It was a post that seemed out of place among back-to-back photos of sandy beaches, pastel-coloured surfboards, blue seas and wild jungles.
“While there are many good days I feel like I’m constantly in a battle with my mind and my body and sometimes I want to give up. In the ideal world I wanted to share my story once I was ‘better’ (but) the truth is I know the journey is going to be long and if I could help someone not feel alone right now why wouldn’t l,” Hennessy posted on her Instagram in April, before revealing that she has lived with body image issues, dysmorphia and an eating disorder for many years.
“Being a woman and an athlete I struggle with this deeply every day,” she continued. “But while I’m the biggest my body has ever been, I see my body now (and) I have a deeper awareness and appreciation of my body that I thought I would never know.”
Already qualified for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and with a wildcard for the next season on the World Championship Tour, Hennessy has taken time off since her last competition in April to refocus and recover.
Olympics.com sat down with the surfer for a candid conversation about mental health, her newfound sense of purpose and the life lessons she learned from growing up in Costa Rica’s jungle.
Brisa Hennessy: Below the surface
While Hennessy’s life looks perfect on the outside, with her post she wanted to send a message that things are not always what they seem.
One of the most successful surfers on the international circuit, Hennessy wrote that she has suffered from poor body image since she was 16 and had an eating disorder for almost three years. In 2022 she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, depression and Epstein-Barr virus, and in 2023, pituitary gland adenoma.
She has also experienced brain fog, low energy and gained more than 20 pounds in six months.
While vulnerability has become Hennessy’s motto in recent weeks, opening up about her imperfections was terrifying at first.
“It was hard to put that out there and to be vulnerable. To be honest, I was scared,” Hennessy told Olympics.com. “I had that post kind of lingering in my mind for probably a year because I’ve been struggling with this for over a year.
“I felt like I was in a fight with my body and my mind and questioning, why? Why is this happening to me? What’s wrong with me? And (not until) the moment that I put that out there did I truly realise the extent of (how) many people are going through things, the silent battles that we know nothing about.”
What made Hennessy decide to share her story was remembering Tokyo 2020 where she felt for the first time that she could make a difference leading by example, whether it was to encourage a young girl to take up surfing – or help her feel that she is not alone in her mental health battle.
With that in mind, Hennessy pressed “publish”.
“I never cry. I’d normally just hold it in. I’m a very emotional person, but for some reason, I never cry. And that day I cried the whole day,” she recalled.
“I can’t even tell you the weight that was lifted off my shoulders and how I knew that hopefully I was helping others. That I could (do it) actually. I was walking around and I was like, I’m not trying to be anyone. I’m just trying to be Brisa and I’m not trying to live up to these expectations that I put on myself.”
In the hours after Hennessy published the post, as she continued crying, countless messages of support poured in from her followers, family and fellow pro surfers.
And when she saw the power that her words had, Hennessy made up her mind to continue talking.
“I feel like I have a bigger purpose,” the athlete said. “Now I see my light and my light is that I need to share my story more. And I want to help young girls and I want them to know that they’re fearless and they’re strong and they can be vulnerable and they can be anyone who they want to be. It’s a constant journey. And I want them to know that it’s hard, but they’re going to make it through and they’re going to come out a bigger and more beautiful, a better person than they could have ever imagined.”
Brisa Hennessy: Born onto a surfboard
Hennessy’s fear of posting a candid message on social media is in stark contrast to the fearlessness she shows while surfing the harshest ocean waves.
Born and raised in the jungle of Costa Rica, Hennessy grew up with a deep appreciation of nature. Her father was a fisherman and her mother a chef, often cooking the fish that her husband caught.
Even Hennessy’s nicknames – Bear and Monkey – had a wild side.
“We had V8 radios. That’s how the community got in contact. There were no cell phones whatsoever. We didn’t have electricity. We had a generator. Our house was completely open. And it was living to the simplest at its fullest,” Hennessy said. “I really thank my lucky stars every day that I was able to experience that because I feel like every kid, every human being, needs to disconnect in this world and re-immerse themselves in nature.”
Growing up in the wild also gave Hennessy easy access to open waves. Her parents ran a surf school and dreamed of surfing together as a family.
“The ocean was everything to them,” Hennessy said. “We do actually come from water, and I feel like we all are called back to the sea in some form. Water is part of our being. And at least for me, I think I was definitely born onto a surfboard. Can’t confirm it with my parents yet, but that has been my life.”
