GREAT EXPECTATIONS - JORDY SMITH
how jordy smith carries the hopes of a surfing nation on his shoulders.
“Boerewors on the braai; with chutney and salad!” beams Jordy Smith, announcing the dinner plan. It’s been a long day surfing perfect late-season Supertubes and we’re famished. We’re sitting in Jordy’s extended braai area – the South African term for barbeque – in his J-Bay home; the first house he ever bought with his accumulated South African Junior competition winnings. He loves the joint.
“Tom Curren played here for my dad and I. Sat right there,” says Jordy, pointing to a well-worn single leather couch like a proud grom. “My dad built this area as an add-on to the house; best thing we ever did.”
He stares deep into the low flames that are turning the logs into coals, then starts slapping the meat on the grill. There’s a satisfying hiss as we settle in, a cold beer in hand, and we get talking.
Hey Jords, what would you be doing if surfing didn’t exist?
What? If I wasn’t a surfer? I would probably be involved in the surf industry somehow, especially since my dad is a surfboard shaper. Like most kids I would probably have taken after him, because it’s easy, and you get firsthand experience of what actually goes into that specific line of work. My dad works really hard. It’s not just a job though, it’s a passion.
But if surfing didn’t exist at all?
Mmm? Well before my dad started shaping he was a qualified refrigeration technician; dealing with electronics and stuff like that. Servicing and rebuilding things from scratch like fridges and microwaves. I would probably have gone down a similar road to support myself and make a living for my future family.
What was it like growing up in Durban?
It was pretty good. I grew up in the same family home in Umbilo until I was about 18. Umbilo is about 20 minutes inland. It’s kind of industrial and it’s very… well it’s kind of poor and a lower-class area. Then later on we moved to Glenwood which is about five minutes away. I never grew up near the beach but that was what made it so special, every time we went it was such a treat. Growing up I was fortunate enough to have my dad involved in surfing. I managed my time between skateboarding, soccer and surfing. Those were the three things I fell in love with. Unfortunately my school was quite far from the beach. It would take 30 minutes to get home and another 20 minutes to the beach. But that just added to the reason why I wanted to surf all day on the weekends. I very rarely got to surf in the week, or for very long, whereas the kids who were homeschooled could. So come the weekends I was
I have always known what I wanted. My parents didn’t have much so I knew that the only way out was to make it big and the only way I was going to do that was to put in the extra hours. I think that is where I got all my drive. I mean, you see all the guys on tour living the glamorous lifestyles; for me it was the Kellys, the Andys, the Joels. I’d sit back in my younger days and think “wow”, I’d like to live like that. My dad always said, “Don’t ever think you’re that good. There are always kids out there that are hungrier, and want it more. You’re never going to be the best, so you better just keep on trying.” And so from a young age I embraced that and kept banging it out and banging it out until I think it just turned into it’s own thing and kind of snowballed.
How young were you when you start surfing?
My mom and dad took me to the beach when I was about two or three. I think I stood on a surfboard for the first time with armbands around three years old. My mom and dad loved the beach, so it was inevitable I would end up in the water, especially with my dad being a shaper, a surfer and loving the water. It was strange though, because most of the other kids who surfed did lifesaving but I didn’t, and my other love was soccer. Still is. It’s so opposite to surfing. So I was either on the field during the week when I couldn’t get to the beach, or on weekends I was on the beach surfing. I wasn’t really into any other sports excepting skating, which I could easily do at home on the road. We used to have these little sidewalks and driveway corners where I would kick off and try airs onto the street to practice my surf moves. Jordy gets up to turn the famous coiled, spiced sausage known as boerewors (farm sausage) on the grill.
So where was your local spot?
I started surfing at Addington Beach which is just south of the Durban piers, and only once I had improved did my dad take me across to New Pier. I think he wanted me to get the basics down before I took the next step. A lot of kids skip that first crucial stage these days; sprinting before they can walk. Like surfing perfect waves and doing airs before they can turn. I was happy to start simple at that age – I didn't know any better. As time went on I slowly graduated from the inside at New Pier to the bowls and finally worked my way up to the outside. That’s another thing my mom and dad instilled in me, to respect your elders and learn good surf etiquette.
“I HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN WHAT I WANTED. MY PARENTS DIDN’T HAVE MUCH SO I KNEW THAT THE ONLY WAY OUT WAS TO MAKE IT BIG AND THE ONLY WAY I WAS GOING TO DO THAT WAS TO PUT IN THE EXTRA HOURS. I THINK THAT IS WHERE I GOT ALL MY DRIVE. ”
Was it a good place to practice and learn all-round skills?
