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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

An Olympic champion goes in search of a new identity

Carissa Moore, former Pipe Master champion and Olympian, greets fans on the beach during a competition on the North Shore of Oahu, on Dec. 17, 2022. In 2018 she started Moore Aloha, a charity geared toward girls and women, building self-awareness and community. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times)

By John Branch

There is a shelf at Carissa Moore’s home in Honolulu where she keeps her journals. She has carried blank pages around the globe since she was a little girl, scribbling her thoughts and worries and goals as she became one of the best surfers in the world.

She still does it.

This year, knowing that she was going to retire from competition, she wrote a new goal: Face your fears.

Moore is 31. She is a five-time world champion and current defender of an Olympic gold medal. Now she wants to start a family with her husband, Luke Untermann. She wants to extract herself from the loose structure and warm cocoon of her sport’s global tour, to redefine success on her own terms and in her own mind.

She wants to be challenged in a different way, even though the easiest thing might be to stick around.

“All those wins, the competitive part that’s so much of my identity, I’m taking that away, and I’m facing myself this year,” she said. “And that’s scary. Like, who am I? Am I going to be OK? Will I be able to love myself and think that I’m worthy without this?”

Moore reflects a newer generation of athlete that openly discusses mental health and self-care. The superhero mystique placed upon the best athletes is a veneer, we all know.

She sees vulnerability and relatability as more honest traits to model. Maybe those are her superpowers.

There is no single path for those who have been defined so singularly, who become the best at something, famously, and then walk away from it in their prime. When most top athletes retire, the discussion is in the past tense, an assessment of accomplishments and legacies.

For Moore, this is about what she wants, not what she did. It is about the eternal, universal search for something more — more challenges, more unknowns, more meaning.

“I’m excited to see what else there is, outside the jersey,” Moore said.

Few have explained it so thoughtfully, so rawly, on their way out. Surfing as a metaphor for life is obvious and apt. Nothing is static. Position yourself for the best wave, but know that there will always be another. Be patient. Be decisive. Be bold.

“My favorite rides, the greatest thrills have come when I’ve paddled over the ledge even though my heart or my head is telling me not to, you know?” she said. “The anxiety comes from ‘am I going to show up?’ I just want to be proud of myself. I want, at the end of the day, to be like, ‘OK, I did my best. And I rose to the occasion.’ You know?”

Has that been an issue?

“My whole life — my whole life,” she said. “It’s something I have to work at every day, looking in the mirror and being, like, ‘You’re good enough, Riss. I’m so proud of you. And you can do this. You can do the things that you dream of.’ I think it’s the beauty and the beast of me, because it guides me to keep pushing and going for more, but at the same point, I struggle with just internal peace sometimes.”

She caught herself. “Not sometimes. All the time.”

She plans to compete in two major events this year on two of the world’s fiercest waves. The first is the World Surf League’s season-opening event at Banzai Pipeline, on Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii, starting Jan. 29. Moore is the reigning champion, and she will surf in front of close friends and family.

The other is the Paris Olympics, where surfing will be held in Tahiti, at Teahupo’o, in July.

In both places, women have competed only sparingly, largely because the waves were considered too challenging. The two waves scare Moore. That is the point.

“When I’m in these positions, at these waves, am I going to go?” she said. “When I’m at the peak, and it’s my turn, and I have to face that fear, am I going to run away from it or am I going to embrace it? Am I going to trust myself? Am I going to trust my ability? Am I going to lean into it? Am I going to go?”

Sometimes it can be hard to know if she is talking about waves or life. Or both.

A child star

Moore was in a car, driving toward the big waves on Oahu’s North Shore, as she explained her decision. She has known it for a year, but has kept it from all but her closest confidants until now.

“I don’t like the word retirement,” she said. “I like to say a departure from the tour, or just stepping back, or switching gears, or, like, evolving.”

She stopped there. “Evolving.” That feels right. “Retirement” evokes leaving something; “evolving” means growing.

She was a child star in surfing, famous in Hawaii since she was little. Her parents, Chris and Carol, divorced when Carissa was in grade school. Her father guided her surfing career. She dominated youth competitions. At 16, she was on the cover of Surfer magazine. At 18, she was a world champion.

She was also struggling with body-image issues and an eating disorder — and talking about them, with a nudge from her father.

