A Por­trait of the Po­ten­tial Champ as a Young Man

Tracks - - Contents - By Se­abird Brooks

He’s the youngest Aussie male to qual­ify for the world tour in more than 20 years, but un­like most be­fore him, Ethan Ewing’s name wasn’t be­ing talked about in prophetic tones since he was a grom. Grow­ing up on North Strad­die, his com­ing of age was a low-key af­fair, no­ticed mainly by fel­low lo­cals and nour­ished on the friendly yet com­pet­i­tive surf scene that ex­ists there. Then last year he de­cided to leave the is­land, and magic hap­pened.

The first time I speak to Ethan Ewing it’s Jan­uary 2017 and he’s in Hawaii. The Vol­com Pipe Pro is due to kick off in five days, but com­pe­ti­tion isn’t on his mind; this trip is about ex­pe­ri­ence. It’ll be 10 months un­til he’s back on the North Shore, and by then, with most of the world’s pros fly­ing in to join him and a fiercely-pro­tec­tive lo­cal pack again look­ing to as­sert dom­i­nance over surf­ing’s most in­fa­mous line-up, it’ll be too late for the quiet 18-year-old to get much prac­tice in at Pipe. He’s not a new­comer to this stretch, hav­ing put in time at the Bil­l­abong house dur­ing his grom­met years and earn­ing the Vans Triple Crown Rookie of the Year Award last sea­son, but time on the North Shore isn’t the same as time out the Ban­zai. Only time out the Ban­zai equates to that, and it oc­curs to me later that for all the idyl­lic im­agery that pops into the head when think­ing about late-sea­son Hawaii, the act of ac­quaint­ing your­self with a wave that has killed and maimed and hum­bled more peo­ple than any other is no small task. But in the space of a ru­n­away 12 months, it’s one that Ethan has proved him­self wor­thy of fac­ing.

Two weeks ear­lier it was a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge he over­came. Af­ter the com­pet­i­tive break­out year of 2016, the World Ju­nior Cham­pi­onships stood as an op­por­tu­nity for Ethan to con­firm what his form through the pre­vi­ous 12 months had more or less es­tab­lished – that, com­pet­i­tively at least, he was the best ju­nior surfer on the planet. With that came a weight of ex­pec­ta­tion. Fans and crit­ics alike looked to Bombo Beach, wait­ing to see if this kid who would soon be com­ing up against surf­ing’s finest was a cut above his peers. He was. From the out­set, Ethan never looked like los­ing. It was an im­pec­ca­ble dis­play from the young nat­u­ral-footer, one that gave wit­ness to the full range of his abil­i­ties – the steely, cham­pi­onlike fo­cus; the clean, pre­cise surf­ing; an abil­ity to lift when his op­po­nents did; to adapt as con­di­tions shifted. By the time he dis­pensed with Amer­i­can prodigy Grif­fin Co­lap­into in the fi­nal, af­ter a week of pick­ing apart the kind of tricky sum­mer drib­ble that had brought many of his con­tem­po­raries un­stuck, any ques­tions about the young qual­i­fier’s readi­ness for the big leagues had been an­swered. It was a fit­ting cli­max to one of the swiftest as­cen­sions any­one could re­mem­ber in Aus­tralian surf­ing, where a hum­ble kid from Queens­land went from vir­tual un­known to the coun­try’s next big thing in the space of a year.

Ask Ethan now about the rea­sons be­hind his suc­cess in 2016 and his an­swer is sim­ple.

“It didn’t feel like I had any pres­sure on me,” he re­flects. “I’d al­ready achieved my goal at the start of the year, so I was just hav­ing fun com­pet­ing against the older guys I’d been watch­ing ever since I started.”

