Surfing Champion – Marguerite de Savoye Vujcich. Sponsored by QCL

Healed by the sea
By Darise Bennington

What would you do if one day you woke up to find that your body had betrayed you? That your ability to work through the night, preparing for trial, night after night had disappeared forever? That your ability to remember facts, think on your feet, argue successfully in front of a packed courtroom was possibly gone for good? How would you cope? How would you get your passion for life back?


For Marguerite de Savoye Vujcich, the remedy to a crippling diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome was to grab her 30-year-old surfboard and to head for the sea.

Having spent most of her professional life energised by the vibrancy of life in court “Everyone’s rushing to court, you never just amble along” Marguerite was devastated when she discovered her life as an advocate begun when she was admitted to the South African bar in the 1980s  was over.

It was six years ago, at the age of 46, that her illness first manifested itself: a very bad pain in her left leg for which no reason could be found by her doctors, followed by fevers she would ignore in order to attend court. Until, one day, her reliance on mind over matter failed her, when her body effectively shut down as she left an Auckland courtroom. I was on the motorway and I thought I’m not going to make it”She did make it, but only to her home, where she collapsed. “I had chronic pneumonia, liver dysfunction, my blood was all wrong,” she says.”I lost my memory. I arranged my funeral. I was that ill.”

For two months, Marguerite lay on her back, unable to move, her husband carrying her to her doctors, as she had refused to leave her three young sons. When finally some of her energy returned, she realised she could no longer practice law, and that she might never be able to do so again. For some, this may not seem that much of a tragedy, but for Marguerite it was. Even now, six years later, her gown hangs in her wardrobe; and some days, when her husband is at work and her children are at school, she admits she does cry at the loss of her former life, at the feeling of being plucked off the wheel of life .

But when she has a day like that, she does what she did six years ago when she was first diagnosed  she puts on her bikini, gets in her ‘surf mobile’, and heads for the beach. “And as soon as I’m in that ocean, it heals me,” she says.

She may not be practising law any more, but she is surfing. And she’s very successful at it. At the age of 51, she became the Hawke’s Bay Open Women’s Champion in 2011. Next year, in January, she plans to become the Open Women’s Champion at the New Zealand National Surfing Championships. Despite the challenges of her illness she can only manage 20 minutes in the surf at a time, and on some days, she is still too sick to get out of bed. Marguerite says she has never been so driven before. And even if she’s having one of her terrible days, she knows that the next day will be different, that it will be a new day, and one that will probably see her sitting on her board at City Reef in the Hawke’s Bay.

When I ask Marguerite about her competition, she laughs energetically as she explains that nearly all of the women she is competing against are under 21. And rather than being seen as an oddity on the ocean, she is adored by the young female surfies’ who see her as a role model: a woman with children and a busy life who still spends as much time as she can on her board.

Her story is certainly inspiring. If you know anything about the surf culture of New Zealand (and elsewhere), surfies are not always tolerant of women on their waves. When she first taught herself to surf in South Africa at the age of 16, Marguerite says she was basically ignored by her fellow surfies. But she was determined to be as good as them. “I never gave up, and I just carried on, and then eventually, when they saw that I wasn’t just going to lie on the beach, they did accept me Even recently, she has experienced the lack of tolerance of male surfies at her home beach in Napier  of course, those were not locals, but rather foreign surfies attracted to the beach by news of four metre waves.

But the guys with Surfing New Zealand have been nothing but encouraging, she says, and her local surf crowd (male and female) are also supportive. All see her as an inspiration. A woman who has overcome illness one she has had to learn to live with to become a champion. That determination to succeed is what she’s taking with her to Piha.

And so, if you, like Marguerite did, work like a crazy person  enjoying your work so much that those night-time work sessions don’t even seem like work “ remember to take care of yourself. As Marguerite suggests, “Take a half hour a day, or if you can stretch it to an hour, doing your very own thing, whatever it is”

And if you have ever had a penchant to sit on a board, the water lapping at your feet, your eyes on the horizon looking for the swell that promises a wave that will give you an adrenalin rush like no other, it’s never too late to embrace the wild surfie child within.

Or you could just join me in January, at Piha, watching Marguerite catch a wave that will see her named champion, and wearing a bikini sponsored by the irrepressible Marcus Beveridge!

NZLawyer magazine, issue 174, 2 December 2011

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