Ju­lian Wilson's im­mi­nent quest for a world ti­tle

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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.

Photo: Mo­ran.

Hope­fully Ju­lian’s World Ti­tle dreams will not be so easily bro­ken,

Photo: Miller. Photo: Mo­ran. Photo: WSL/Sloane

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.

Photo: Mo­ran

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.

Photo: Miller.

Jules may still have the pin-up looks, but there is a dis­tinc­tively sav­age qual­ity to his surf­ing.

Photo: Bosko

Trusted coach, Andy King (pic­tured), has the job of know­ing when to get se­ri­ous and when to en­joy a laugh.

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