Given Hennessy’s appreciation for nature, it is no surprise that surfing is the sport she chose to pursue. To this day, she still marvels at the elemental nature of it, and never more so than when she is riding in a barrel.
“It’s the closest that you’ll ever get to a higher power. You literally feel like God in the barrel or anything you believe in. It’s like this time stops. The time is so fast and you’re so present,” she said. “I hope everybody gets to experience that because it changes your life.”
Brisa Hennessy: From ‘monkey jungle girl’ to competitive surfer
When Hennessy was nine, the family moved to Hawaii and she discovered a new, competitive side of surfing.
Walking through the trophy room of her surfer uncle, Gregg Nakamura, the future Olympian got inspired to compete too, but questioned at first whether she had the character for it.
“It was definitely a big change for me,” Hennessy said. “I came from a school that had four kids in my class, let alone 20 in the whole school. I lived completely off the grid. There were probably two other kids in that area that surfed. I was such a monkey jungle girl, so, so different than anyone else. And I definitely felt that when I moved to Hawaii.
“The competitive aspect, you’re kind of going into the spotlight. I don’t know if I was prepared to do that, but I think it was my survival instinct of like, there’s jaguars and there’s monkeys and snakes in the jungle. It was survival. That’s how I got my competitive drive.”
Once Hennessy found that drive, however, she was unstoppable.
She won the Girls U-18 title at the 2016 ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, qualified for the World Championship Tour, becoming the first Costa Rican to do so, and has had a Top 10 finish every season since.
The 2022 season was her best so far. Hennessy recorded her first victory, at Sunset Beach, reached world No.1, and ultimately finished among the Top 5.
Brisa Hennessy: Imagine all the people
In addition to her success on the World Championship Tour, Hennessy said one of her career highlights was representing Costa Rica at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Returning to the world after waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic on a remote island in Fiji, the surfer was overwhelmed at seeing the world come together again.
It was an occassion when she felt she could have an effect on people as an athlete.
“It was such a pivotal moment for the world just coming out of Covid. The world needed it and I could feel that,” Hennessy said of the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony. “It still gives me goosebumps, just watching everything and hearing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’.
“That was the biggest takeaway, that you can have that effect on people through sport. And also you can really come together as a country. It was amazing to feel the support of Costa Rica, and I left that place really finding my life and finding my purpose and knowing that I get to surf for something bigger than myself.”
Brisa Hennessy: Back to the wild
After finishing fifth at Tokyo 2020, Hennessy’s next Olympic destination is Teahupo’o, Tahiti.
She already qualified for the 2024 Olympic Games through her performances on the World Championship Tour and is looking forward to surfing at the next Olympic venue with almost breathless wonder.
“Just this the sound of Teahupo’o and Tahiti, I feel all the emotions already,” Hennessy said. “It’s such a wild wave. It’s one of the most dangerous waves in the world. One of the most beautiful waves in the world. One of the most perfect waves in the world. And it’s in the place that reminded me a lot of Costa Rica in some ways, how the people were so connected to each other and (where) Mother Nature is absolutely thriving.”
And with the eyes of everyone in Costa Rica upon her, as Hennessy is now one of the most high-profile athletes in the country, she is hoping to make them proud once again.
Anatomy of a Surfer: How Does Brisa Hennessy Generate Power?
Brisa Hennessy: Healing journey
But for now, while there is still more than a year until she gets on the plane to Tahiti, Hennessy is focused on healing and her mental health journey.
She is tapping into her inner peace through various hobbies, which include cooking, writing poetry, painting and the latest, unexpected addition – pickleball.
And of course, there is also the daily therapy that Hennessy gets from being in the ocean.
“The ocean, it brings you so much peace, and all that matters is the present moment because you can’t control anything. It’s just whatever is, is,” Hennessy said. “And then you get on land, and that’s when your human side comes out and you’re trying to control everything. And you try to make schedules and lists and it’s like, Oh, gosh.
“It’s pretty wild that I’m in that situation right now where I’m trying to be a fish out of water and I’m trying to schedule everything and accomplish things. But then I’m like, what about the in-between moments? When do we ever take those times to sit in silence and be OK with not filling this quiet time. I think that’s been my biggest goal.”