Julian Wilson's imminent quest for a world title
Julian Wilson has been close to a world title on a number of occasions. I’m not talking about his third place finish last year or his sixths in 2015 and 2013, no, I’m referencing the fact that he has often been physically close to the moment when another surfer is drowned in glory and the unique sense of self-validation that a world title delivers.
In 2013 Mick Fanning defeated Yadin Nicol in quarter final one of the Pipe Masters to claim his third world crown. While Mick was celebrating on the beach, Julian was taking notes from John John in the next quarter-final. The following year at Pipeline, Julian had to surf his round five heat against Sebastian Zeitz amidst the ostentatious celebrations of Gabriel Medina’s world title victory. When Medina paddled out for his quarter final he had just been anointed as champion.
Julian was still in the water when Gabriel paddled out and pandemonium unfolded on the beach. Julian was left to watch Gabriel, brazenly come in half way through his heat to celebrate with his euphoric Brazilian fans. There was at least some consolation in the fact that Wilson ultimately claimed the Pipe final against Medina and with it the Triple Crown.
In 2016 Julian had the opportunity in Portugal to disrupt the destiny of John John Florence by beating him in the quarters. Wilson faltered and when Jordy lost to Connor Coffin in the semis, John John was
gifted his first title. Again, last year, Wilson had the opportunity to prevent John John from advancing past the quarters in the Pipe Masters and thus open the door for Medina in the title race. Julian couldn’t do it and Medina’s loss to Jeremy Flores ultimately handed John John his second title. Wilson, who had been an outside title shot going into the event, was left to witness the cult of John John go into overdrive as half the school kids from Sunset Elementary chanted for John John, and crowds clamored all over one another for the JJF merchandise that was being tossed around by Hurley reps. “I’ve been in the water for three or four of the last five world titles,” indicates Julian.
The point is that one might assume that being so close to all that elation and energy when you are not the focus of the attention could grind on you. Given that Julian arrived on tour way back in 2011, a year before John John and Gabriel, it would be easy to feel somehow surpassed or left behind by history.
However, as he steadfastly pursues his own world title, Julian Wilson is adamant that his close encounters with the triumphs of others offer only inspiration. “It’s only a positive thing. I don’t look at it and get down. I look at it and go, ‘I can get there’, I can achieve that… It’s hugely motivating,” he explains over the phone. “Obviously those two guys (Medina and Florence) have taken three of the last four world titles. It gives me the fire to chase them down.”
Earlier this year all the cheering was for Julian as he claimed a stoic victory at Kirra, in the Quiksilver Pro. Wincing with pain from a ruptured AC joint that significantly affected the range of movement in his right shoulder, Wilson navigated a Kirra lineup that resembled a minefield of exploding tubes, to secure a hero’s victory.
Flush with the renewed sense of purpose that fatherhood often brings (only days before the contest he had become a dad) Julian downplayed the injury and focused on the only thing that matters at Kirra – hauling yourself into the deepest, throatiest barrel you can find and then conjuring an exit. On Julian’s best wave of the final a cascading shelf of Kirra concrete temporarily entombed the injured natural footer. Watching from the fabled groyne, it looked more like a Backdoor Pipe slab than a Gold Coast coil, but when Jules emerged from the
barrel the whole move to Kirra by the WSL was justified in a single, thrilling moment. On the point at Kirra Julian’s biggest fan, his mum Nola, was tip-toeing through the rocks holding a 10-point scorecard above her head. While the judges couldn’t find it within themselves to drop the double digits, the 9.93 set Julian up for the grittiest of victories.
Post-final, Julian melted the hearts of mothers around the world and became the obvious darling of the next day’s breakfast television when he attributed the win to his wife, Ashley. “Honestly watching the birth of my first child gave me an unbelievable strength to just suck it up and come down here and do what I needed to do and I got huge inspiration from my wife and the whole experience and I’ve gotta thank my wife for that.”
With one line that lingering image of Julian as the teenage pin-up boy in the shell necklace was replaced by that of a loving father and adoring husband. Julian was not only all grown-up he was now the front-runner for the world title that so many feel is undoubtedly within the scope of his abilities to claim.
