From barely able to swim to Pro Surfer

Indiphile Osinachi, or Indie, as her friends call her, has followed an unlikely path to become a South African surfing phenom at just 15.

When Indiphile Osinachi, known by friends as Indie, started surfing at age 11, she barely knew how to swim. Four years later, she’s been chosen to represent South Africa at the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Junior Championships in El Salvador at the end of this month. Indie doesn’t come from a family of surfing enthusiasts. In fact, she’s the only person in her family who owns a surfboard. So it’s incredible that in four short years she has gone from being unable to swim to representing her country at a global surfing event.

Indie’s surfing journey began in 2018, in her hometown of Durban — a coastal city in eastern South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, best known for its subtropical climate, warm water, and Golden Mile of sandy beaches that lead to some high-performance surf breaks. It’s the perfect place to raise world-class pro surfers like Jordy SmithShaun Tomson — and Indiphile Osinachi.

A classmate first introduced Indie to the Surf Club, a drop-in center at the New Pier on the Durban beachfront, which provides surf training, mentorship and daily care for vulnerable children in the area. Participants are coached by Sandile Mqadi, a legendary South African surf coach and WSL judge, and the club is operated by Surfers Not Street Children, a charity that has been advocating for the protection of street children and empowering young people at risk of street-connectedness for over 25 years. Their initiative provides a unique opportunity for children from lower socio-economic backgrounds to learn to surf, by removing the financial barrier to entry. Through receiving financial and surf equipment donations, the club can offer its services for free, so children like Indie can build their water confidence, learn how to surf, develop a new skill, and receive access to opportunities like surf competitions which allows her to travel and make new friends along the lineup.

“One of my classmates started surfing a month or two before me. She asked me to join one day after school,” remembers Indie. “I was kind of scared because I wasn’t a very strong swimmer, but we went down to the club, met with our coach, Sandile, got suited up and went into a more shallow area where the waves were breaking for a lesson.”

“On my very first wave, I managed to stand up! Sandile pushed me forward as a wave came, and shouted ‘stand up.’ So I did, but then I fell into the water and I felt scared because I didn’t know what to do.”

For a few brief seconds, Indie had fallen from her board, plunged into the force of a wave, and found herself immersed underwater. In moments like these, seconds can feel like an eternity as your body is carried underwater by the sheer force of a wave. It’s a terrifying experience on your first-ever fall, but one that a surfer must learn to endure for the love of wave-riding. But just as soon as she had fallen, the wave subsided, and Indie returned from the depths of the water.

“As I came back to the surface, I managed to grab my board and paddle back out,” says Indie. “After that one wave, I just fell in love with it.”

Her first experiences on a surfboard sparked a passion for wave riding which led her to regularly attend swimming and surfing lessons with the club. The charity emphasizes the importance of water safety in their coaching, and training helped to strengthen her ability as both a swimmer and surfer. After quickly developing her wave-riding skills, she joined the charity’s Girls Surf Too program.

“As I kept going back to the club, and becoming friends with Sandile and the crew of female surfers, I knew this was where I was meant to be. After I finish school, I’m always in the water,” says Indie.

Indie has dedicated herself to mastering her surfing skills, entering local competitions as quickly as four months into her training. From the very beginning, it was clear to see that Indie had a natural talent for surfing.

“I remember my first-ever competition was four months after I started surfing. I was so scared,” says Indie with a smile. “There’s so much more pressure in a competitive environment. But I didn’t let the fear beat me, and I came third.”

Indie now has a regular after-school routine, which includes visiting the Surf Club and jumping in the ocean to surf, savoring every last moment of the Durban sunshine. One of Indie’s favorite local surf breaks is New Pier, a place that fellow Durbanite, Jordy Smith attributes to have helped shape him into a pro surfer. This break offers some of the region’s best year-round surf, ranging from shorter rip bowls to overhead barrels in the winter.

“I love to surf at New Pier because the waves run a bit longer and it’s quite fun surfing there because you meet a lot of new people. Surfers come from all over the world to surf there,” says Indie. “My favorite wave at New Pier was when there was a big swell and the waves began to barrel, and I didn’t know what to do. Everyone was telling me, “go, go go!” So I did go and managed to enter the barrel. I was so shocked when I made it out.”

It’s this sense of wonder and excitement that makes speaking with Indie so refreshing. At fourteen, she has accomplished so much in such a short time, and it’s clear that she’s enjoying every last moment of the journey. The programs run by Surfers Not Street Children have helped to cultivate a community of young surfers in Durban, instilling a sense of hope for the future for the young people that they work with. As members of the Girls Surf Too program have progressed, they have developed the first crew of black female surfers in the region, which added a new and welcome dynamic to Durban’s New Pier. A monumental achievement within a country that is still healing from its contentious past.

Indie is ready to take her surfing journey worldwide

Indie has entered some high-profile competitions including the Ballito Pro this past December, which earned her enough points to qualify for an invitation to represent South Africa at the ISA World Junior Championships in El Salvador towards the end of May 2022. Indie is one of a team of three competitors in the Under 18 Girls category who will compete against other young athletes from all over the world. But because there wasn’t any funding to help the athletes attend the event in South America, Indie needed to raise the funds required to enter the competition.

As soon as he learned that Indie had been chosen to compete in the event, Tom Hewitt, the charity’s founder, set up a GoFundMe page. He detailed that Indie needed to raise the Surfing South Africa required fee of $4,500 to cover her overall trip costs, as well as $500 to equip her with everything that she needed to attend the event. Any money raised above that amount, he promised to use to fund back into the Girls Surf Too program to empower more young girls in the Durban area.

Kelly Slater quickly spotted the post, dug out the photo he had taken with Indie on a previous surfing trip to Durban, and shared it alongside the GoFundMe link on an Instagram story for his three million followers to see. The donations quickly rolled in, and within 24 hours, Indie’s place at the ISA World Junior Championships had been fully funded.

“I’m lucky that through surfing with Girls Surf Too, I’ve been able to meet my favorite surfers. Tom Hewitt took us girls to meet some really cool people, like Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore and my favorite surfer, Italo Ferreira.”

“I met Kelly back in 2019. So when he posted the picture on his story, I was like, how does Kelly still have that picture?” Indie beams. “Then I just went crazy in my house. My mum asked me what happened, and I said, the 11-time champion, Kelly Slater, the GOAT, just posted a picture of me! Then my mum went crazy too, she took a screenshot and showed it to the whole family.”

Even though her family doesn’t surf, it’s clear that they fully support Indie’s surfing ambitions.

“My mum is scared of me drowning, so she just watched videos and pictures after I’ve finished,” admits Indie. “But my dad watches almost every single competition. He comes down to support me and takes videos of every turn I make so I can check back and see how I can improve. Then when I speak to my trainer, he helps me work on what I need to fix, and then we go through everything properly.”

“Surfing means the world to me,” says Indie. “It’s like a home. Anytime I feel down — or really happy — I have to surf. Before I express anything, like writing papers for school, surfing helps clear my mind. It’s what has helped me meet a lot of people, make new friends and travel to new places around the world. It’s just crazy.”

Right now, Indie is focusing on training for her first-ever international surfing event. At just 14, she has excelled as a young athlete and hopes to continue her momentum towards a career in surfing.

“In the surf, I’m able to catch a lot of speed on my forehand. I’m pretty proud of that,” says Indie. “I’ve been working really hard because I want to do well at Worlds. But my goal is to win a world title. I want to win titles, travel the world and meet new people.”

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