly pausing.
“Not easy – I shouldn’t say that,” he laughs.
“It was, kind of, I guess, you know, years and years of hard work of competing and trying to draw upon that, you know, the resources of, you know, competing and all the nerves over years was like to me, the pinnacle for me, at that point. That’s been the pinnacle of my career, having that first heat, that was my dream for 10-plus years and to paddle out there, it was kind of like, yeah, I was nervous, but it was an opportunity to conquer that dream and goal. I just tried to enjoy the moment and do the best I could.”
The laid-back surfer was defeated by Brazilian Filipe Toledo and placed 17th on the Gold Coast.
Affectionately known for setting himself high standards, Soli says he didn’t walk away with the milestone he was hoping to achieve, but his determination to be regarded among the elite remains irrepressible.
“I didn’t get the result I wanted but I competed as well as I could have – that kept me in a pretty good place and I’m happy and excited to be competing in this event (Rip Curl Pro Bells Bells)”, he says.
Soli’s optimism about his chances at Bells stems from his love for the Victorian coastline. A “hot spot for surfing”, the aspiring world champion says he has been visiting Torquay since he was 12.
“Bells is a super special place for any surfer,” he says.
“I have a huge connection with my Indigenous background, and I think it’s super beautiful, a stunning coastline and there’s so much history. The people down here, it makes me feel warm and at home and I’ve had results in the past here.”
The results he modestly refers to include his Australian Indigenous Surfing Champion title at Bells Beach in 2015. Soli’s major victory was in 2017 when he became the first Australian to win the Hawaiian Volcom Pipe.
Soli is also the first professional surfer to wear the Aboriginal flag on his jersey.
“To my friends, family and to the country, it’s such a special and positive message,” he says of his decision.
“I’m a proud Indigenous Australian competing in professional surfing and trying to represent Indigenous people and Australia in a healthy light is the most important thing. It’s a great opportunity to be able to give back to the country.”
More from Soli
Staring to surf
“Dad was a keen surfer. I was in the water before I even knew what water was.
“I think when I was three-years-old, dad would get me in the shallows and run me alongside him on the board as if I was riding the wave. There are photos of me at four or five riding waves at The Pass (in Byron Bay) which is a renowned break for fun waves and learning to surf.
“That was sort of the beginning and then I think when I was nine that was when I competed in my first event.”
Competing against his idols
“I’m ready to take it on, definitely. There’s a handful of my idols, growing up, grommet surfer name dropping – Julian Wilson, Jordy Smith and Mick and Joel, and all those guys, and sure enough I’m competing against a few of them and they’re still my idols, that’ll never change. But that’s not to say I don’t want to beat them and prove to myself that I’m as good as them now.”
From amateur to pro
“It is a difficult and expensive sport and it’s one thing to enjoy it and have a surfboard, and a wetsuit and surf from your own beach, but it’s another thing to be chasing a tour right around the world.”
Number of boards
“I brought 12 boards. It ranges between a 6”3 and then coming down to a 5”11 and everything in between there.”
“I love the cold weather. You grow up where you grow up, so you always think the grass is greener.”