Julian, who will turn 30 in November, is certainly not afraid to declare his ambitions in relation to surfing’s most coveted prize. “In surfing that’s the number one objective... I’ve put some strong years together and I know that I can put together a better year and what it takes to win a world title… I’ve had some great moments. It’s just about getting a couple of those moments in a year to get a world title. ”
One of those great moments unfolded at the Billabong Pro, Teahupoo last year. The victory over fierce rival Gabriel Medina, cemented Wilson’s reputation as one of the tour’s best barrel riders and heavy-wave campaigners. It also catapulted him into serious world title contention, but he failed to carry that momentum through to Trestles and France, posting a ninth and a 25th respectively.
At the Rip Curl Pro, Portugal, Wilson rediscovered the magic and was again pitted against Medina in the final. Victory would have propelled Julian into the last event in Hawaii with a solid shot at the world title. However, after Julian slashed to an early lead, Medina manufactured two, quick aerial-inspired scores, which ultimately proved enough to snatch victory. It happened so fast it made Medina look like a kind of dream thief; wriggling his way into firm contention for a second world title while simultaneously banishing Wilson to the realm of rank outsider.
Julian claims that he doesn’t hide from his most disappointing losses, such as the one to Medina in Portugal. “There’s definitely time to reflect post event. I take my lessons and look for my weaknesses and what needs to change. It’s done shortly after the event and it’s left where it is and I move forward.”
As for the match-ups with serial title contenders Medina and John John, Julian is quick to point out that he thrives on such encounters. “I hope for those match-ups because obviously they are a chance to get ahead and gain an advantage.” However, he draws the line at suggestions he might spend his spare time preoccupied by thoughts of clashes with John and Gabriel. “I love competing with Medina and John John, but I’m not sitting at home visualising blow by blow battles.”
Some fans have lamented Wilson’s reluctance to unleash the aerial attack that made him one of the world’s most celebrated freesurfers. In more celestial focused days, Wilson pioneered
the sushi roll and ardently pursued the holy grail of rotations, the 720. He was a frequent flyer, spurred on by contemporaries like Dane Reynolds and Jordy Smith (who admittedly has also clipped his wings somewhat). While Medina, Toledo and John John touch the sky or simply pull out airs when they need them, Julian of late seems more content to rely on his muscular rail game and tube riding skills.
For his part, Julian challenges the notion that he has relinquished his flight facilities. “I’m comfortable in the air and I’ve had some great moments of doing airs in competition, but there’s a time and a place and a certain feeling that you have for certain match ups… I definitely look for the opportunity to do it when it’s needed or when the time is right.” Wilson does however admit that the pursuit of a world title and the corresponding validation it will bring to his career has altered his surfing appetites.
“I love free surfing but I feel like the true kind of desire at this point in my career is going after a world title and that’s where my focus lies. I’m not really as concerned these days with being a top freeseurfer.”
Where Julian might once have been dialed in to the latest dizzying tricks being performed by freesurfing air-junkies around the world, these days he is more likely to devour contest-related content. “I spend a lot of time watching heats. Watching contests. Watching old heats and current heats. I watch favourite heats. I watch my favourite surfers. I watch good, bad ugly heats that I’ve had.” As Julian details his viewing habits he comes off sounding like the dedicated prize-fighter who, in addition to the rigorous training, watches hours and hours of bouts in the lead up to a title fight.
In listening to Julian explain his desire and methodology for claiming a title there is also something refreshing about his naked ambition. In a pro surfing culture where being perceived as cool often takes priority, many competitors can expend as much energy trying to disguise their ambitions as they do endeavouring to fulfill them. Wilson is arguably more of a straight shooter and happily takes his cues from successful sportsman in other fields who aren’t afraid to declare their intentions. Competitors from different sports share a unique kind of
kinship beyond the specifics of their chosen sport – the pressure moments, the necessary perfectionism, the all-blinding pursuit of goals and the demands to be at your absolute best every time you swing a club or pull on a jersey. A friendship with a fellow elite sportsman from another code can be a invaluable because you are at liberty to trade stories, express doubts and talk through form slumps, confident in the knowledge they will never have to square up against that person in a competitive scenario.