The goal he’s re­fer­ring to was to take out the Aus­tralasian Ju­nior Se­ries, and af­ter four wins on the trot and an ear­lier vic­tory at the Burleigh QS that helped get his roll started, the task was pretty well taken care of. So he went with the mo­men­tum. A quar­ter-fi­nal fin­ish at his first QS10,000 in Bal­lito fol­lowed. Three weeks later he placed run­ner-up to Filipe Toledo in front of a huge Hunt­ing­ton Beach crowd at the US Open. By the time he won in Costa Rica in Oc­to­ber, it looked al­most cer­tain that the to­ken

“It didn’t feel like I had any pres­sure on me...I’d al­ready achieved my goal at the start of the year, so I was just hav­ing fun com­pet­ing against the older guys.”

tour grom in 2017 wouldn’t be from Brazil or the US, as had be­come com­mon in re­cent years, but Aus­tralia. And a funny thing hap­pened. Maybe it was the blonde hair and flashy style. Maybe it was the fact that it’d been an age since an Aussie had qual­i­fied so young. What­ever the case, early on in Ethan’s QS cam­paign, be­fore he was even con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing the world tour, an en­thu­si­as­tic journo asked if he’d take his spot on the CT if he were to qual­ify. Not re­ally think­ing he would or could or was even at­tempt­ing to, Ethan said no, and the ef­fect of the state­ment was such that by the time he’d ce­mented his run­ner-up po­si­tion on the rank­ings af­ter back-to-back re­sults in Hawaii, there were ru­mours float­ing around that he’d be turn­ing down his spot à la Taj Bur­row. Thank­fully, the ru­mours were dis­missed, and the kid who’d just pulled off a magic dash through the gaunt­let of modern-day pro surf­ing was headed to the Cap­i­tal.

Yet to im­ply that Ethan came from nowhere in 2016 is to paint an in­com­plete pic­ture. He didn’t, it’s just that the kicked-back com­mu­nity and se­cluded surf on his home turf of North Strad­broke Is­land did a pretty good job of ob­scur­ing his po­ten­tial. But the lo­cals saw it. Bede Dur­bidge, the is­land’s most suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional, re­mem­bers heats against a 13-year-old Ethan at lo­cal club rounds in which the straw-headed grom­met would emerge from the wa­ter dis­ap­pointed to have lost to a world tour surfer such as him­self.

By that stage Ethan had al­ready been rid­ing waves for close to 10 years. Born into a fam­ily of shred­ders, in­clud­ing a mum who’d won Bells and an older brother who spent his teenage years chas­ing the ju­nior se­ries, the kid was al­ways go­ing to rip. And in a state­ment that speaks vol­umes about his in­her­ent ease atop a board, he tells me he can’t re­mem­ber his first wave. But this fa­mil­ial con­nec­tion with the wa­ter is only a part of what’s shaped Ethan into the surfer he is to­day. An­other part of it can be at­trib­uted to the en­vi­ron­ment it­self.

“There isn’t too much to do be­sides surf on the is­land,” he ad­mits. “If you live on the Gold Coast or the main­land you can get into other stuff, but on Strad­die you’re pretty much al­ways in the ocean.”

For a com­mu­nity of less than three thou­sand peo­ple, North Strad­die has

pro­duced more than its fair share of tal­ent. Bede stands as the is­land’s most ob­vi­ous ex­port, but since he qual­i­fied back in 2005 guys like Lin­coln Tay­lor, Tim McDon­ald and Ethan’s brother Cur­tis have all made a mark on the wider com­pet­i­tive scene, while a host of oth­ers have en­sured the level around Point Look­out re­mains dis­pro­por­tion­ately high. Now Ethan is draw­ing a poised line to­wards not just be­ing the lat­est, but the great­est to emerge from this rich surf­ing mono­cul­ture. And awe­somely, he’s got the sup­port of the com­mu­nity firmly be­hind him.

