THE HUNGER GAMES
THESE KIDS WILL SLAY YOU EVERY TIME THEY HIT THE WATER
The path to being a professional surfer is increasingly glittered with gold, or at least Mentawai boat trips. Kids are getting sponsored younger, travelling more and living a career, all before high school. Will it lead Australia back to world sur ng domination or a generation of talent burnout? We talk to the kids, and their parents, to see just what is happening with the very future of Australian sur ng.
"I wasn't going to let him to go on his own. I hadn't been to the Ments, and there was absolutely no way I was going to have my 13-year-old son tell me all about the waves he scored." Jeremy Walters is talking about a recent trip to the Mentawais that he shared with his son Dakota. Walt is a former professional surfer from Angourie and Dakota, the eldest of his four kids, is showing real signs of promise as a surfer.
In the modern era, Dakota is a relatively late developer. The road to being a professional surfer is starting earlier and getting longer. Kids as young as six are being identi ed as potential stars either by coaches, parents or sponsors. With that early identi cation comes pressure. There's competitions, a new type of "soccer dad" parental push, training, technical drills and time off school. All this years before the kids are anywhere near growing short and curlies.
"A lot of kids are living a career at 11 or 12 years age," says Lee Winkler. "They are doing their technical training, their physical training, and are driven at such a young age. I don't think we are going to see if that's the right or wrong approach for another 10 years." Wink is a good position to comment. Apart from having a long and successful career as pro surfer, he has a young sponsored son called Hunter and runs the Billabong Oz Grom Cup, one of the nation's biggest junior surf comps.
"My dad didn't let me have a surfboard 'till I was in high school. I did ball sports and was super competitive in soccer and league, then found skating and that led to sur ng," says Wink. "When I started sur ng I was a keen 14-year-old, and some of the guys that were beating me were already over it. Look Kelly Slater, Mick and Joel are very driven, but they were never training or going to competitions at such a young age as the kids are now."
These days Wink is concerned that by starting so early, no one can be really sure of the effects. Will it produce a string of Australian sur ng champions, capable of unbuckling the Brazilian production line, or will it lead to burn out and disillusionment, kids so sick of sur ng and competition that they fall out of love with the sport?
"It's a long road all right, I mean look at Kelly Slater, he's 43 and still going," says former professional surfer turned TV cameraman Steve Clements. Clements' son Kobi caught his rst wave at Waikiki aged just 12 months old. By aged three he had caught the sur ng bug and now at 10, recent footage showed him pulling into a legitimate six foot drainer at HT's. In a lot of the footage Kobi looks like one of those remote Tommy Carroll dolls, a miniature man carving three-foot point waves. He makes runners at The Pass look like grown men sur ng Honolua Bay in full ight. Kobi's has been sponsored by Volcom for a while and the lure of the competition circuit awaits. However Clemo is reticent to get Kobi involved too early. "It's such a long road and because I've done so many comps myself, I know there is no rush. As Kobi has done well there is pressure, kids are out for his head, but these kids are so little they don't need that. I've seen kids sitting on other kids for the whole heat. It's not fair, and they are 10 or 12, and that's kinda nuts."
Opposite: Caleb Tancred under watch from envious eyes. || VIEGA/LIQUIDEYE.
"It's heavy, and the kids are the easy ones to deal with," says Lee Winkler. "It's the parents that are the dif cult ones. They are up their with the soccer dads, no better, no worse. I think personally though it's an opportunist style of attitude for the parents to have 11 or 12 year olds be solely focused on sur ng. However each kid is an individual and each family makes their decisions that are best for them."
However you will notice that all these kids so far mentioned have ex-professional surfers for dads. Guys that have been through the whole system themselves and know each step of the long process from hot grom to professional surfer. Dylan Longbottom for example, who was both a mentor and father on the Billabong Ments trip, watched on closely as rst his eldest son Jay and now his daughter Summer competed on the junior circuit.
"It's classic at the comps, with guys like Walt and Wink, Todd Prestage, heaps of crew from our decade are there," Longbottom told Tracks. "And you see the kids with the same style and characteristics of their parents. I see Margo's boy doing the exact same hack, it's uncanny, or there's Occy's kids ripping. It's funny how genes work. Sur ng is so style heavy, so unlike other sports you see the style replicated in one generation to the next."
Having competed as junior on the then Billabong Junior Series, Dylan is now doing his third loop of the junior circuit with daughter Summer, aged 12. He too is concerned that the competitive scene at such a young age might be doing more harm than good for the development of sur ng.
"It's changed so much, it's a more of a mainstream sport now and the comps are cool, but they are really intense," said Longbottom. "We are all friends, but there's an intense vibe and it feels like every parent wants their kid to be a pro surfer. There is some great things that come out of the comps, but there is some ugly stuff too, it can get bitchy or worse, parents blowing up. Maybe there's a lot of parents that don't surf, and they don't get just how long the grind is, which is understandable as they haven't been through it like we have."
One such parent is Murray "Muz" Tancred. Muz's son Caleb is a hot 14-year-old surfer from Avoca. However Muz grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, playing rugby, cricket and baseball, moving to the Central Coast with his wife and four kids when Caleb was just three years old.
Caleb has progressed steadily through the junior ranks and apart from a Mentawai boat trip early in the year has trips planned to Tahiti and France in the next few months. This is a sur ng calendar of pure fantasy for most surfers, but is increasingly the norm for talented prepubescent surfers.
"I worry that the kids are getting spoiled. Is it a weakness or a strength? It's a big issue for Australian sur ng," says Muz, perhaps with the insight that only an outsider can bring. "Are these kids going to be hard and hungry enough? The margins of success at the elite level is so minute and you see with the Brazilians who often start with nothing, that the hunger is there."
It's a ne line that a lot of the parents with talented groms are faced with. Who wouldn't want your kids to travel the world, surf perfect waves and expand their horizons, especially when someone else is paying? And the bene ts to their sur ng are all apparent and in many ways preferable to the slog of six-man, 15 minute heats.
Above: Threading pipes like this is part of your apprenticeship as a pro-surfing grom. Dakoda Walters on the job in the Ments. || VIEGA/LIQUIDEYE. Below: Caleb Tancred throwing a big coconut picker. || VIEGA/LIQUIDEYE