Former prolific run scorer for the Australian cricket team, Mathew Hayden, has long been a friend and confidant of Julian’s. “Matt Hayden has been a huge influence on my career. He’s a great role model and someone who is always there to talk to. I talk to him a lot. He’s like a pillar in Australian sport. He’s had an incredible career and dealt with a lot of pressure.” Golfer Adam Scott is another successful sportsman with whom Julian shares a close relationship. While Hayden has been retired for several years, at 37, Scott is still very much in his prime as a golfer.
“It’s a very open experience for sure, there’s no guarded nature about it,” explains Wilson in relation to his friendship with Scott. “We talk quite a bit at a competitive level about what we’re doing and priorities and moments we’ve had. It’s really cool to share that stuff amongst sports and amongst people that I look up to.”
Within the ranks of pro surfing, Julian’s close relationship with Mick Fanning has frequently been the source of WSL commentary box banter. Certainly, a biting twist of fate helped ensure an already close friendship became a cast-iron bond. When Mick and Julian paddled out for their J-Bay semi final in 2015 they were two mates cast in a battle for the world title. Aware his own career wasn’t infinite, but eager to play his part in ensuring Australia maintained its presence at the pointy end of pro surfing,
Mick had also been mentoring Julian. When Mick was hit by a shark during the semi, Jules famously went to his aid. By the time they made it in alive they had unintentionally claimed the lead and supporting roles in pro surfing’s biggest-ever mainstream drama. Jules acknowledges the strength of the union between himself and Mick.
“Me and Mick have a great friendship. Definitely a life-long friendship now more so than ever. He played a bit of a role in the first few events in 2015. He gave me some insight and we had a great connection there. He’s always there for me but obviously you have to do it on your own.”
Now that Mick is officially retired he can comment more freely on the prospects of his Australian friend. Asked about what Julian needs to do to secure the elusive first title, Mick offers encouragement and practical advice.
“Julian is looking great. He’s always had the surfing to be a world champion but just had to figure out a couple of things. The biggest thing that I have noticed this year is he’s okay to grind out a heat if it’s necessary and then ready to light it up when it comes together. Not every heat is going to be an 18-point heat so you need to be ready to fight when it’s called for. To get through his shoulder injury whilst still getting results would be a huge confidence booster too.”
While Mick Fanning is a mentor who can be tapped for advice at crucial times, Andy King is the perennial corner-man. In the modern pro surfing scene coaches are a celebrated and debated aspect of the sport, but it’s often difficult to identify the distinctive attributes they offer. Do they hold the keys to crucial secrets that they never reveal without a pay cheque, or is it more a case of being a sounding board – a pseudo-psychologist and a second set of eyes for gifted surfers who know most of the answers themselves?
At 45, Andy King has been involved with the sport for nearly three decades, making the transition from highly-ranked WQS competitor, to coach after an assault outside a Cronulla night club significantly affected his hearing along with his sense of equilibrium and balance.
Julian has long searched for the surfing brain best equipped to help him transform his preternatural talent into a world title. Jake Paterson and Jarrad Howse are two of the high-profile figures he has travelled with over the years. After working with the Red Bull team (where he first connected with Julian) Andy King served as head coach with Surfing Australia for a number of years. However, in his quest for a title, Julian was determined to surround himself with the best people and ultimately convinced Kingy to relinquish the role at Surfing Australia and work exclusively with him.
“He’s my wingman. We just have a really good relationship and I’m just rapt to have him in my corner for the whole year. He brings a lot of confidence and knowledge and support into the competitive environment, which is what works for me.”
Kingy’s infectious aura and goodwill are the thing of legend in pro surfing circles. So much so that you could imagine him as the sort of guy who just might successfully broker a peace deal with the head of ISIS over a coffee and a chat. However the good-natured exterior belies an astute surfing mind, coupled with an ability to instill confidence in his surfers at clutch moments.
