Two years ago, Zoe Steyn was forced to face one her deepest fears while surfing at her home break in East London, as the teenager stared straight into the eyes of a Great White shark.
At the age of 13, for most people, a close call with a shark may have been enough to rip their passion for surfing into irreparable pieces.
For Steyn, however, the only rip was found in her board, and an incident which would shake nearly anyone else to their core did nothing to rattle her love for the sport.
“It came up from underneath and bit the rail of my surfboard,” Steyn, now 15, recalled this week.
Despite being reminded of the extreme dangers she faced in the water, Steyn refused to allow one scary fish to chase her from the surf.
“I guess sometimes it crosses my mind, but I try not to think about it, and I don’t think it will ever stop me from paddling out.”
Soon after her meeting with the shark, Steyn returned to Nahoon Beach, and last year she went on to triumph at the same venue by winning the SA Open Championships against senior opposition.
And while she had already proved her potential as the national junior champion, it was that victory in particular which elevated her fledgling career to new heights, placing her in a position to compete for a spot at next year’s Tokyo Olympics where surfing was set to be one of four new sports introduced to the Games.
Looking back, when she first began riding waves at the age of 10, Steyn entertained no real ambitions of becoming a competitive surfer. She merely enjoyed the activity.
“It’s always hard at first but once I got the hang of it I just couldn’t stop surfing,” she said.
Due to her natural ability and commitment, however, elite competition seemed an inevitable path for Steyn to follow, and after climbing to third place in the SA rankings, she has since developed global ambitions.
Completing her secondary education through home schooling has opened doors and given her more of a chance to focus on surfing, and the results of her dedication have become clearly evident.
Next week she will compete at Nahoon Beach once again, entering the Mercedes-Benz Buffalo City SA Surfing Championships as one of the title favourites in an ongoing attempt to turn the temporary feeding place of sharks into a permanent hunting ground of her own.
She will then switch her focus to the international stage, forming part of a four-member South African team who are chasing Olympic qualifying places at the World Surfing Games contest in Miyazaki, Japan next month.
Steyn will be joined in the women’s squad by Bianca Buitendach and Sarah Baum, while the men’s team features experienced campaigners Jordy Smith, Mike February and Beyrick de Vries.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, now that surfing is an Olympic sport, and I’m really looking forward to it,” Steyn said.
“We have such a strong team and it’s a really cool opportunity.
“I feel like I have to step up my game now and it’s definitely something that motivates me.”
With time on her side, the teenager admits her age provides her with a safety net, and if she misses out on qualifying for the Games, she will have another chance to do so in a few years.
But while she has other long-term goals as a surfer, with a professional career on the cards, Steyn hopes she will not have to wait until 2024 to fulfil her new Olympic dream.
“It’s not going to be easy because the competition is so tough, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
“If it doesn’t happen in 2020 then I’ve got more opportunities, but hopefully it does happen. That would be really cool.”