“He encouraged me to own my story,” she said. “He encouraged me to say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling. You see this but there’s so much else going on.’ And I’m a work in progress. We’re all a work in progress.”

Since joining the championship tour in 2010, Moore has finished the season outside the top three only once. She has won five world titles, the last in 2021, when she also won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I felt really, really content, really satisfied with everything I achieved, and I was starting to ask the questions: What more do I want? What more do I need here?” she said. “I’ve kind of exceeded my expectations. When I was a little girl, I really only dreamed of that first world title. I didn’t dream about five or being in the Olympics, you know? So it’s actually been a bit harder for me to find the motivation to keep going the last couple of years.”

Still, she led the tour championship standings in both 2022 and 2023 until the last day, losing head-to-head championship matches. It was a new format that the league introduced to build excitement. It likely kept Moore from being a seven-time champion and winning four in a row on her way out.

“I would have loved to have won a world title and then dropped the mic and walked away,” she said. “I would have loved the fairy tale ending.”

Moore arrived at Pipeline. The waves were pumping, and she excused herself.

“I’m human — I don’t have everything figured out,” she said. “I’m flowing and feeling and learning as I go. I’m following my heart. And the unknown is freaking scary. But I’m also excited. There is no such thing as the end until you’re in the ground.”

And then she was gone, into the ocean.

‘It was hard to give myself that praise’

It can be a cliché, a public-relations volley, an accomplished athlete starting a foundation. But it can also signal an internal reversal, a private acknowledgment that championship success can come with diminishing returns. Most famous athletes do not like to admit it.

Moore started Moore Aloha in 2018 when she was in the mental and motivational doldrums, coming off her worst season and searching for meaning. Six years later, Moore Aloha may be a post-career landing pad.

The charity is geared toward girls and women, building self-awareness and community. The goals are loose. The mission is not to save whales or cure cancer. It is about “wellness, mindfulness and friendship” through events and workshops.

Each month, Moore Aloha solicits essays through a prompt. The current one: “Think about the most prominent challenge ahead of you in 2024 and how you plan to embrace it.” The best essay will be rewarded with $200.

The prompts sometimes serve as two-way therapy.

“One of the essays was for them to write a letter of love to themselves,” Moore said. “And I was really struggling. I was in Australia. I was looking at myself in the mirror every day, just picking myself apart and just — just sad at myself.”

She wrote an essay. She put herself in the position of the girls she was trying to motivate.

“It was really, really difficult,” Moore said. “It was really difficult to be, like, hey, you have great arms — they’re great for hugging people. And you have a smile that brightens your room. It was hard. It was hard to give myself that praise. I don’t know why I struggle with it. But I think I’m trying to find those things that are just real and truthful, the things that people can’t take away.”

Stepping away from the structure of an international surfing tour probably means receiving less direct adoration or affirmation. The sports world is filled with famous champions who struggled to find purpose or capture what they left behind in their youth.

Moore and Untermann were walking their two dogs recently in Honolulu, when Untermann wondered aloud about Moore returning to competition after having children. Moore is open to the idea, not knowing how she will feel in the years ahead.

She named Serena Williams, Ashleigh Barty and Allyson Felix, who all stepped away at the top of their sports to start families, as inspirations. A closer connection might be to Kimi Werner, a free diver who grew up on Maui. She is also a champion spearfisher, a chef, an environmentalist and public speaker.

“One of her overarching themes is being authentic, and following your authentic journey,” Moore said. “It often turns out better than you could have ever imagined and brings you more opportunities and success than you would have had if you kept staying in one space.”

In October, after her disappointing second-place finish and the missed opportunity to “drop the mic,” Moore kept her plans secret from all but those closest to her. She held an event for Moore Aloha in Hawaii, talking to girls about goals and fears and being vulnerable. Moore wants to give permission for all of that, in a world where it is not always encouraged.

“I had three or four girls come up and cry to me, in tears, saying ‘I really needed this day. I had no idea you were going through the same things that I’m going through,’” Moore said.

She added: “If that’s what comes of this, to help someone else know that they’re not alone — oh my, gosh, that’s the biggest success. That helps them know that they can keep going, that they can face their fears or they can overcome and create a life that they envision for themselves. That’s the dream, really.”

Soon, Moore was back on her surfboard, at Pipeline, wondering what the next wave would bring and whether she had the courage to catch it.

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