Absolutely. As a kid growing up I don’t think anyone realises how good of a training ground a place like New Pier actually is. Especially when you’re young. It’s warm, you can run around out onto the pier and jump off into the lineup, paddling straight into a three, four-foot right hander and get three, four, even five turns on a wave. You get the reps. I mean the reps are just continuous and in three hours of surfing you can get, like, 40 waves. So you really get the opportunity to perfect your turns, and then when the onshore comes up you’re able to focus on your air game. Back when I grew up the talent pool was so strong and big that every time you paddled out there were pro’s like Warwick Wright, Travis Logie, Davey Weare, Damien Fahrenfort, Paul Canning, Ricky Bassnet; easily 30 guys who all pushed each other every day. I believe it’s what really helped me. It was just a booming time for surfing in SA. They had the famous Surf Zone shop right there, the coffee shop and the wave. You didn’t have to go anywhere else. It was just all about the beach and surfing. You surfed, you ate, you waxed up and you were back out doing it all over again. We did that all day. Those were some of the best times of my life.
What goals did you have growing up?
When I was really young between the ages of 7-12 I didn’t really have any serious goals. I mean at that age you dream of cool things you think you would like, but there wasn’t any serious drive then. Professional surfing definitely wasn’t drummed into me then, and it was all about having fun. I couldn’t get enough of it. I ate, dreamt and slept surfing all day long. For me it was all obsession. I was and still am obsessed with surfing. I think that passion leads people to their goals. Once you get to a certain point you release your talents and you begin to see the future you might be able to have, and that’s when you start putting goals in place.
Who are your best surf friends?
To be honest my core group of surf friends has stayed the same since I was young, from then till now. Guys like Chad du Toit who I call up every single time I’m home, Damien Fahrenfort when he is around, and Travis Logie. Whenever I get a chance to surf I call them up. We always looked up to Travis as a guy who was on the tour and who always shared his wealth of knowledge and who we could approach. And then Warwick ‘Wok’ Wright – haha, he doesn’t ever surf for very long, but he is a great guy to talk shit with in the lineup and just have fun with. These are the four guys I always surfed and hung with, and still try to see today. And then every now and then I would surf with Ricky (Bassnet) on the Bluff. Wow! I thought Ricky was the best thing South Africa was ever going to produce. Growing up my dad would always tell me, “You just need to beat Ricky, don’t worry about anyone else, you just need to beat Ricky.” I think as far as he and I were concerned, Ricky was the best.
“I ATE, DREAMT AND SLEPT SURFING ALL DAY LONG. FOR ME IT WAS ALL OBSESSION. I WAS AND STILL AM OBSESSED WITH SURFING. I THINK THAT PASSION LEADS PEOPLE TO THEIR GOALS. ”
What is your most unforgettable memory growing up?
Wow. Mmm? I don’t know, there have definitely been a couple crazy ones. Probably the moment I realised surfing was something that I could do as a career. That was at the ISA World Games in 2003 in Durban. Travis Logie won and I was part of the juniors. I won my division and I think that’s when my confidence kinda just went to another level. I remember paddling out along the pier and this wave just popped up in front of me and I managed to do four turns and got an 8.3. That one wave flipped a switch in my mind. I realised then and there this was going to be my life. That was the moment that I thought, here we go, put your head down and go for it!
How was competing on the QS? What was the year like when you qualified?
that was the leap from just being a junior to knowing I could compete with the big boys. Right then and there I made the decision that I needed to be on tour. I wanted to be on tour, like, right now! I had some good results coming in to Hawaii, jumping from number 200 on the QS rankings to number 20 after the Mr.Price Pro, ended up getting a second place finish at Sunset and did really well at Haleiwa. Suddenly I was like “Holy crap!” I actually don’t know what I would have done had I qualified that year. I definitely wasn’t ready. The next year I had so much confidence coming off all that that I just started getting results from the get-go and decided to do as many QS events as I could. Back then if you got to 10,000 points The QS was quite a weird experience for me. I had done the junior circuit and been fairly successful but had heard how different the QS was and what a grind it could be. Back then you started with so many people and had to surf so many more heats just to get to get a usable result. But those were important confidence builders. I finished at 17 and after that things started lining up. I got the wildcard into the J-Bay WCT and ended up making it into the semi-final and
you were guaranteed a spot in the CT, and by half way through the year I already had that and eventually I won the QS and had the record for the most amount of points, which was very special. I surprised myself. That was a big deal, and amazingly, I was in. At that point I was going through quite a lot of sponsorship stuff and things were crazy. It all came around so fast I didn’t know what to think or what to expect.
The pressure must have been intense in the first few years; people wanting you to win a world title etc. How did you feel?
