BIANCA BUITENDAG’S silver medal triumph at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics sent ripples of delight through South Africa. Against the odds, she had slain surfing giants and was one of just two athletes to bring home medals from the Games for the Beloved Country. After a touching and tearful homecoming welcome, she retired from pro surfing. What motivates her now, what has she learnt about coping with ‘dark and scary’ places, and what is her most irritating habit? She told KATY MACDONALD

Bianca Buitendag: ‘I’ve come to understand that the depth of our joy is our responsibility alone’  |  Top and bottom photos: Alan van Gysen
Number four in the world at the peak of her career, Bianca grew up in Cape Town’s Strand, moved to Victoria Bay with her family at the age of 12, turned pro at 17 and between surf competitions obtained a degree in finance and accounting. She lives mainly in Victoria Bay
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Why do you like surfing? I’ll never stop rushing towards salt water! The ocean is the place where I feel closest to heaven

You were an underdog at the Olympics, semi-retired, seeded 17th in the world. Then, suddenly, you were in the finals. Your reaction? A combination of shock, surprise and disbelief. Paralysis too, but with South Africa half burning down with the KwaZulu-Natal riots, a fire burned inside me to win for my beautiful country

How enjoyable was professional surfing? It was a love/hate relationship. I’m so grateful for having been able to go on tour and our family ethos was to never let opportunities pass you by. But for eight years, I had a stress knot in my throat

Bianca with fellow South African Olympic athletes. She had a love/hate relationship with professional surfing, but the Olympics sparked in her ‘a fire to win for my beautiful country’ 

How did you get into surfing? Dad pushed me into my first wave when I was eight. My earliest memory is watching the sun rise over the mountain as he drove with our boards on the roof, both my brothers sleeping beside me, the smell of coffee coming from a flask, and a map spread out wide. Surfing was an excuse to explore and adventure. What a privilege to grow up this way! When we moved to Vic Bay, we rented a house without a TV and ended up in the ocean before and after school

Dad died when I was 21, and after that there were some days when I couldn’t get out of bed. I was really in a deep, dark place. At the beginning you’re angry with God, you’re angry with things. You don’t know why you’re surfing a contest, what’s the significance of that?

But then surfing became a great distraction. When I surf I don’t think. The sadness escapes me for a while

Your dad’s legacy to you? He was a very big role model in everything I did. I used to travel with him to competitions and he used to say, ‘Just focus on the stuff that you can control.’ I have come to understand that the breadth of our smile and the depth of our joy is our responsibility alone

Bianca’s dad Colin launched her into her very first wave. His death when she was 21 pushed her into a dark place, but she’s come to cherish the principle he taught her: ‘Just focus on the stuff you can control’

Your mother and grandmother’s legacy to you? My mom and grandmother have both overcome immense personal tragedies that have created strong personalities. They’re a force to be reckoned with! I dedicated my Olympic medal to Mom, who beat two cancers in one year. She has blessed the world with her lightheartedness, generosity and laughter. It’s she, not me, who deserves a medal, as do all the people who fight for daily victories that no one sees

Bianca’s mom, Yvette, and grandmother, Miems. Pushing back at personal tragedy has made them ‘a force to be reckoned with’, she says! Yvette also overcame two cancers in one year. ‘It’s Mom, not me, who deserves a medal, as do all the people who fight for daily victories that no one sees,’ says Bianca
Nature-loving family, then and now. ‘What a privilege to grow up this way!’ says Bianca

What work are you doing now? I’m working with LIFE Community Services, a Christian organisation that aims to love the multitude of broken and overlooked children here in George. Our area has some of the best waves in the world, but it also has a high TB death rate, a growing AIDS crisis, an escalating divorce rate and an alcohol abuse problem that’s led to incredible poverty

Ever since I visited LIFE on a high-school outreach trip, I’ve wanted to bridge the stunning gap between my privilege and the reality of what’s happening on that side of town. I love my country and its people so much

We work at mobilising local and overseas churches, foundations, businesses and individuals to give of their time and resources to support services such as feeding schemes, foster homes and outreach programmes that help children holistically. We also started a primary school in Thembalethu township which we’re currently able to run up to grade 6

What’s your specific work? Mainly fundraising, creating awareness and trying to find partners to walk the road alongside us

How does it feel to have this kind of purpose? You know, you originally go there feeling like you have something to contribute, but you walk away having gained compassion, perspective and gratitude. So, ironically, those you go to serve actually give you a gift

You grow up thinking that success is the best car, the biggest house, or a moment of sporting success. I’ve realised that this isn’t true

Keen to bridge disparities in her town, Bianca walked away from pro surfing into her new purpose in life, supporting LIFE Community Services, which strives ‘to love the multitude of broken and overlooked children in George’. Programmes it has initiated include feeding schemes and a primary school currently teaching children up to grade 6. ‘You walk away having gained compassion, perspective and gratitude,’ she says

Why do you believe in God in this day and age when so many people don’t? It’s a pity that for some people, tradition has taken so much away from His wonder, but for me personally, it’s impossible not to believe. God has held my hand tightly through all these years, through the dark and scary. His love liberates me and I believe Him every time He says the word ‘new’. New morning. New mercy. New hope.

Hidden talent? Avoiding cooking. My entire family will bear witness

Your most irritating habit? I drive quite recklessly 😉

What can others take from your Olympic success? Many of the Olympic competitors had a coach, a manager and a psychologist. In my case, it was just me and my coach Greg. So if I can beat the odds in life, YOU can too!

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If you have any time, connections or money to contribute to Life Community Services, do email or call +27 44 873 6601
Bianca: ‘God has held my hand tightly through all these years, through the dark and scary’  |  Photo: Alan van Gysen
Bianca with Neville Arnolds, Community Development Manager at LIFE Community Services
‘I’ll never stop rushing towards salt water,’ says Bianca. ‘The ocean is the place where I feel closest to heaven’
Bianca is the newest ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which has numerous sporting greats in its stable, including Ryan Sandes, Ryk Neethling, Cecil Afrika and Elana Meyer
Inspired: children wave to Bianca and her fellow athletes as they travel through South Africa on the Olympic victory bus
Bianca Buitendag: ‘If I can beat the odds, so can YOU!’  |  Photo: Alan van Gysen
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