Paddy Upton

New dawn of SA surfers are making waves across the world

Jinzung Harbour – The Springboks recently took the rugby world by storm, dominating the best of the best to emerge as world champions.

On an entirely different sporting canvas, the same nation’s athletes are taking their sporting world by storm, in what the experts are calling “the South African cyclone”.

For the past five years the World Surf League’s Championship Tour (CT) has been dominated by what’s been known as ‘the Brazilian Storm’. In fact, until five years ago, and since South African Shaun Tomson won the surfing world title in 1977, an Australian or American has won 30 out of 36 world titles, with Hawaiian’s claiming another five. Then came the Brazilians, who have won three of the last five. With mere weeks to go before the 2019 World Surfing champion will be crowned, three of the four title contenders are Brazilian.

Surfing’s Championship Tour is possibly one of the toughest of all sports, where only 36 surfers make it onto the 11-contest world tour each year. All others who aspire to that level need to pay their own way to journey the year-long Qualifying Series (QS), which is a series of non-stop events held across the globe. No matter how far a surfer has travelled, if they lose in the first-round, in a 25-minute heat, they pack their bags and travel (alone) to wait for the next event. It’s a brutal, expensive and lonely game – which the surf world calls ‘the grind’. Because it is one, it grinds people down, drains money and delivers disappointment in abundance. The only antidote is resilience, to keep grinding away.

Surfing’s recent emergence as a fully-fledged professional sport might hold some insight into what whipped up the Brazilian storm. With a Championship Tour surfer being able to earn between $250 000 – $400 000 annually, excluding endorsements, and with surfing now an official Olympic sport, it offers a ticket out of poverty. Males and females on the CT earn equal prize monies. Along with football, surfing provides Brazilians another career option, and this has fuelled the insatiable hunger that’s seen them rise to the top of the world. And as fellow surfers will also know, this hunger has also spilled over into most ‘Brazza’s’ getting a bad reputation for being greedy and over-competitive wave-hogs. It’s paying off, at least as far as material success goes.

But there is a new storm brewing, with its current epicentres in Taiwan and Hawaii. Surf commentators in both of these venues, where the World Junior and World Senior Champions will soon be crowned, are talking about ‘the South African cyclone’.

At the current Junior World Championships (U18) held in Taiwan, three of 24 of the top male contestants are South African, as are two of the 18 females. Not unlike the Brazilians, these South African surfers receive absolutely no financial support from the government. These juniors have paid their own way to Taiwan, with all travel and logistics done by their parents on a WhatsApp group. They are currently in Taiwan without a coach and have just one parent as a manager/chaperone. I love the sport – and help with mental coaching for some of our countries top surfers when I’m not on cricket tours – so I volunteered to join that parent to provide whatever additional help I could. On a heart-warming side-note, in order to join the team, I needed a passport and visa to travel from Cape Town to me in a remote part of India, and no courier company could guarantee delivery in time. I posted on social media about needing to get my passport faster than a courier could deliver. Thanks to the generosity of five different people, three of whom were strangers I would never meet, my passport passed through four cities and these five sets of hands to be delivered to me in less than 36 hours. My faith in the innate goodness of humanity was again confirmed.

Now in Jinzung Harbour Taiwan, this tightly bonded group of five 15-18 year olds are revelling in a fan following of five; myself, that parent, two South African surfers who surfed in the Taiwan Qualifying Series event immediately before this one, and who stayed on to support their juniors, and last years’ Longboard World Champion, South African Steve Sawyer who is here to defend his World title as soon as this junior event finishes.

The quality of surfing by these five young South Africans, along with their grounded, polite and respectful demeanour is gaining them respect in leaps and bounds. Luke Slijpen, Eli Beukes, Luke Thompson, Zoe Steyn and Ceara Knight are the early winds of the new South African cyclone. The same South African cyclone has been ripping through Hawaii. In the penultimate event of Qualifying Series in Hawaii, an impressive nine South Africans featured in a star-studded field, which included the entries by the majority of the Championship Tour surfers. South Africa’s Matt McGillivray made the final which placed him sixth on the Qualifying Series with one contest to go. The top 10 on this QS tour will take their place on the coveted 2020 Championship Tour of 36, replacing the bottom 10 in the sports brutal annual culling from the tour (and from its significant financial upside).

There is another small and elite band of athletes who are known as ’big wave surfers’, men and women who armed with courage and a seemingly healthy dose of madness, chase storms around the world in order to surf the biggest waves that ocean can muster. Riding waves of up to 25 metres and maybe even more, they hope to survive the thrill, in a sport where some don’t. These storms were ‘tamed’ by South African big-wave Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker as he was crowned Big Wave World Champion in 2016, and again last year. 2018 saw South African Ant Smythe  being crowned World Champion Adaptive (disabled) surfer, and in the bodyboarding front, South African have produced three world champions in the last three years, Iain Campbell in 2017, Jared Houston in 2018 and Tristan Roberts In 2019. Add this achievement to Steve Sawyer’s longboard world title last year, and the South African cyclone is clearly gaining momentum.

On surfing’s biggest stage and in the eye of the cyclone is Championship Tour and South African surfer Jordy Smith. With 10 CT events done and one to go, Jordy is one of four, alongside those three Brazilians, in contention to be crowned 2019 World Surfing Champion. The winner will be decided at the Pipeline Masters in Hawaii, the pinnacle of surfing events held at one of the surfing world’s most powerful, dangerous and iconic waves.

With the South African cyclone gaining momentum, anticipation builds as a new junior World Champion will be crowned by this Sunday, at a similar time we will know whether Matt McGillivray will represent South Africa in the coveted 2020 Championship Tour. By mid-December the world will also know whether Jordy Smith’s performance at Pipeline is sufficient to be crowned 2019 world champion. After the performance of our rugby team, this cyclone of self-funded warriors-of-the-waves are adding their mark on the world stage.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *