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by Jesse Starling

Trying to balance a million things at once can get the best of us all at some point. We’ve all been there, trying to balance work, sports, studying, having a social life, all whilst trying to find time for yourself. It makes you question, how can I do it all?

Well with the help of the right people and a great work ethic, anything can be achieved. Today we speak to three phenomenal women who have and are still doing it all. May we introduce to you professional surfers and University students/Graduates, Sophie McCulloch, Leilani McGonagle and Piper Harrison.

These 3 phenomenal ladies are living the life most surfers only dream about however and today we get to talk to them about what it’s like behind the scenes. We talk about the pressure of studying whilst having to perform, how to balance a study and competitive life, as well as getting advice for all of the ladies out there who want to achieve it all too. So let’s get into it. 

Surfer: Sophie McCulloch Photo: WSL

Hey ladies! How are you? First off tell us about yourselves and what you’re studying

Sophie: “Hi, I’m Sophie McCulloch, I’m 23 years old and grew up on the beautiful sunshine coast. I studied a double degree of Marketing and Biomedical Science at the University of the Sunshine Coast. I started studying the degree straight out of school in February of 2016 at 18 and recently graduated 5 and a half years later in June 2021.” 

Leilani: “Hey, I’m LeiLani McGonagle and I’m from Pavones, Costa Rica. I’ve pretty much been studying my whole life. I started at 5 and went to the local primary school in Pavones, i studied Spanish there and did homeschool on the side in english. Later on I started doing highschool and graduated at 17. From there I started community college in California called Foothill, where I graduated with an AA in communications. I transferred to CSUB and I am 1.5 semesters from my bachelors in communication with an emphasis in PR.” 

Piper: “Hi, My name is Piper Harrison, I’m 20 years odl from snapper rocks and I’m currently studying a bachelor of Biomedical science. I’ve been studying for the last 2 years at Griffith University and absolutely love it”

Surfer: Leilani McGonagle Photo: Surfos Official

So balancing being a professional athlete and being a full time student would be extremely hard, tell us about your experiences in balancing both surfing and studying

Sophie: “While I can’t deny that my experience balancing surfing and studying had its fair share of stressful moments, for the most part I found that competing and university actually complimented each other really well. Although the ability to be extremely organised proved crucial, I was able to work ahead on my study to make sure that I could be focused come event time. Alternatively, I found that if I was becoming too overwhelmed during competitions, I had the opportunity to turn to my study as a way of switching off from the event, however, keep my brain switched on in other ways. Luckily, the University of the Sunshine Coast was extremely supportive through an Elite Athlete Scholarship Program, allowing my studies to accommodate my athletic commitments.” 

Leilani: “Not going to lie it can get really complicated at times with travelling due dates are scary! I learned to do school everywhere. In the car, in airports, comp areas down the beach aha everywhere. Any little gap of time I get is always used to get some or all of my school work done so it’s on time. That being said, I LOVE school! It goes hand in hand with everything I’m dealing with such as media, sponsors and my own social media platforms. 

Piper: “Honestly, for me I love the balance I have created between surfing, competing and studying. It all started for me in highschool where I slowly developed a routine to balance my study and surfing. After I graduated I stopped studying for a year and I actually found that I competed better when I had something else to take my mind off competing. A year later I started at uni, and the balance became natural, you just make things work. 

Surfer: Piper Harrison Photo: WSL

A frequent question we are sure that you get asked is “how do you find the time?” Tell us your three best strategies of making use of the entire day

Sophie: “First of all, optimise the flat spells (which are dime a dozen on the sunny coast), to cram study and get ahead so that when the swell picks up, you have the freedom to surf as much as you want. Secondly, have a good routine based around the general trends in conditions of your local break. Mine went a little like, early surf, coffee, gym training, surf again and then study all afternoon when the wind came up. Lastly, during subject selection, I compared and contrasted assessment timetables with the QS event schedule. This allowed me to base my course selection on whether assignments/exams would clash with competitions. 

Leilani: “I wake up early everyday to try and maximise my time. I prioritize my training time and fit school inbetween. If I have any class with zoom it’s usually only 1 day a week so i can handle that. My mom has been very helpful in guiding me with programs that fit my schedule. 

Piper: “Firstly, I always plan ahead. Every Sunday I try to give myself a rough plan of my week on paper, usually this includes, when I want to train, when I’m working, my uni class times and down time to rest. Although my week usually changes it still gives me a rough idea to prepare for my week. Secondly, I make time to do other things that I enjoy to keep myself motivated to both study and train hard. Lastly, have goals to achieve throughout your day. This is also a tool to create great time management. However, also remember to go easy on yourself, if you don’t achieve all of your daily goals, accept it, don’t stress and try to get a good night’s sleep. 

Surfer: Sophie McCulloch Photo: WSL

Tell us, do you find that studying and working hard on your education can drive you to work harder on your surfing? If so, why?

Sophie: “absolutely, when you don’t have the time/flexibility to surf as much as you want it makes you value your time in the water so much more. This value translates into the drive to make every session count. Furthermore, the depth of knowledge that I developed through education has made me realise that if I can constantly improve in the water, a surfing career can be paired with opportunities within the marketing and/or Biomedical industry. 

Leilani: “I feel like everyone tells you to study to have a plan B, and to be honest I really think they should stop saying that. Study for now, study for what brings you happiness and passion. If you do that I feel like there’s no way it won’t make you a better person, which to me will make you a better surfer. I wanted to clear up that if Uni is not your thing, that is so understandable, there is so many amazing different ways and places to learn and educate yourself these days” 

Piper: “Yes, absolutely! I have found that studying has improved my competitive performance and has inspired me to keep motivated and work hard. I feel this is due to the fact that studying gives me a forced break from surfing sometimes that I don’t always want haha! However, it’s actually the rest I need to reset for my next competition, free surf or training session. 

Surfer: Leilani McGonagle Photo: Surfline

Lastly, this ones for all the young girls out there inspiring to do it all, just like you ladies, what would be your best advice for them? 

Sophie: “When everything starts to feel stressful and overwhelming, try to remind yourself of how fun it is to be able to explore two very different worlds at the same time. Also, head to office works, buy yourself a diary and some highlighters and get good at organising your life, also invest in surfline haha”

Leilani: “DO IT! Pick something you love, not something for convenience. Try not to start with a full load, warm up to it. Remember that you are doing 2 things that people dedicate their 100% to at once so don’t try to sprint at school. It’s fun once you find what you love. 

Piper: “My advice would be to take your time! After school, travel. Meet people and explore new places and once you find your passion, studying should come with ease and should be something you really enjoy. Never listen to anyone that tells you that you cannot compete and  study your passion at the same time! There are so many universities and tafes that offer support and flexibility so that learning and achieving your goals becomes easy in and out of the water. 

Surfer: Piper Harrison Photo: Asian Surf Co

As you can see these ladies are pretty phenomenal. To be able to speak to these ladies about their own personal journeys and experiences with balancing studying and surfing was a privilege in itself. These women are amazing role models for all of us to look up to and we hope each and every one of you reading this got as much out of it as we did. Thank you so much again ladies for your time, we cannot wait to see what the future holds for each and every one of you.


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