Tracks - - Front Page - By: Ben Mondy

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

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