Julian suggests that he and Kingy don’t get too caught up in technical discussions about manoeuvres and biomechanics. Instead the focus is on tactics and identifying the nuances of a particular event. “We don’t get too specific on things, we work a lot more around
feelings and equipment and the broader picture. He’s really helpful and effective when it comes into the competitive environment. I like to keep my surfing quite focused and not too refined and not too predictable and he’s fully aware of that. So we kind of just focus on strategy and being in that competitive environment and the things that work.” Of course Australian surfers have a particular interest in how the Andy King/Julian Wilson combination fares on the tour this year. Australian fans expect to dominate pro surfing in the way New Zealanders assume the AllBlacks will always be the best rugby team in the world. If you attribute the Hawaiian titles to Hawaii and not the USA (which the WSL does on their official site) then on the men’s tour Australia still has more world titles (16) and more world champions (9 different world champions) than any other nation. Despite the impressive statistics, in recent years, Australia’s capacity to maintain their supremacy has looked fragile. Twice it seemed like Wilko would emerge as an unlikely champion, while Owen Wright’s claims upon the crown were temporarily stifled by an almost career-ending injury. Many see Julian as Australia’s best hope of world title success in the modern era. For Julian, representing Australia is obviously important, but he suggests he doesn’t overburden himself with any unnecessary patriotic expectations. “I love representing my country; it’s motivating. I love where I’m from. I’m a very proud Australian. I don’t feel an added pressure to win the world title for Australia. Obviously there has been some incredible world champions before my generation. I know that if I do what I’m after and focus on what I’m doing then that focus and support is going to be there because as Australians we love surfing.” Riding high on the fervent support from Australian fans plays its part for Wilson, but winning a world title remains fundamentally a personal ambition; an achievement that would add a desirable symmetry to a career in which he has already been acknowledged as one of the world’s best freesurfers. Julian’s Bio films and reels of footage secure his freesuring legacy, however, as John John learnt, winning the title brings an unparalleled validation to everything you’ve done and every wave you’ve ridden on the path to get there. Obviously there are major economic incentives to winning the title – sponsors offer major contractual incentives for a world crown and a title significantly increases the reach and longevity of your public image. One can only imagine the mainstream press, glossy mags and websites in a tizz over Julian Wilson the handsome young father and world champion surfer. However, for a surfer of Julian’s superior ability the real gift of a world title is perhaps peace of mind. Julian is well aware he has been blessed with the talent to reach the pinnacle of pro surfing, but also knows that no one is going to hand him the trophy. Joel Parkinson won his belated title at 31 and that was after four runner-up finishes. At 29 Julian probably has another decade of competition surfing ahead if he chooses, but remaining in the upper echelons of the rankings will become increasingly difficult as the next generation of voracious competitors comes leaping through the WCT gates. The last thing Julian wants is to be condemned to that torturous limbo-land reserved for ‘best surfers never to win a world title’. The time is ripe. As we go to print, Julian has just relinquished the yellow jersey to Filipe Toledo, the wing-heeled Brazilian who has his own world title script to write. Given Toledo’s poor track record at Teahupoo, and Wilson’s role as the event’s incumbent champion, the Billabong Pro Tahiti represents an excellent opportunity for Wilson to reclaim the supremacy. Beyond that it will likely be a four-contest scrap to the finish. The smart money will be on Toledo to triumph at the inaugural, WCT wave pool event, while the European leg presents itself as an even playing field between the two surfers who are now well beyond the rest of the field on the Jeep leaderboard. If Julian can be in front or close to Toledo (or anyone for that matter) come the Pipe Masters then the advantage certainly swings his way. Whatever the scenario he is presented with, one senses Julian needs to get this thing done now, so that in 30 year’s time, when he is content to do nothing but trim his longboard on a Noosa Point, he can kick out of every wave and paddle back out, comforted by the knowledge that at one point in time he was the undisputed champion of the world.
Hopefully Julian’s World Title dreams will not be so easily broken,
While more recently he’s relied on railwork to win heats, Julian certainly hasn’t forgotten how to fly. Inset top: Jules congratulating perennial rival, Gabriel Medina, on his world title victory back in 2014. Inset bottom: Julian’s mum, Nola, giving the judges a nudge at this year’s Quiksilver Pro.
Left: Julian’s well documented ability in Hawaii could prove to be a critical factor in the title race.
Left: Jules has already enjoyed an on again off again romance with the yellow jersey this year. Photos: Miller.
Right: Mate and mentor, Mick Fanning, embraces Julian after his victory at Teahupoo last year.
Jules may still have the pin-up looks, but there is a distinctively savage quality to his surfing.
Trusted coach, Andy King (pictured), has the job of knowing when to get serious and when to enjoy a laugh.