Jamie Mitchell Will Always Push Himself To The Limit

Aussie waterman Jamie Mitchell will always push himself to the limit

Big-wave rider, long-distance paddler and all-around daredevil, Jamie Mitchell has always felt at home in the water. For Mitchell, the ocean is not only a source of resolve, but a blank canvas on which he can paint a trailblazing legacy and pursue boundless challenges.

JAMIE MITCHELL HAS ALWAYS been a thrill seeker. Born in New South Wales’ Coffs Harbour, Mitchell moved to the Gold Coast in his childhood, where he first gained an interest in ocean sports. That interest quickly blossomed into an obsession, eventually resulting in a decision to move to Hawaii to pursue his true calling. Mitchell has followed that calling for more than two decades and he’s still taking on the type of challenges an ordinary person can barely conceive of, let alone contemplate. But Jamie Mitchell is no ordinary person.

The ocean surrounds everything Mitchell does. The waterman, connecting with Men’s Health via Zoom from his home at Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, lives only a stone’s throw from the coast, but the walls of his living quarters are still adorned with paintings and photographs of the sea—the mark of a true waterman. “I really do feel a deep connection with the ocean,” Mitchell tells me. “It feels like it’s where I’m meant to be.” No kidding.

Mitchell’s love of everything waterborne was fostered in childhood. “I grew up around the water,” he explains. “I was diagnosed with really bad asthma as a kid and my parents thought swimming would help that.” Mitchell spent his formative years in Nippers, swimming and surfing whenever he had the time, learning how to master the art of natural buoyancy and coming to terms with the respect the ocean commands. “That consumed my life up until my early 20s,” he says. “I surfed all the time, but it wasn’t on the radar for me as anything but a bit of fun.”

While a full-time career in the ocean may not have been on Mitchell’s radar, his pipe dreams of surfing the world’s best breaks and taking on the biggest swells were bubbling just below the surface. One location stood out in particular, “I always dreamed of surfing at Waimea Bay,” Mitchell says.

 

 

Waimea Bay, situated on Oahu’s North Shore, is the birthplace of big wave surfing. With unnaturally large waves forming only a few times each year due to winter storms in the North Pacific, Waimea can produce behemoths in excess of 30 feet. The Bay is also home to the Eddie Aikau Invitational, a prestigious big wave event held in honour of legendary surfer Eddie Aikau, which drew the attention of a young Mitchell.

A voyage to Hawaii beckoned. Mitchell made the jump in his early 20s, venturing to the island chain to take part in the Molokai to Oahu Ocean Paddling Championships, known more simply as the Molokai. A gruelling 52-kilometre paddleboard endurance race across the Kaiwi Channel, the Molokai tests the mental and physical strength of competitors against Mother Nature’s greatest defences: mountainous waves, the cruel heat of the sun, and some of the planet’s strongest deep-sea currents.

Finishing the Molokai is an achievement in itself—not everyone has what it takes to best the monumental challenge, after all. To win the event is to establish yourself as one of the world’s premier endurance athletes, which Mitchell did when he conquered the contest in 2002. He would match the feat a year later. And again the year after that. And again and again until he had amassed a total of ten consecutive Molokai victories, a dominant accomplishment unmatched by anyone in the competition’s history.

Mitchell’s Molokai triumphs were, naturally, an arduous undertaking, requiring a level of commitment similar to that of the athletes we commonly see performing highlight plays on our screens. Those athletes are typically on multi-million-dollar contracts and handsomely rewarded for their athletic output. Maintaining the prerequisite fitness and dedication needed for a high-performance event like the Molokai, with minimal financial rewards, while living on the opposite end of the ocean to where the event takes place, is another story entirely. That challenge is what drove Mitchell to make the life-changing decision to move to Hawaii. “I was spending around six months a year in Hawaii anyway, at some point I just decided to fully commit to it and make the move,” he says.

It was at the Molokai that Mitchell began learning about what it meant to be a waterman, grasping the myriad benefits of a close relationship with the ocean. “That started to spark my interest in being more than one dimensional,” he says. “I started doing more than just paddling, swimming, and surfing. From there, I fell in love with the lifestyle.”

Upon moving to Hawaii, Mitchell adopted the all-encompassing lifestyle of a waterman, which he has maintained to this day. Although, waterman is a term he uses loosely. He can’t deny that he is one, but he doesn’t let the label define him. “I think that term gets thrown around a bit because people don’t know how to describe what people like me do,” Mitchell says. “A waterman can mean a lot of different things, but really I think it’s just someone that enjoys the ocean and is able to use it in so many different ways.”

Mitchell began expanding his horizons, searching for new challenges, and new ways to push himself. Eventually he landed on big wave surfing, the most difficult—and dangerous—trial the ocean could throw at him.

