I was born in the western suburbs of Sydney at a place called Penrith. The youngest of five kids.
The beach was a two hour drive away. Mum would load us into her Red Datsun – radio blasting with old rock songs – and drive us down the coast.
We didn’t have much but we didn’t need much. We had each other and that was plenty.
With three older brothers competition was a part of life when we were groms. We battled for for everything: food, toys, and eventually waves. I think that’s where my competitive nature comes from.
My parents split when I was three and we moved north. Hard times made a little easier because we were living on the coast.
My three big brothers started surfing and, as little annoying siblings tend to do, I followed them.
My competitiveness nature really started to take hold when I hit double digits – Soccer, running, school, cricket, rugby league – the game didn’t matter, I loved it all; but surfing was different. I got a buzz from surfing I couldn’t get from anything else.
Life was great and got even better when Mum took a job on the Gold Coast. The place was awesome.
I started competing in pro junior events and was getting results. Big contracts were coming my way and life was as good as it gets for 16 year old kid.
I wrote out a list of goals on a piece of paper and stuck it to the wall above my bed.
- win a pro junior
- win a QS event
- make the tour
- win a CT event
- Become World Champion.
My older brother Sean had the same goals and it bound us; We dreamed of making the tour together. He encouraged me and looked out for me. He was my hero.
Sean was just 20 when he died in a car accident. We were out at party together but got split up. I walked home… Sean jumped in a car with friends. On the walk home the police picked me up and told me Sean was gone. I was burdened with the news and had to tell the family.
I locked myself in my room and didn’t leave it for a week.
When I finally got myself together my motivation to achieve my goals went into hyperdrive. I wanted to honour my brother by fulfilling our dream.
Winning Bells as a wildcard in 2001 against my childhood idol Danny Wills was surreal. I dedicated the win to Sean.
That year I started to tick things off that list from my bedroom wall all those years ago. I won the world qualifying series and got my ticket to the championship tour.
Suddenly I was travelling the world surfing against the best: Kelly Slater, Mark Occhilupo, Andy Irons, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox and the rest.
I finished fifth my first season. Then went to fourth. Mathematically I was close to title contention but to be honest I was nowhere near it. I had the desire but not the dedication. I wasn’t world champ material.
A career threatening injury made me realise that; I was told I might not ever get back to my best. I’d taken my good heath and my position to potentially win a world title for granted. Even before the injury I had weaknesses in my surfing and my attitude. Something had to change.
I applied myself to a new training regime. I began to understand my body and myself better than I ever had. Made a successful return from injury and got to third in the world. I wanted to be a world champion, I became obsessed with the goal.
2007 was the year it all came together. On the day I won my first world title in Brazil there was a dolphin out there in the line up. It wasn’t part of a pod, it was just cruising around solo and kept popping up during my heats. I felt the presence of my brother, Sean. That day I became the first Australian to win the title since Occy eight years earlier and the greatest of all time, Kelly Slater, handed me the title trophy. It was the best, and I got to dedicate it all to my brother.
In 2009 I locked horns with my best mate and long time competitive rival Joel Parkinson in an intense title race. I won a second world title but it took it’s toll on me. Joel and I didn’t exactly hang too thick that year. I was winning but felt like my relationship and friendships were suffering.
The third world title in 2013 was more fun. I could flick the switch and get into competitive mode but could now zone out and enjoy the world around me.
Competition became a game and it started a solid run for me. I was in contention again for a few years there and 2015 felt like another world title year.
At J-Bay I felt unbeatable and going into the second half of the year eyed this as my event to charge ahead on the ratings. That’s when old mate in the grey suit popped up and in a matter of seconds altered the course of my life and gave me perspective I’d never had before. Competition points didn’t mean much in that moment, living was a priority.
Dealing with some other personal stuff and an outrageous level of public and media interest along the way I went into the final event, the Pipe Masters, leading the world title race. Everything felt right… a fourth title was right there.
On the day it was all set to go down at Pipe I was woken early… too early… by a knock on my door. My beautiful mum standing there… tears in her eyes and clearly hurting. I knew it was bad news. She told me my eldest brother Pete had passed away.
I was so thankful I’d caught up with Pete just a couple of months before that final event. He rarely revealed his feelings but he told me his favourite thing to do was watch me compete. He told me he was proud of me and that he loved me.
The morning I found out he’d passed away friends were comforting me telling me I didn’t have to do go out if I wasn’t up to it. I knew what Pete would want.
To win the World Title I had to place ahead of Adriano de Souza. I was up for the challenge but had to overcome the two greatest Pipe surfers of all time in Kelly Slater and John John Florence to stay in contention.
The waves were firing and we all had excellent rides. I won the heat but lost the title to Adriano. Losing the title didn’t hurt. At the end of the day I only had Pete in my thoughts.
The perspective experienced from the shark incident was nothing compared to losing a brother on the eve of a world title showdown.
Looking back on my career now I think that heat with John and Kelly was the pinnacle for me. Kelly is the greatest of all time and John is without question the best surfer in the world right now. I won the most difficult heat a surfer at the elite level can have in the most challenging circumstances. That single heat win was the hardest and most satisfying of my entire career. And no heat from then on could match it in significance or my desire to win. It’s the moment I’m most proud of in my career and the ultimate dedication to my big bro.
The day was made even more special when I hit the beach and discovered all my best friends from home had heard the news about Pete and flew over to support me. I’d lost, but realised in life I was winning.
Before the 2016 season kicked off I knew I didn’t want to compete but wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to retire for good. I surfed in a five events to keep a spot for 2017 and buy some time to consider my next move.
For over 20 years my schedule has been dictated by event dates and locations. Now I could go wherever I wanted, explore new places and experience new things.
The only event I really focussed on in 2016 was J-Bay. I had so many good memories of that place and felt I had unfinished work after the final was canned in 2015. The victory over John John in the final is what got me thinking about having another shot at the tour. I didn’t want to be sitting around in 10 years time wondering if I’d retired too early.
I signed up for 2017 and I’m so glad I did. I realised I wasn’t really fixated on the title but got so much joy out of seeing other people win like Owen, Julian and Wilko. I saw glimpses of the future performances from John John and Filipe. I saw the kind of hunger and determination it takes to get yourself into title contention from Medina. I don’t have that drive for competition anymore.
Between the world title victories there were other moments: Big event wins, memorable heats, crazy adventures and monumental mistakes.
One thing I’m constantly asked by the media is do I have any regrets. Sure, there’s things I’ve done that I’m not proud of, but I wouldn’t change anything. I’d only regret those mistakes if I hadn’t learnt from them.
You might be wondering “what’s he gonna do now?”… well, it’s probably no surprise to anyone but I’m gonna go surfing… as much as I can to as many new places as I can find! I want to experiment with different equipment and enjoy a fresh approach. But the main goal is one I’ve been working on for a while: That is be a better person, a reliable friend, a loving son and brother and raise awareness of the challenges facing our environment.
I reckon that will keep me pretty busy.
I wanna thank everyone that has been part of my trip so far I can’t wait to see where this new road takes me.