The Fall And Rise Of Ezekiel Lau
“I want to win a world title and nobody can tell me that will not happen.”
In 2012, as Ezekiel Lau stood on the precipice of what would then be the biggest result of his career, I sat with him in his villa in Bali and learned a bit about the man.
It was the eve of the final day of the World Junior Championships in Bali, where Zeke would place second to Australian Jack Freestone, and he was in full contest firebrand mode. Speaking with unapologetic brashness, I was given a glimpse into the machinations of a surfer who at 19 had already weathered one hell of a storm.
“When I have you in a heat, I will definitely make you feel like we’re having a heat together. You’re gonna feel it. You’re not gonna be comfortable,” he’ told me.
Born into a family of athletes – his father played college level football and basketball, his mother did the same in volleyball and softball – Zeke was raised in the kind of ruthless disciplinarian household that Polynesia is famous for. Until the age of 15, he was forbidden from having hair on his head whatsoever. His father would sit him down every Sunday after he’d finished washing the car and shave Zeke’s head to a sheen with a razor blade. The reasons for which were never properly explained. “He has a lot of things that he doesn’t really explain to me. ‘That’s how it is, and you’re just gonna do it’,” laughed Zeke.
In a deal he cut with his father at 15, Zeke was allowed to grow his hair out if he could win an American NSSA Title. In a cruel twist, he fractured a vertebrae in his back before the event attempting a floater at Haleiwa.
“I couldn’t even get out of my seat and getting out of bed was just retarded,” he says.
But he still competed, despite being in agony he managed the result (he wouldn’t have the back injury correctly diagnosed until after the contest). As we sat in the courtyard of the villa in Bali he re-enacted for me the decisive heat of the event, a quarterfinal where he needed a three with less than ten seconds remaining.
“I could hear them counting down – ten, nine – and I’m like, ‘RAAAAAH!” he yells.
“I’m paddling, my back is hurting and in my head I’m like ‘RAAAAAAH!’ Just screaming.”
“I’m like is this really gonna happen? I can’t believe I’m gonna lose. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. That was when I was like: ‘No, I’m not accepting this. This is not happening.’ My back is sore, I got this far, there’s no way I’m not getting what I want,” he recalled.
Zeke managed to get himself into a piddly inside lump, taking off as the siren went, decimating the burger with five turns and stepping onto the sand. “I got the wave and I was like, ‘UNLEASH!” he recalled, before hopping out of his chair and re-enacting the moment he stood crucified on the sand screaming at judges, “GIMME THE SCORE!”
Zeke was first spotted at the age of nine by legendary Hawaiian surf coach and mentor to the Irons brothers, Dave Riddle, while competing in NSSA contest. Zeke was in tears at the time after being disqualified for an interference on Kolohe Andino.
“We had a conversation afterwards and I realised then he had such a strong will to win. He was just so passionate about our sport,” says Dave, also adding, “Zeke’s no-nonsense approach was apparent early.”
He started working with Riddle at a time when Andy and Bruce Irons were also in his stable, and if you think you can see shades of their approach in his surfing – in the big smooth arcs, stored up speed unleashed in furious gaffs, and lofty punts – you’re right. “Everything Dave taught me was based off what Andy did,” said Zeke. “Andy’s whole highline floater deal was pretty much the base.”
Growing up on Oahu’s south shore, Zeke was far from a natural in big waves. It’s something he’s had to work hard at but as he explains, “You don’t wanna be that guy who can’t surf big waves or can’t do this or do that. You wanna be there and do it all.”
His injury troubles have been significant, and all before the age of 18. At 13, he almost had to have his leg amputated due to a staph infection – a form of bacterial infection that is rampant in the Hawaiian islands. When he had the fractured vertebrae in his back correctly diagnosed, he was forced to spend four months in a back brace. Upon his return he trained harder than ever but ended up injuring his back again.
“I was thinking, is this going to keep happening? My career, I haven’t even started yet and I’m having all these problems… I broke down. I didn’t know what to do,” he says.
Eventually it was revealed all the running he was doing was pulling his vertebrae out of alignment. He needed better core strength. “It was the hardest training of my life. They were not muscles I was used to using. It was different and took a lot of concentration, but it was some of the best work I’ve ever done,” he said.
The day following his loss to Freestone in the final (fellow World Tour surfers, Conner Coffin and Italo Ferreira were also in the event), he appeared distraught as he emerged from the water and was consoled by coach Jason Shibata. Minutes later he’d shaken it off and confronted the media. “I came here to win not to get second. It’s hard, but the Triple Crown’s coming up. I’ll be back,” he’d said.
Away from the cameras back at the villa, the then 19-year-old also had this warning for his competitors once he did reach the World Tour.
“I don’t just wanna be one of those guys who makes it on tour,” Zeke had told me, “I wanna win a world title and that’s something that I won’t even take anyone telling my I can’t do it… it’s gonna happen it’s just a matter of when.”
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