Life is Better When You Surf® - Joel Pilgrim

Life is Better When You Surf® - Joel Pilgrim

This week we spoke to another inspiring human, Joel Pilgrim, surfer and mental health advocate...

GSI: Hi Joel, Tell us a bit about WOW and how it came to be.

JP: The first iteration of surf therapy I designed was while working with the folks at OneWave. The positive impact observed during the pilot reinforced the idea of creating a broader initiative backed by mental health professionals and clinical research. This vision ultimately resulted in the creation of Waves of Wellness Foundation, or as we call it - WOW, aiming to make mental health support more accessible and effective through surf therapy.

WOW was founded in 2016 with the aim of delivering a fresh and innovative approach to mental health support that prevented people falling through the cracks of traditional services. WOW employs qualified mental health clinicians who also serve as surfing instructors, to deliver unique mental health support right on the beach. Our aim is to change the nature of mental ill-health, by changing the very nature of where and how we treat it. The surfing component attracts people to our programs who may have otherwise shied away from mainstream clinical settings.

8 years later, we’ve now worked with over 4,600 people in Australia, delivering surf therapy programs in 4 states, with 9 locations at 14 beaches around the country. Our 4 main demographics are women experiencing trauma, at-risk young people, first responders and veterans, and men at risk of suicide. The feedback we’ve received has been nothing short of incredible, to this day Ic an’t count the number of people who have told us this program has saved their life from suicide.

Image supplied by Joel Pilgrim

GSI: How old were you when you learnt to surf? Where was it and who taught you?
JP: I was 8 years old when I received my first surfboard at Christmas. Without parents who surfed, that day at Caves Beach, my twin brother and I threw ourselves at waves for hours attempting to catch waves. We’d ridden bodyboards for a few years, but it wasn’t until standing up on a surfboard for the first time that day, that I really understood what surfing was all about. I was hooked, and everything from that Christmas onwards revolved around the ocean.

Image supplied by Joel Pilgrim

GSI: Tell us about a surf session that really sticks in your mind.
JP: One of the most memorable sessions was in 2023 when the biggest swell to hit Sydney in years rolled through. A bunch of local big wave mates and I hitWedding Cake Island, Coogee. It was 20-25 ft and maxing out. There were 12 of us paddling, and a couple of tow teams. It was one for the memory bank.There weren’t many waves caught that day, with many more beatings taking place, but it was the focus required and the sheer power of mother nature that meant it was one of those days that is etched into my mind forever.

Though I can’t go past that one surf session that single handedly kicked off this direction in my career. I was working as an Occupational Therapist in mental health, and I had the chance to take one of my clients from the hospital surfing. Weighing up the pro’s and con’s and despite some pretty significant professional risks, I made the call to head out. It was pretty special -this one session provided more breakthroughs than the last 3 months of sessions at the centre, as if a massive weight had been lifted off their shoulders. It was so profound, it opened my eyes to the possibility of surf therapy and the potential impact this could have on people struggling with mental ill-health. A light went off inside me, and eventually it was this experience that led us to create the program that is now WOW.

GSI: What is the best tip you have for anyone learning to surf?
JP: The best surfer is the one with the biggest smile. Don’t be so hard on yourself.Take it slow, and never compare yourself to people around you. Run your own race, and take your time - great surfing doesn’t happen overnight, it’s all about repetition and persistence. I used to compete in surfing, and the moment I gave myself permission to have fun out there, my relationship with surfing changed for the better.

Image supplied by Joel Pilgrim

GSI: What is your favourite surf spot?
JP: I’ve had the best waves of my life out at Cloudbreak, Fiji, so that wave holds a special place in my heart and would definitely be one of my favourite surf spots. That or Swimming Pools, Fiji on a big day.

GSI: Can you tell us about the GSI Softboards you use in the WOW programs?JP: We use the GSI Gnaraloo Schoolie boards at WOW, which are perfect for teaching learning to surf. These boards are wider and thicker than a normal beginner board, making them really stable for complete beginners. The carry handle in the deck of the board makes them perfect for transporting too, especially for younger kids or smaller adults. The deal breaker for us, is they are strong and durable, which makes them perfect for our programs as we require bulletproof boards.

Image supplied by Joel Pilgrim

GSI: Our company mantra is ‘Life is Better When Your Surf®” how does that statement resonate with you?
JP: I have loved this statement ever since I first read it years ago. It’s 1,000% true.My life is certainly better when I surf. I usually try to go for a surf everyday at dawn. If I can’t make this happen on the days I’m super stressed or have a lot on my plate, I really feel it. Even my partner Vanessa can see it, she will tell me“just go surfing!”. Thanks for all your support of WOW, we’re stoked to have your backing, and keep on inspiring people through surfing.

There are a number of ways you can get involved with WOW, donating, fundraising, becoming a surf mentor or volunteering. If you would like to know more visit their web site.

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