Geez, there was a ton of pressure to be honest. Being so young didn’t help. I came straight out of high school with almost zero media hype, other than some stuff in the local surfing mag, and suddenly was straight into the global current. Everyone wanted a piece of me and had something to say and at some point you start to believe some of the things people are saying about you and you get carried away being so young and impressionable. I came into it pretty blind and inexperienced, and found myself shouting my mouth off at times like some people do today… But ya. I mean, if you want to be the best in the world you have to be extremely confident and believe in yourself 100%. I think you start to learn not to say that kind of stuff out loud and you have to keep that within yourself and learn to be more respectful towards your competitors and to the people who are around you. But those are the things you learn as you mature. That first year was definitely a surprise and I realised how much more it was about competing than actually surfing. I think I came 22nd or 23rd that year and I was like, wow, this is crazy. I had some good performances but ultimately got out-competed. And the same happened for another year or two. I made a lot of mistakes, just rookie errors. I mean the guys who have been on tour for a while are so accustomed and comfortable with everything.
Who helped you through all that pressure?
My dad for sure. He was always there to remind me, “Hey, don’t ever get too ahead of yourself. There is always someone better than you. Always someone working harder than you and who wants it more than you do. So if you don’t work enough it might go away.” I’ve just stuck with that my whole life really and have just made the most of everything. Work as hard as I can and hopefully that will be enough at the end of the day. At least that way you can never be bummed with what you have accomplished and achieved.
And meeting Lyndall, the love of your life? A lot of people were skeptical when you got engaged and then married…
I was at a horse race during our off-season. I saw this beautiful woman walking down the way and I just started talking to her. We kicked it off instantly.
There were definitely some suspicious and sceptical people at the time, and we had a lot of negativity towards us, towards me. Having a girlfriend and all that. It was quite… it bummed me out a lot actually to see other people so negative. But I just went with my heart, and sure enough three or fours years later we were married. I couldn’t be happier to have someone by my side supporting me in everything that I do. Being able to have one mind supporting you to accomplish your dreams is one thing, but having two people with love involved, you can really conquer the world. She has really helped me out in so many ways. To be able to do what I love with someone I love, and to share those moments and make memories is really something special.
You live in California now. Why did you move?
Well, basically we had to move due to sponsor obligations and travelling. The travelling started to become way too intense. South Africa is so far from all the major events, and the hours we would spend on the plane were ridiculous. It just became too much. It’s good for my sponsors to be in the US too. To have me down the road and call me up for photo shoots or signings, all that. I think for now and over the next 10 years it’s the right place for me to be. Definitely for my career it’s smart, but it will never be home. But even beyond the surfing scene there are so many more opportunities being presented to me on a daily basis. It’s pretty awesome to see and I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do this and have these opportunities.
What is it like being Jordy Smith right now?
It’s pretty much the same to be honest. I’ve never looked at myself any differently to the first day I started surfing. I see the world through the same eyes pretty much, but with more maturity and appreciation. I think as people grow up they start to appreciate things more and they don’t take things too seriously, or for granted.
What does it take to be one of the best?
It’s different for everyone. I think you need that drive and that long-term focus more than anything. Deep down you know what it takes. Some people work really hard on their equipment, some people their minds, others their training and some their relationships. What works for one person might not necessarily work for someone else. It’s finding that thing that works for you and that motivates you to go surfing every day; to train as hard as you can. I think that has been my biggest learning curve; finding out what works for me and motivates me. A bunch of things motivate me. Being successful and doing something that I love motivates me. To be able to do this for as long as I can is extremely motivating. It’s motivating to eat healthy, it’s motivating to surf long hours, to surf the best I can, to put long hours into testing my boards, into relationship and people that I meet around the world. All of these have matured and blossomed over the years and I think those are the small percentages that end up creating an all-round surfer. Working on your small-wave equipment, working on your big-wave equipment, your body, eating right every day…it’s all these small percentages. It might only be 5% here and 8% there but they all add up. All the crumbs make up a loaf of bread.
What gets you through heats?
Self-belief. Self-belief in what you do, in the process, trusting in your instincts. Never second-guessing yourself. If you make a decision, just go with it. If you’ve been in it long enough it’s because you’ve made good decisions. You just have to trust that. Some people have a difficult time doing that and just pulling the trigger when it needs pulling. Don't rock or roll. Just put yourself on one side or the other. When you’re out in the water and you see a set rolling down the point, you need to pull the trigger and paddle there. You can’t worry that if you paddle there someone might get the wave down here. You just need to make those decisions in the moment and trust your instincts. It also boils down to a lot of preparation. Being prepared. I’ve found that if you’re prepared, you’re way less nervous paddling out. If not, your mind unravels everywhere and you’re nowhere. The boerewors is done and we’re all starving after an incredible day of 4-6 foot J-Bay perfection. But before we eat in silence I wonder one last thought out loud…
What makes J-Bay so special?
J-Bay is just that place for me bru. I know everyone and I feel like I can let my hair down and just be myself. I just feel relaxed walking around here. It’s just a special place. I’m sure so many other people have that same feeling when they arrive here or surf here or eat here. It’s one of the few places in the world that you can just sit on the floor of the boardwalk and feel that you are in the right place at the right time, and that you shouldn’t be anywhere else in the world but right there. My mind relaxes, my body relaxes; everything just feels right here. It’s the place for me.