An Olympic Gold Medalist Who Tows at Massive Cloudbreak

Five questions with Julia Mancuso

A photo posted by Julia Mancuso (@juliamancuso) on


Julia Mancuso has done two things that no other female Olympian skier has done. One, she’s won more medals in alpine skiing than any American woman in history. And two, she’s towed into some damn big Cloudbreak waves. In October, Mancuso was on a surf trip in Fiji when a sizable swell lit up Tavarua. She towed into a few, posted the photographic evidence on her Instagram, and we were blown away. We had to check in with her to get the details.

That’s a pretty big wave that would scare the shit out of most hardcore surfers. Was towing into big Cloudbreak your idea? Or did somebody talk you into it?

It was pretty big, but somehow I felt pretty safe. I don’t think it was as angry as it can be. The tide was high, and it didn’t look all that scary to me. I was joking around a little bit about surfing and asking, “When should I paddle out?” I was told that maybe we can tow if there is a break in the action. I was pretty game the whole time! Not really scared, just excited. I did get a little nervous when my friend gave me his inflatable vest to use in case something went wrong, and then he told me how he had to use it earlier that morning ’cause he was stuck to the bottom. But I wasn’t really freaked, more excited. I got into free-diving last summer so I was prepared to hold my breath if I had to. I have always wanted to surf big waves. It seems kind of natural to me, like riding mountains of water.

What’s your level of surf experience? Years, frequency, that kind of thing.

I learned how to surf when I was 18, and have been living in Maui during the summers for 8 years. I don’t get to surf enough! But I think anyone who surfs will say that. I try to go on one surf trip a year, and thats probably where I do the most surfing. This was my third trip to Fiji and I surfed Restaurants as well. Those waves are so much fun.

Did you try to paddle into any of those Cloudbreak waves? Or was it a strictly tow-in affair?

I did not try to paddle. It looked exciting but was very competitive and I don’t think I am quite there yet in my surfing. The weather got a little bit worse and there wasn’t anyone left paddling so I had a chance to tow in. Dylan Fish (a Tavarua standout) gave me a crash course in tow surfing. He towed me in, and let me use his board.

Wipeouts? Beatdowns? Anything go wrong that session? 

I caught four out of five waves. I missed one because I let go too early and realized I wouldn’t have enough speed so I kicked out just in time. I thought I could grab the board and paddle out the back of the next wave, but I was wrong, and Dylan had to grab me and we outran the next wave in the ski. I didn’t know that jet skis could do that so I thought we were pretty much done for. That was probably the scariest moment of the session, but we survived.

How does the sensation of speed on a wave like that compare to a serious downhill run?

It felt fast but slow at the same time. I had a moment where I felt like I needed to use my core and some aerodynamics to go faster, but surfing’s not really fast in comparison. We average 60-70 mph on a typical downhill run, reaching speeds close to 90 mph. I think thats why I like the idea of surfing big waves, to me it feels slower and more like riding a mountain, and the consequence of falling is similar to downhill—you don’t want to do it—so it brings you into that very clear mindset. I felt very calm on those waves, and very happy. I had enough time to think how much fun I was having.