Dan Ross is so fit he makes medicine sick. He also knows about how to make change in your life a healthy choice.
After achieving his ultimate dream of getting on tour, former WCT power surfer Dan Ross was faced with the stress that comes with not only achieving your dreams, but sustaining them. After seven years, he'd had enough. With humility, grace and an exceptional talent for listening, Dan alchemized the unique tools and skills he'd absorbed from tour life. He forged a career in mentoring young athletes to overcome many of the challenges he'd already wrestled in the face of competitive pressures and health complications, including a diagnosis of mercury poisoning. As coach and mentor, Dan works with groms to show them that surfing is not only a potential way to make a living, but a profound way to make a meaningful life. SW: It seems like you had really strong male role modelling growing up in Yamba. Would you say that’s true? DR: Definitely. It’s been a beautiful place to grow up in. I’ve been travelling since I was 16, the appreciation for it gets bigger and bigger each year. I had my older brother who’s seven years older than me and all of his mates who I looked up to; they were doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Many of them were such good role models because they would include me in whatever they were getting up to – not just surfing, but looping me in on those conversations about things they were experiencing, their travels and so much stuff that really set me on the path that I wanted to go down. It was guys like Sam Carrier, Navrin Fox, Jeremy Walters and Vaughan Blakey. You build these close relationships around surf and surfing in a way where you’re getting looked after, but you’re also getting taught and tested. You’re getting pushed out of your comfort zone to learn about the ocean – not just about surf. That’s what was so beautiful about growing up in Yamba, the ocean was our playground. We had our group of mates and we were free to explore and play.
You’d been dreaming about getting on tour since you were a little grom and you did it, spending 6 or so years between the WQS and WCT. You’d accomplished the major dream of your life up to that point. You’d made it. But then you had to deal with the pressure of accomplishing everything you’d ever dreamed of. What was that like? Amazing – but stressful. It got really stressful. When I came out of the juniors in Australia, that last year was my most successful year, I’d won that, so I was loving what I was doing and I was feeling really ready to dive into the QS. It was 3-4 years of doing the QS before I qualified, then I made it on tour, then went back and did the QS for a year, then got back on tour for another couple of years. So, it was 6-7 years there. It was amazing and so much fun. But stressful. I think most of it revolved around the financial stress of making heats and keeping your spot on tour.
There’s not really job security, is there? Maybe you have a couple of years on your contract, but even that might be tied to results. That’s pretty heavy to have to deal with on a heat-to-heat basis, especially if you aren’t winning them. Yeah. When this is your livelihood, this is how you have to support yourself, you’ve gotta make it count, each heat, each moment. And that can create a lot of stress and it makes all those heats seem disproportionately significant.
There’s two theories about losing in sport – the pressure can either make you choke or make you panic. Choking is when you overthink what’s happening and panic is when you’re not yet experienced enough to mentally handle the task at hand. Did you get to experience both of those experiences of losing? I placed so much significance around what I was doing in the water, about people watching what I was doing, around surfing and competing. This thing that I’d built up into the most significant thing in my life, the pressure of that really kept me from surfing at my full potential. The times I let go of that was when I did my best. The really key, influential people in my life would help me bring things back into perspective and realign where that significance lay – how small it all was, surfing heats, in the bigger scheme of things on my journey. There were beautiful things to be learned within that, but also that this isn’t as big or as important as you think.
So you find yourself on this precipice of having accomplished the dream of being on tour, and then being faced with needing to move on from it. Were you dreaming up something
As in most professional sport, ego is never on short offer in the surfing world. So, how do you gracefully bow out from the high of the limelight when your time is up?
new for yourself the whole time, or did it feel like you were on the edge, not knowing how to handle the end of that dream? It was a bit of both. It was an ongoing process. I did really well out of sponsorship and out of the relationships with the companies I was working with. It was great, but there was always this underlying questioning – how long is this going to last? Where is it heading? Is the value that I bring only based around these heats that I’m surfing and how I’m surfing? I’d have moments where I’d think about possibilities for me after the tour. I felt that from the work I was doing with my mentors around emotional, physical and mental development that I would pursue the right path that was true to me.
There’s a lot of self worth tied up in this kind of career; when your identity revolves around your job. And that job is never quite fully on lock down. There is. One side of you is in this space where you’re loving it. You’re having these moments that you dreamed of and surfing these waves that you used to watch as a kid and be like – “Ahh I want to go and do that!” And you find yourself there in and amongst it. And then you also find yourself really trying to cling onto it. You’re in that process where you’re trying to work through all of that at the same time. It was really great for me because I learned so much about myself through those processes. It’s really about the path that you choose when it’s all happening around you.
That seems at the core of the work you’re doing as a coach and mentor. Keeping things in perspective for aspiring athlete. Yeah, for sure. Keeping things in perspective when they’re emotionally engrained in that moment – again helping them to see the significance of a competition in the bigger picture.
What inspired your fascination with healthy living? I grew up in a very health conscious house. Mum was always making fresh veggie juices, cooking amazing meals and we ate lots of fresh, local food, so eating well was always part of my life. You were recently diagnosed with mercury poisoning. How the heck did that come about? While I was working with Red Bull we had the opportunity to take advantage of a specialized blood test that looked at nutritional profiles and helped each athlete to tune into optimizing diet and nutrition. When my results came back, the doctor sat me down and said that the levels of mercury in my body were alarmingly high and that I needed to act on that pretty quickly.
