Surfing is probably one the most individual of sporting disciplines.
Wet suit, surfboard and a decent swell – these are all a surfer needs. Once out on the water, surfing can soothe away the intricacies of life; you can shut yourself off from the rest of the world. It’s just you and the waves.
However, Mathilde Arassus is skilled in the art of sharing her surfboard with someone else – the art of riding those waves in tandem is a dazzling blend of balance, board-craft and gymnastics.
The 17-year-old tells me: “I started surfing almost when I was a baby. I come from a small city on the west coast of France where surfing is very popular.”
“Although I consider myself as a huge fan of surfing, my main sport was always gymnastics. It’s a mix of adrenaline and excitement. You need to train really hard to reached the top level.”
The sport taught her the necessary rigour and discipline required for surf. “At a high level, gymnastic can be very tough and challenging. You have to be strong mentally and physically if you want to succeed.”
However, when asked why she decided to quit gymnastics, Mathilde’s expression darkens.
“I had significant health problems a few years ago. It was a really hard time because gymnastic means a lot to me.”
Moving on to tandem surfing, Mathilde’s new passion, her expression changes and a smile lights up her face.
“Gymnastics carried me towards an enjoyable sport: tandem surfing. It’s a mix of surfing and gymnastics so it was the perfect combination for me.”
In 2015, Mathilde signed up for a surf course in Ocean Roots, a small surfing club in Arcachon, where she decided to test herself with a few friends.
After a few days, she met Nicolas, a 38-years-old surfing coach, and the alchemy between them resulted in an instant connection.
“Nicolas is a really good surfer and, as you can imagine, I’ve got a few gymnastic skills.
“After a pretty good session, we watched a video on YouTube and we thought ‘Why not give it a try?’ I would say that my journey into the world of tandem surfing came quite naturally.’”
By running her fingers through her hair with a discreet gesture, she tells the difference between being solo and tandem surfing.
“I discovered a truly different sport. The relationship with your partner is key. If you don’t get along with him, you will not be able to do any acrobatic figures. Team spirit is key.
‘Through Nicolas, I realised how surfing could creatively bring people together. Most individuals think that surfing is a self-taught discipline where a surfer’s ego predominates, but this is not true.
“My relation with Nicolas is genuinely strong. Tandem surfing requires a particular combination of partners in order to be successful. In addition, I think that communication is one of most important part of tandem surfing.
“Another different facet is the view. When you’re on the shoulders of your partner, you have a very different perspective on surfing. You are on top of the wave and you realise how magnificent nature is.”
Mathilde is keen to stress that tandem surfing has “a lot of history”, going back to the beginning of the 20th century in the surf mecca of Hawaii “It is such a rich sport,” she adds.
Asking Mathilde a few questions about competitive tandem surfing, her face brightens again and you can easily tell that she is a formidable competitor.
“I love competition. I think that every sportsperson has something to do with it.
“When we started tandem surfing, our first priority was to enjoy and to have fun, nothing else. But when we first competed at a regional level, we realised that we were quite good.
“Although the sport is not massive in terms of representation, we rapidly reached a national level and I felt very honoured. We reached the fourth place for three consecutive years and our next goal would be to grab a place on the podium.
“In addition, we competed at the World Championship in 2016. We came seventh and it was such a tremendous experience.
“I had a French flag under my name and I felt so grateful. Representing your country is the best reward that you can get.”
Surfing is getting more and more attention and will become an Olympic sport at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, but Mathilde is wary about this increase in its profile.
“Although major surfing competitions would automatically bring more facilities, I think that more attention can affect our sport. More coverage means more money, and I doubt it is a good thing.
“People surf because it’s a very unique sport. Surfing is a way of life and it is all about being connected with nature. Therefore, I don’t think that surfers need to be under the spotlight.”
Tackling her future objectives, Mathilde remains very modest.
She laughs: “I don’t want to think about anything apart from enjoying what I do. I’m still very young and I’ve got plenty of time to think about my future.”
Mathilde is on Instagram.
All photos used by kind permission of Florian Alzay.