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Real Life

Olympic Surfer Billy Stairmand and the love that inspires him

As he makes a splash in Tokyo, the Waikato athlete shares the romance and family tragedy that drive him

By India Hendrikse
When Woman's Day arrives at Olympic surfer Billy Stairmand's cosy home overlooking Raglan Harbour on a bitterly cold Waikato morning, there's a very soggy wetsuit hanging by the front door.
We're thankful for the heat pump that's blasting as we're introduced to his wife Liana Parker, plus their rescue dog Obie and Sphynx cat Winnie.
It's difficult to imagine anyone braving the icy Tasman Sea on a day like this.
Billy's been catching waves since he was eight.
But the eight-time national champion, 31, has already had his usual surf out at the famed left-hand break of Manu Bay, in preparation for representing New Zealand at the Olympic Games' first-ever surfing competition, which started earlier this week.
The honour hasn't gone to Billy's head, though. "Usually I'm pretty quiet, humble and shy, but when I compete, I'm totally different – I just want to prove a point and express myself," he tells us. Nodding, Liana agrees, "He's totally different out on the water."
Sitting at a table topped with crystals and sage – testament to Raglan's alternative vibe – Billy reflects on the career highlight of beating 10-time world champion Kelly Slater at a surfing event in 2011. "I was this up-and-coming rookie and I had nothing to lose, so I had the mentality of going out and having fun," he remembers.
Competitions keep the smitten couple apart often and Liana admits, "A lot of people couldn't do this."
Billy first got on a surfboard at the age of eight. "My dad started taking me down to the beach here and pushed me onto a few waves, then I learnt how to stand up by myself and catch my own waves."
His surfer father has been a huge support in his career, but it was his late mum who was his biggest cheerleader.
"It was a tough time for a little while," Billy says softly. "She had breast cancer and it was really hard, when I was travelling, not being able to see her." His mother passed away four years ago and grief impacted Billy's surfing career immensely.
He tells, "It was really hard emotionally as I had a really close relationship with Mum. That same year, I lost my major surfing sponsor as well, so I was at rock bottom and pretty much had to start from scratch. Luckily, I had my Liana here."
Billy can be found on his board in Raglan's Manu Bay when he's back in NZ.
So Billy got a "proper job", planting trees in Raglan, a turning point that made him realise he wanted to put his everything into his sport.
"I found the love of surfing and competing again, and because I didn't have a sponsor and had to work harder, I got a lot more motivation. With Mum passing away, it gave me a little bit of drive to prove to myself, to her and to anyone else watching that I could achieve some cool things.
"Then surfing came to the Games and I wanted to be an Olympian, so I made enough money to go to Australia to compete, which was where I got on a roll again. My competitions and results just started getting better."
Liana adds, "It was an uncertain time for Bill. His mum passed in December, then he went and won the nationals in January. He did it for his mum and she was his driving force. That lit the fire under his bum again. Having to work to make money to surf made it mean even more."
When he lost his beloved mum, Billy says, "I was at rock bottom."
The account manager has been a rock for Billy ever since they met at a bar in her native Cornwall nine years ago. While she was initially put off that he and a group of surfer dudes had crashed her girls' night out, it soon became clear their chance meeting would change both their lives, with Liana eventually moving from England to Aotearoa to be with him.
Their connection is a strong one, however, Billy's constant travel means it's often a long- distance romance. "I wouldn't recommend it to a lot of people as it's quite hardcore," shares Liana. "There's sacrifices that need to be made by both of us. It's about support and communication. A lot of people couldn't do this."
But she refuses to dwell on the negatives. Liana laughs, "Everyone's been asking me, 'What's it like to be the Olympian's wife?' I say, 'Well, it doesn't get him out of doing dishes, I'll tell you that!'"
While Billy has been told he probably only has another five years left in competitive surfing, the athlete isn't fazed. "Whatever happens happens," he shrugs. "I can't control that. What I can control is surfing to my best ability."
And our windsurfing golden girl Barbera Kendall has offered her encouragement. Billy smiles, "She said to me, 'No matter what happens now, you're an Olympian, so just enjoy the whole thing.'
"Obviously, I want to go over and get a medal at the Games – that's the main goal – but I also want to enjoy the whole process."

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