A Portrait of the Potential Champ as a Young Man
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?
An example of Ethan’s well-honed technique as demonstrated on a Winki wall.
Top: Ethan finds some shade during a warm up for his first event on the tour.
Above: Ethan has shown great potential thus far, but there is still a long road to walk.