Julian Wilson: How I nearly fell off Tour
Story by Lucas Townsend Winning is a tortured pursuit. A pursuit, in our sport, between winning for trophies and winning for places above the 22nd rung. The winner is the gent who surfs through the existential torture the best. The one who can alternate between believing, performing and rebuilding most effectively for a year. “Stay […]
Story by Lucas Townsend
Winning is a tortured pursuit. A pursuit, in our sport, between winning for trophies and winning for places above the 22nd rung. The winner is the gent who surfs through the existential torture the best. The one who can alternate between believing, performing and rebuilding most effectively for a year.
“Stay on tour…”, was the only thing Julian Wilson was trying to win when he boarded his flight to Honolulu in early November last year.
By his own account, and all of ours, it didn’t feel right that his ticket was booked so early. The Pipe Masters wasn’t for a month. But, Julian didn’t have a choice this time. He was precariously close to relegation in 21st position. On the qualifying series he was well outside the top 10. With a quarterfinal finish in the O’Neill SP Prime, the remaining two primes were his insurance policy if he took his eyes off the road at Pipe.
And the question puzzled us here at Stab: How was a surfer, top five in ability, and top one in skin complexion, packing the ominous possibility of life off tour into his overhead locker?
“I guess I was being stubborn,” says Julian. “I wanted to win. But, did I want to do it the way the judges wanted to see it, or the way I wanted to do it?”
Jules releases the burden of scoring criteria on the Sunshine Coast. Photo: Dekort
Julian had been tortured by his own idea of brilliance all year. Since Snapper, Julian says, he’d fought against the system. Fought against the allure of conformity (for points). As Surfing Australia head coach Andy King saw it, “Julian wants to change the world, he wants to change the sport of surfing.”
The problem: Only John John Florence or Jordy Smith truly recognise the criticalness of his approach, and where it can lead when you’re blinded by it. Why? Because they’ve spun (off-axis, inverted, over-rotated, to a miraculous recovery) to plenty of round two and three losses themselves. To their own criteria it’s an 11. To the one stamped on the wall of each judge’s booth it’s a 6.5 and missed opportunity.
It’s exactly why a career solely built on digital edits and magazine spreads and rockstar blowouts would be underachieving for any of these gentlemen. While their ability could easily fulfil a career like this, their longing to win demands attention. On tour. A pursuit, which as fans, we’re better off with.
“Snapper is a high performance wave,” begins Julian, dissecting his year. “If you go above the lip for a big manoeuvre, and if takes time to recover, then I thought that should be fine – it’s a high performance wave.”
“I was trying to surf the way I wanted to surf, and not change anything to get scores. I was fighting it. I felt that was the hardest way to surf a wave, and it should be rewarded accordingly.”
“…If you’re not going to be rewarded for risk, then no one’s going to go for it.”
Tech game. On point. Photo: Gooch
And as geniuses so often do, they become tortured by their own analysis, their expectations of themselves, and the fractures in their pursuit to win can begin to show.
“I was starting to believe that maybe my surfing wasn’t critical enough to be rewarded,” says Julian.
“I got to a point where I was frustrated every time I went in the water. I didn’t know how each wave was going to be scored, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence or clarity on what needed to be done in each situation.”
“Then I found myself in a position where I was struggling to requalify; something I don’t want to entertain ever again.”
After Portugal and another round two loss (to Alejo Muniz), Julian had an enough-is-enough moment.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than on tour. I asked myself, how am I going to get it done? There’s some battles you need to take on, there’s others where you need to get in line. So I swallowed my pride and thought, right, it’s time to do it the way I’ve done it for years. Back to basics.”
He got out of his own way, beat Gabriel Medina in the O’Neill SP Prime and felt the momentum shift. At Haleiwa, Dusty Payne won the contest but Julian won the surfing: “Haliewa was the best surf contest I’ve ever been a part of. It was the most consistent amount of high performance surfing I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t a heat that went by from the third round that second place didn’t need at least 16.5 to progress.”
And you know what happened next. Julian entered the Pipe Masters. He needed to hoist the Gerry Lopez board to win the Triple Crown as well, and redeem what was a rough year in the jersey.
Hawaii used to be a weak point in Jules’ armour. Uh, yeah, we’re definitely good now. Photo: ASP/Masurel
“I surfed six heats that day at Pipe. I’ve never had to do that, ever.”
“Gabriel was so laid-back in the water. There was even a moment in that final where he was lying back on his board like a lounge chair. I was enjoying the moment with him. But in the back of mind I wanted to go home with a couple of trophies myself.”
“The last set stacked up and it came from such a perfect direction. It looked like there was at least three waves in the set. I said to him, ‘which one do you want?’ We weren’t going to hassle each other out of position. He’s like, ‘Ah, I’ll go the next one.’ So last minute, I flipped around and just got into that last wave.”
“I knew I’d definitely got the score, and I carried on and what not. I was in the whitewash on the inside and saw the end of Gabriel’s wave, and it look like he had to force his way out. My wave was too perfect not to be better.”
“They read out the scores and I went face-first into the sand. I couldn’t believe that moment happened. I hadn’t touched the sand for an hour-and-a-half and I just collapsed.”
“That was the most special win I’ve had.”
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