Where did the mercury come from? I think it came from a few different sources: from amalgam fillings – I had them removed, but they may not have been removed as safely as possible, from all the mercurochrome we use to put on our reef cuts – it worked so well to dry up cuts, but we didn’t realize it might have been poisoning us, and also from eating lots of fish. I ate fish pretty much every day growing up, since my step-dad was a small-scale commercial fisherman, so we were often eating big pelagic fish and sometimes black tip shark. And also the weeks we’d spend in Tahiti, we’d have Tuna and other bigger fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Big fish tend to accumulate lots of heavy metals, including mercury.
Is mercury poisoning common? What are the symptoms? More common than we think, from what I’ve learnt. Its so widespread but not often diagnosed. It was about a year and a half before I really acted on the results, then I kind of half-heartedly committed to getting it out of the body. I had to find the right timing to really commit to detoxing it out of my body since it’s a pretty intense and time-consuming thing. The process sounded daunting. There are lots of symptoms, but for me the major ones were short term memory loss and adrenal insufficiency - chronic fatigue etc. I found this whole community online, lots of them were parents with autistic kids who also had high mercury levels in their systems. They follow Dr Andy Cutlers Protocol and have amazing results with it. Over the last two and a half years I’ve found blocks of time where I can jump in and do the chelation process that removes the mercury slowly over time. If you do it too quickly it can make you really sick, so you can’t rush it. The program that I’m on requires that you do 100 rounds of chelation, where you’re taking small amounts of ALA (alpha lipoic acid) every three hours around the clock for three days, so it’s pretty exhausting. Then you have to let your body settle for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer before you can do another round of mercury detox. I’ve done about 11 rounds now, so it’ll probably take another 3 years or so to get my mercury levels down. Hopefully maybe only two years. It’s pretty taxing since you strip your body not only of the mercury, but also of vital minerals like potassium, magnesium and B vitamins and its heavy on your adrenals. So, it’s an ongoing process.
So, did your health challenges guide you down the path of mentoring and coaching athletes? In a way it did. It was all kind of happening around the same time. The big thing for me was being able to chat with a good mate of mine, Andy King who was coaching and mentoring a group of QS athletes at the time. We’d confidentially chat about some of the difficulties and challenges he was experiencing with the athletes he was working with, and then stripping back to the source of those issues within themselves. Because I’d been
"This thing that I'd built up into the most significant thing in my life, the pressure of that really kept me from surfing at my full potential."
there on my own journey I realized I had a lot to offer since I’d had to work within myself on all of the same hang-ups and challenges in order to surf to my potential. The health side of it has always been a catalyst – especially the nutrition, it’s such a big part of it. The philosophy of my work now is based on six foundational principles: our thoughts, breathing, hydration, nutrition, movement and sleep. And so much of coaching is based on building a strong relationship, learning, listening and connecting with the person you’re working with so there’s a great underlying level of trust. And then there becomes no doubt or uncertainty around the information you deliver and guide them with.
Illness is always challenging, but have you been able to find any gifts in the journey of facing Mercury poisoning? I have. I was working on a project recently with a group school kids and there happened to be one kid in the program who also had mercury toxicity – the family had just found out about it. I had been recognizing all of the symptoms within the kid, before I knew what his situation was – the ability to retain information, or to focus in on tasks was limited. I’d watch things were not quite sinking in for the kid. I realized that it wasn’t arrogance or ignorance, it was just these symptoms of mercury poisoning that I was witnessing. I could see how, from a teacher’s perspective, it’d be so easy to get angry at the kid, to think he was just not paying attention. But I was really able to meet the kid in the space that he was in, because I was aware of it and we’d tackle it from a different angle.
What’s your mentoring/ coaching philosophy? To learn about ourselves through surfing. What I do is based on what I believe is the best path within surf coaching, or just developmentally. I use three guiding principles: gratitude, respect and selfownership. And throughout the time that I work with an athlete, we keep coming back to those ideas: gratitude for being able to surf and play in the ocean, respect for self, equipment, relationships and the ocean, and then using self-ownership to relate those ideas back to them for self-reflection. Keeping a gratitude diary is part of it, tuning into the things that we’re grateful for. And then we focus on technique, tactics, ocean knowledge and the experiential learning side of it, like meeting up with you guys, sharing stories and questions around a fire and connecting with other inspiring people.
What’s your feeling about wave pools as a training tool? Do they align with your principles of coaching? I’ve utilized wave pools for coaching. I did a project with Sally Fitz in Dubai and it was really fun and productive… for a few days. Do they align with my core principles? Probably not. Part of what we do is try to have as much fun as possible, so the idea of jumping in a pool with a group of young athletes has some really fun elements to it. But there’s an underlying core value of connecting in with what we love to do around surf, the ocean and pristine places. You’re removed from that in a wave pool. Really, it’s two totally different things. For me, it feels like it’d be fun for a little while, but the ocean’s been fun for our whole life.
Surf coaching of yore seemed to revolve around heat strategy, technique and maybe a bit about travel and diet. It seems like you’re directing your pupils to seek out the difference between making a good life and just making a living via sport; how to be happy humans first, then to flesh that into competitive life. Yeah, confidence and self-worth first. Belief in yourself. Working through fears. Fears about what others may think, fears outside of the comfort zone. To learn about ourselves through surfing - enhancing relationships with family and others around us. And of course, to have fun.
"so much of coaching is based on building a strong relationship, learning, listening and connecting with the person you're working with."
Opposite: Said local Angourie legend Nav Fox of Rossy’s performance during this year’s East Coast Low. “The Point was huge and guys were out there, they were having a dig. But Rossy was on another level, mate. He was deadset tearing the place to...