A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon


Athletes & Explorers

May 17, 2018

Johanne Defay: Surfer No. 5

A surfing star from a young age, Johanne had to make some tough life decisions when her main sponsor dropped her.


Supriya Vohra

Now ranked No. 5 in the world, she’s making a steady comeback, despite the brands that think she’s too athletic for a bikini.

Story by Supriya Vohra and images by Armand Dayde. Originally published in The Outdoor Journal print edition, Spring 2017.

Johanne was 19-years-old when she found herself at a crossroads in life. She had already been surfing professionally for nine years when Roxy, her main sponsor, refused to renew her contract. She had to choose if she wanted to continue surfing, or go back to a ‘normal life’ like the rest of her friends.

“I realised that, you are 19-years-old, you have been following something passionately since you were a child. And now you have to make a choice. Do you want to go back to school? Do you really want to keep surfing? Do you not like it? Do you want a normal life with education and a normal job? So a lot of questions just came up and I was like okay, I think I I really want to continue surfing, because it is a really cool opportunity to have right now,” says the French pro-surfer.

Photo © Armand Dayde

How it All Began

Johanne was 20 months old when her parents decided to shift to Réunion Island, a region of France and an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. “Réunion Island is a little bit like Hawaii, but not so American,” Johanne explains. “You have a nicer cultural mix here. People are from everywhere. It’s been so nice to grow up here.”

“The place is mostly known for its amazing trails for running and hiking in the mountains. Surfing became big only 20 years ago, I think. When my dad used to surf there were only two, three people here. It’s grown like crazy now!” she exclaims.

Her father, a doctor and mother, a nurse, always supported her outdoorsy pursuits. “I tried gymnastics for two years when I was very little. But I didn’t enjoy it much. It’s a very strict discipline and I don’t think I have a personality for it.” Johanne shrugs.

“I still have this image in my mind so clear,” she says when asked about her introduction to the sport. “I remember walking on the beach near our house with my father, and there was a surfing lesson going on, and my dad just asked this guy “Hey so my daughter is interested to learn, how can we go about this?” and poof!, that’s how it all began. I was probably eight years old then, and started going for competitions in two years time,” she says. “I just enjoyed surfing so much, and there was such a good dynamic in Réunion Island. There used to be these weekend competitions, and girls of my age were competing, and I loved taking part in them,” she carries on to explain about her competitions.

Her first big moment arrived when she was 12-years-old, and surf brand Roxy decided to sponsor her. She won a bunch of competitions in Réunion Island that got her a ticket to travel all over France, where she met the main Roxy team. The following year, at the age of 13, she became a pro-surfer and started participating in a number of junior events in Europe. She celebrated her 14th birthday in Hawaii, won her first Junior European Champion Title at the age of 15 (she was the youngest to win at the time) and also participated in her first world championship at 15.

She always managed to be amongst the top surfers in every competition, making it to the semis and the finals every time. Consistency was her best friend.

Training Hard and Winning Big

By the time she turned 19 towards the end of 2012, Roxy, her main sponsor decided not to renew her contract. That’s when Johanne decided she really wanted surfing to be part of her life, and she had to take it very seriously. She made a strategy with her parents.
With their support and a couple of part-time jobs, she decided to focus on her physical training and participate in her last year of the European Junior Tour. She also decided to give herself two years to do the World Qualifying Series (WQS), which, if she performed well would qualify her for the World Championship Tour (WCT), a coveted championship that qualifies only 17 of the top girls in the world.

Joel Hauss, a friend of her father’s, was a coach for triathletes and trained his son for the Olympics. He along with his friend Nicolas Conradi decided to take it upon themselves to train Johanne to become physically superfit. In the spring of 2013, a few months before the WQS began, she began training in earnest. She would have two to four training sessions a day. She would begin her day by going for a run, have breakfast, go surfing, eat, have a nap, go for a bike ride or skate, and towards the end of the day work on crossfit training.

Within a year, in 2013, she won her third and final European Junior Champion title and qualified for the WCT. Earlier this year, she won the Fiji Women’s Pro and is now ranked overall No. 5 amongst the female surfers in the world. She attributes her success to her training regimen, initially handled by Joel and Nicolas, and then Simon Paillard, her boyfriend and current overall coach. A sports journalist and triathlete based in Réunion Island, Simon was introduced to Johanne via Joel, and started off as her mental strength coach. Joel’s busy schedule coaching his son ended up with Simon becoming her overall coach.

“Training is super essential,” says Johanne. “And you know, it is only in the recent years, six or seven years that surfing has been taken seriously. Surfers are now putting more physical training as part of their routine, something that pro surfers with serious career ambitions should do anyway.”

Sponsors and Female Athletes

Her major sponsors currently include SuperDry and GoPro, and she, along with her boyfriend handle all her social media and communications. No surfing brand has sponsored her yet, despite her being ranked among the top ten surfers in the world for the last three years.

Photo © Armand Dayde

“Brands don’t look at female athletes as just athletes. I didn’t have a sponsor for four years, and some girls below my level had some big sponsors being given the money that I would never really get,” she explains quite calmly when asked why surf brands haven’t supported her.

“I think as a woman surfer you are judged more than on just the way you are doing your sport. I think brands sometimes get lost about what they want. Do they want just to sell something, are they just looking for perfect bodies in beautiful places or do they want athletes? And I don’t think they get as lost for boys,” she says.

“Girls get less pay than boys anyway. And I just feel being judged on something else apart from surfing is not good. And I feel it is kind of tricky, and surfing is a lifestyle, and has not been treated professionally,” she shrugs.

These views may soon change, as the Olympics committee has officially declared that surfing will be included as a sport in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. When asked if she has Olympic dreams, Johanne’s face lights up. “Yes of course! I would love to compete in the Olympics in 2020! I am just waiting for them to decide the selection process for it,” she says.

She recently completed the Women’s Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour at Maui, Hawaii, finishing the year as the 5th best female surfer in the world.

Photo © Armand Dayde

“The best days are those when the weather is perfect and you get to ride the wave. I’m very lucky and happy to have that all the time,” she signs off with a smile.

Update: At the time of online publishing, May 11, 2018, Johanne Defay’s world ranking is listed at #7.

Feature Image © Armand Dayde

Continue Reading


Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.



Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma


“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”


For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

Subscribe here: https://www.outdoorjournal.com/in/subscribe/

Recent Articles

Stories From The Sahel: Lake Chad, at the Cross-Section of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria

A part of the world that explorer Reza Pakravan considers the most remote region he's visited. A place where millions of people do not feel that they belong to any particular nation.

New World Record: Nirmal Purja Summits the 14 Highest Peaks in Just 6 Months

Nepali ex-soldier Nirmal Purja just smashed the record for summiting all the 8000ers in just half a year—the previous record? The same achievement took Kim Chang-ho, over seven years.

Book Review: Tales from the Trails

From the top of the world to the end of the earth, essays from a marathoner’s odyssey to compete on every continent and the lessons learned of friendship, life and pushing past borders

Privacy Preference Center