Jordy Smith, Surfing His Own Wave
Words: Shawn Collier
Images: Kent Andreasen
Jordy Smith is the 29-year-old power surfer from South Africa flying the flag for all things great in his sport. He is capable of the type of on-rail surfing that, a few years ago, looked like it might disappear due to the “tricks” the kids were bringing to the sport, taking their cues from other “extreme” sports such as skating and snowboarding. Not that Jordy’s air game isn’t right up there—it is. It’s just Jordy knows how to handle a wave like very few can.
His hard work, dedication and most definitely innovation in surfing has really come around. Time, struggles, mentors, coaches, comps, injuries. Life set up around getting water time. Having practised the sport for 28 years myself, I find my mind casting towards the sacrifices Jordy would have made to become one of the top-ranked surfers on the planet. You don’t just stumble upon world-class surfing, it takes focus, a lot of it.
What have you been up to today?
I went for a little surf and it’s raining over here right now. It’s hot and sticky. It gets hot once the rain starts drying and lifting into the air.
Did you get any bluebottle stings?
No, but a lot of crew did. I’m kinda used to the bluebottles, as we have them in South Africa.
I’m phoning from New Zealand. Have you been here?
Yeah, for a trip to Raglan. I was there for a catch-up with the O’Neill team over there.
Nah, just a little holiday-type trip.
Have you heard of Gisborne?
Yes, I’ve heard the waves are good.
I met you last year—I was living in Coolangatta for the year. It was down the tower at the Snapper comp. I was throwing scores around with Andy King while the trials for the 2016 event were running and I got to meet you and check out your boards. I also know you as I’m riding for Clayton surfboards.
Oh, yeah. Clayton is from around my area. He’s a super-calm, humble guy. I really like him.
At the beginning of our conversation, I felt like Jordy was only semi interested in responding to yet another intrusion into his life. Sometimes people who’ve had much of their private life exposed no longer want to talk to the press.
Maybe Jordy was feeling that, with every interview he does, a little bit of who he is as a person is sucked out of him. My intentions were never that. And as Jordy and me continued yarning at a relaxed pace, I could feel the walls coming down. A shift in the gears, a peak in his voice, a laugh here and there. He dismantled any pretence of being superior to me, or to anyone, for that matter. The conversation flowed. The fan was slowly becoming a friend.
You’re living in Cali?
I’m not really living in Cali, I’m based there for now.
Did you choose there for the high performance?
To be honest, not really. It’s where all the industry is. Plus, it’s easier to fly to events from there.
I bet you miss your family and friends.
Yes, they come over to stay with us a bit in Cali, so we get to catch up.
When do you get to go back home to South Africa?
In January, February and July. It’s nice to be near friends, surfing breaks I grew up on,seeing my friends who work 9-to-5 jobs and realising that I’m so blessed to be doing what I’m doing every day. Nothing beats that, so good.
How do you keep a level head?
My friends are good for that, telling you how it is. I find my wife is good at it, too.
Same, my wife lets me know for sure.
Non-pro surfers often rely on the conditions to dictate how they’re feeling. Have you heard the oh-so-common “The waves have been rubbish for three days”? They get beside themselves, waiting, torqued until the next good surf.
Jordy talked about how sometimes the waves are perfect and guys are getting barrelled everywhere, yet he may not be finding any or he may be out in the rip or not feeling it. Other times, in the same conditions, he could be having a great surf, or he could be in rubbish onshore waves and still enjoying it.
You’re a big guy in tour terms.
Yeah, I’m nearly 90kg. Most guys are small, 70 to 75kg. It changes how I approach things.
Small guys have an advantage in the smaller waves. Being 6ft 3in and trying to fit a 6ft 2in board into a tight transition is hard.
A bit like skating a micro mini-ramp, where the board won’t fit into that small bit of space and becomes whippy.
Exactly. But the advantage is that when there is a big open face, I’m able to lay it over on a rail with a lot of power.
Do you skate?
Yes, I grew up skateboarding, but I don’t do it too much now because of injuries. I still have an interest in the sport, though.
Often, Jordy will turn up at an event in a strange place that looks nothing like home. The weather is what it is when he arrives—rain, hail or shine, big, small, soft, powerful, beach, reef, point. What break will he train at today? It’s always crowded, everyone in town wants to surf with their heroes.
What do you think about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?
I’d love to be a part of it. I’m wondering if it will be in a wave pool, since it’s still three years away. Look at cell phones over the past 15 years. I mean, wave pools will be incredible. They may just have it at the beach, though—one of the ones in the Chiba area.
Do you think there will be groups of kids training in wave pools in the future?
Nothing will replace ocean knowledge—where to paddle out, where to sit, what peak to pick, the rips. You can’t go without surfing the beach. I see some kids in the future maybe learning the basics in the pool as their first surfing experience, but then I see them heading into the ocean.