“He’s got world ti­tle writ­ten all over him,” Bede de­clared last year, when asked about the young­ster’s rise. “He’s so good. Just his tech­nique – it’s per­fect, you can’t fault it. “

So we’ve wit­nessed his brazen run through the 2016 com­pet­i­tive scene. We’ve heard about the patch of earth he sprung from. But what about Ethan him­self – the way he surfs and holds him­self? Be­cause this isn’t some kid who’s just stum­bled upon suc­cess by way of luck and co­in­ci­dence; this is a ma­ture and fo­cussed young man with a de­sire to win. When I ask him what his goal for 2017 is, he tells me, some­what un­ex­cit­ingly, that he’s aim­ing to re­qual­ify. When I ask about his goals for the fu­ture, he says to be world champ – just like that. So how did he de­velop such pa­tience and fore­sight when most eigh­teen-year-olds are grop­ing at each other and throw­ing up in gut­ters?

He­len Ewing died when Ethan was six-year­sold. This is the same mum who won Bells in her day, a leg­endary woman of the wa­ter who he re­mem­bers push­ing him into waves. And he be­lieves, yes, in some or­ganic way her pass­ing helped him foster a mea­sured out­look on life, but more im­me­di­ately he points to the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing older brothers as some­thing that re­ally con­trib­uted to his ma­tu­rity. Ten and 11 years younger than his two surf­ing sib­lings, Ethan grew up the sole bene­fac­tor of a grom­met­hood spent fol­low­ing them around and watch­ing them do stuff. And they turned out to be pretty good role mod­els.

They surfed; he surfed. They acted re­spect­fully; he did the same. They frothed out over Andy’s sec­tions; Ethan took notes. One of the most cap­ti­vat­ing things about the kid’s rise is not nec­es­sar­ily his achieve­ments, but the way he’s been achiev­ing them, with a style of surf­ing that’s both in­stant and clas­sic. Com­par­isons have been made to Mick, to Taj, but the surfer he’s likened to the most is Andy, no doubt thanks to all that watch­ing. And while Ethan claims not to see it him­self, he’s ob­vi­ously grate­ful for the com­pli­ment.

“I’m not go­ing to com­plain if I get com­pared to Andy Irons, that’s amaz­ing,” he says. “But it’s not some­thing I’ve tried to look like, it’s just the way I surf.”

Be­lieve it or not, he means what he says. Be­cause that’s the other qual­ity that be­comes ap­par­ent dur­ing the course of a few con­ver­sa­tions with Ethan Ewing – he’s not only aim­ing to be a cham­pion, but his own cham­pion. He tells me, “I don’t ever think about what peo­ple are ex­pect­ing from me. I know what I want for my­self and how I want peo­ple to view me.”

What he wants is a world ti­tle, and he’s slowly plot­ting a course to get there. Af­ter a num­ber of early losses through the Aussie leg it mightn’t seem that way, but he’s right where he should be. Like all po­ten­tial cham­pi­ons he’s hav­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the in­evitable process of los­ing. Be­cause by learn­ing to lose you can also learn to win. But even Ethan’s losses have given us snapshots of his fu­ture. His very first wave as a world tour surfer net­ted him a 9.10. His ap­proach while up and rid­ing has looked as well­honed as 15 years of catch­ing waves could make it. Only ex­pe­ri­ence has let him down, and with the ex­cep­tion of Mick Fan­ning at Bells, his op­po­nents have got­ten past him not by way of su­pe­rior surf­ing, but savvier heat nous. That’ll come. And be­sides, he’s not rush­ing. When I ask about his com­fort level at Pipe a few weeks af­ter our ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion, he tells me, “It’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight, but I’m def­i­nitely glad I went over and got a few waves. “

It’s this poise and pa­tience as much as any of his other tal­ents that could get Ethan there; the in­sight to aim solely to be back again next year, so as to take pres­sure off while learn­ing the ropes. Last sea­son he wanted to win the ju­nior se­ries and ex­ceeded it by so much he found him­self on tour. Who knows what the next few years could hold for him?

Photo: Miller.

An ex­am­ple of Ethan’s well-honed tech­nique as demon­strated on a Winki wall.

20 17

Photo: Moran.

Top: Ethan finds some shade dur­ing a warm up for his first event on the tour.

Photo: Re­spon­dek.

Above: Ethan has shown great po­ten­tial thus far, but there is still a long road to walk.

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