 

 

Mitchell doesn’t diminish the danger of his profession. He knows he’s frequently teetering on the edge of the limitations imposed on human performance by higher powers. “There are definitely times when I know when I’m pushing the limits of what I’m capable of,” he says. But it would take more than fear to deter Mitchell. After a lifetime spent in the ocean, he feels he can lean on his experience in those situations to protect himself. “Surfing is such an instinctual sport,” he says. “I think we all have those doubts sometimes, but what comes with experience and time in the water is being able to make the right decision when it matters.”

That approach has led to Mitchell garnering an expansive list of accolades. He’s a six-time United States paddleboard champion, four-time Australian waterman of the Year, two-time long-distance paddleboard world champion, one-time winner of the XXL biggest paddle wave award and one-time winner of the XXL overall performer of the year award. Mitchell even conquered the formidable Nazare break, which produces 100-foot swell, when he won the WSL’s big wave challenge there in 2016.

With a rap sheet like that, Mitchell is revered by surfers around the world, and was even called “one of the greatest unknown sportsmen of all time” by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater. Mitchell’s greatest achievement, however, is not the biggest wave he’s caught, or the most coveted title he’s won. His proudest accomplishment was the realisation of a childhood dream, when he finally surfed the storied shores of Waimea Bay in the Eddie Aikau invitational. “Just being there amongst all those other guys in such a special place, for me, that was my best moment,” Mitchell says.

Of course big wave riding and water-borne thrill-seeking is a high-risk lifestyle, one that inevitably caught up with Mitchell. Through the course of chasing monstrous swell across the globe for decades, Mitchell has broken his back, busted his ribs and broken his sternum. That collection of injuries would force less obstinate adventurers to call it a day, but Mitchell understands his relationship with the ocean is a give and take. “You’ve got to have a lot of respect for big waves and for how dangerous the ocean really is,” he says.

 

 

Confronted with a string of brutal injuries, Mitchell was tempted to listen to Mother Nature insistent calls that he finally submit to her will and give it all away. Instead, he decied to commit to a rigorous recovery regimen. As he says, “You’ve got to really go hard on the rehab.” For Mitchell, that meant prioritising functional, low-impact training, which allowed him to maintain his fitness, without putting too much of a strain on his ailing body.

In particular, Mitchell singles out working with fitness chain Foundation Training as a crucial component of his rehabilitation process. “It’s simple functional training that really helped with my back and posture,” he says. “I was doing yoga, running, riding my bike, swimming, even some breath work. I did a wide array of training and it all helped me get better.”

To this day, Mitchell still places a high value on recovery processes. While he isn’t currently recovering from a grisly injury, he has a sauna and ice bath at his home, which are essential aspects of his daily routine. “I use them every day for recovery after hard training sessions,” he says.

For Mitchell, it’s necessary that his relationship with the ocean be a symbiotic one. If you spend as much time in nature as he does, you’ll doubtlessly notice the harmful impact climate change and human interference have had on the environment. Mitchell has witnessed this impact first-hand, and he’s not averse to taking things into his own hands to promote positive change.

In 2019, Mitchell launched the Seven Crossings Project, a documentary series in which he embarked on a 273 km journey throughout the Channel Islands off the coast of California. The project aimed to raise awareness about protecting the environment through sustainable practices, and for the research being undertaken by the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Institute for Environment and Sustainability.

 

 

Planning is currently underway for the second edition of the Seven Crossings Project. Nothing is final, but Mitchell wants to paddle the entire length of the Hawaiian island chain. “Sustainability is so important in the world we live in,” he says. “If I can do anything to raise awareness about some issues, then it makes sense to do it.”

At 46 years of age, the curtain is beginning to close on Mitchell’s sporting career, and he knows it. “I’ve probably got about a decade left in me. You hear a lot of athletes say they just know when they’re not passionate about it anymore, I think that’ll be what it’s like for me,” he says. “I can see myself doing this for another 10 years or so, but whether my body holds up that long is a different story.”

Given his extensive injury history, it’s understandable that Mitchell often considers walking away from the lifestyle he holds so dearly. “There are times where I’m like, Man I just really don’t wanna get hurt again. And I don’t want to go through the rehab and all of that stuff again,” he says. Those qualms won’t hold him back from making the most of his remaining time though.

“In another sense, I realise that you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got when you’ve got it,” Mitchell says. “For now, I’m full throttle. I’m training super hard and doing everything I can to be healthy. When the time comes where I’ve got to slow down, I’ll be okay with that.”

Whether he retires tomorrow or ten years from now, you can bet that Mitchell will spend the rest of his life doing what he’s always done: exploring his connection with the ocean and loving every second of it.

 

By Cayle Reid

Cayle Reid is a fan of everything sports and fitness. He spends his free time at the gym, on his surfboard or staying up late watching sports in incompatible time zones.

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