As a pro-level surfer, you’re paid the big bucks for having to leave friends behind, for having to tell family halfway across the world, “I’ll see you perhaps 10 weeks this year if we’re lucky,”.
And spending endless hours smiling at strangers, signing things, doing interviews, walking through crowds after a close heat that didn’t go your way, listening to the commentator talking on the loudspeaker while you ride about how you caught a rail or how you missed the section. All while maintaining focus. Never mind the judges replaying your every ride on a screen so big that you can see your shortcomings on the paddle back up the point, while the crowd is screaming with joy as your opponent scores a set wave and tears past you. No easy task.
Who’s on the team? A physio, tech, heats, trainers?
It’s really just me, my coach Chris “Gally” Gallagher and my wife while on the road. What about study of your opponents?
You have to take note of what they’re doing. For example, I wouldn’t let Filipe Toledo take off on a 2ft rampy one with 30 seconds to go.
You’ve signed up with a new company. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeah, I’m super-excited to be riding for Brandblack. They’re a relationship-based company. We’re going to be working on my custom shoe. I’ve been going down to the shop and picking out colour samples. They’re passionate about what they do and it’s the first time I’ve been involved at this level.
To meet a new coach who you confide in, share all your deepest fears with, work and train with, day after day—Jordy has to do four surfs a day in a training week—it’s hard work.
A coach you cry with during injury, all in the knowledge that, when that contract is over, you will part ways and have to be OK with that. Then you might need to start that same process with someone new again, maybe even watch as your old coach, who became a close friend, trains someone else … That’s business. That’s life. Though it still doesn’t make it any easier to move on.
You were number 2 in the world last year.
I have to let go of that and keep moving forward. It’s important I set that aside to focus on what’s ahead.
Tell me a bit about the back injury in 2013.
I’ve just come out the end of a back injury myself. They really suck. Those times when you’re thinking, “Will I surf again?” You surround yourself with positive people, you have to. You are only looking at what you can do in the next 24 hours to get better, not focusing too far ahead and working hard with what you have in front of you at that moment.
How do you feel about Owen Wright coming back from his brain injury of 2015 and winning the comp at Snapper this year?
What a great story for him! He had everyone around him. Also, you can be a lot more relaxed coming to an event when there fewer expectations of you after an injury, excited that you are even back in competition. All these little things can turn into something incredible. Wilko Matt Wilkinson making the final again. The odds were really hard to repeat something like that.
Consider Jordy has been on the World Surf League tour now for 10 years. In that time he’s had six WSL wins. That’s 120 events. That means moving from hotel room to hotel room with not much more than a couple of suitcases. Think about that.
Countries where they don’t speak your language, places where safety is a concern, your health is at risk, the food is different. Turning up to below-average surf forecasts for the waiting period, getting injuries, breaking boards and having to order new ones and hoping they’ll get to your next stop on time. Filling out contracts so you can carry on living the “dream”, contracts that demand a photoshoot, shop days you have to go to … The list is endless.
How do you keep improving at this level?
A lot of it for me is my boards, always working on the equipment.
What boards have you packed, with Snapper, Bells and Margies being so different?
My boards are pretty well tuned in. I’m riding bigger boards, plus I pack a couple of biggerwave boards if it gets really crazy. But saying that, if your technique is correct and your body is doing the right things, most of my boards go well in all sorts of conditions, so it’s not a problem.
Yeah. The Box at Margies looks gnarly.
It’s super-gnarly. It’s all about the length of the barrel there, trying to make it from as far back as possible and run a long line out. It comes hard off the reef there—it’s making the drop that counts. Say you’re at Main Break, that wave has a big open face for some big carves.
What’s that helicopter photo on your Instagram about? Or is that a secret? Nah, we had a chance to take a trip looking for waves along the Gold Coast.
Did you end up north of Southport?
Yes, we found an awesome bank along the beach. I’ve never done that, so it was so fun.
How good is that wave?
Really good, we had some fun ones.
What about setbacks like car trouble on the way to an event or any weird things that have happened?
One time, someone left a strap off the car roof rack and the boards ended up flying off on the road. Nothing you can do about that. It’s a waste of energy worrying about things that are out of your control, Shawno. Stuff happens and that’s life. Just get on with it.
Snapper Rocks, round five. In my opinion, you were underscored last year, Jordy—6.07, where you did the big finner out the back. But it’s really out of my hands what the judges decide. It also makes it quite exciting, as each event produces little stories from the way things play out and who scores what. It’s obvious from talking to Jordy that he’s grateful for getting to live the pro-surfer life. But he’s not given the deals or money for surfing a perfect wave at his beloved J-Bay in South Africa during an epic swell that shows up once every other year during his 30-minute heat. He’s paid for the adversity, for still performing at such a high level while, as Jordy says, staying in the moment—a moment that most of us would crumble under. That’s why pro surfers are who they are.