Stab Magazine | The One Shot

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The One Shot

*Author’s Note: Since writing this, Ryan’s fibula healed, but then he came unstuck on a backside air-revs warming up for his heat at the Billabong world juniors, Burleigh heads, and busted up his other leg. Another few weeks outta the brine, thanks. He’s expecting a green light from his doc any day now. ***** A bump […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 13 minutes

*Author’s Note: Since writing this, Ryan’s fibula healed, but then he came unstuck on a backside air-revs warming up for his heat at the Billabong world juniors, Burleigh heads, and busted up his other leg. Another few weeks outta the brine, thanks. He’s expecting a green light from his doc any day now.


A bump of Indian Ocean slid towards the Mentawai Islands, off the west coast of Sumatra, in Indonesia. Threeish feet and not-so-hot, the bump had rolled under a group of surfers, one by one, that included Yadin Nicol, Dillon Perillo, Matt Meola, Eric Geiselman, Craig Anderson and Granger Larsen. Each deemed it unripe, premature and all were unwilling to chase anything too hard during their first surf of the day. But it soon reached Ryan Callinan, who often sits further in from the pack to pick off bowls.

By the time it got to him it’d started to peak, so he’d spun, poked his tail in and scratched. Ryan felt the wave lurch over the reef, put feet to wax and blazed down the line. He was backside, a weak point for many but not for him. He’d grown up surfing with back to wall on a righthand bowl at Merewether beach in Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast that, on its day, was not so dissimilar from this one.

Though Ryan would later think it hadn’t translated into the footage, the wave had felt very fast. In anticipation of the coming section, he’d driven a bottom turn and prepared to fling. But the wave had lapsed, so he’d sparked a brief top-turn and somehow managed to carry his speed through it. What came next has proven to be, whether Ryan’s fully aware of it or not, an integral part of his career trajectory so far. The section he’d been waiting for had finally materialised and he’d hit it as he usually would for an air-reverse. The spin had felt a bit more rotated than usual, sure, which Ryan assumed was what had caused him to land laying-back. But he’d settled it, pulled himself up and figured he’d scooped a possible clip. Maybe. The trick had felt like a starter for the session, something to build off.

Ryan did build off it, but in a much bigger scope than he’d intended. Photographer Jimmy Wilson was, at the time, in the channel with Billabong filmer Victor Pakpour. To capture a sequence on a Canon EOS, the shooter must hold down the button for the duration of the trick so that the camera fires sequential images. But after a few frames, Jimmy had let go of the button, thinking the trick was a throwaway. Victor had stopped filming, too. Both had thought that Ryan had come unstuck, but, after glancing into the whitewash, they could still see him moving. On the paddle back out, Jimmy asked Ryan if he’d landed the spin. Ryan had grinned modestly and mumbled something about getting lucky.

On the boat after this session at Bank Vaults, in the Mentawais, Ryan was shown the sequence of this flip. “I was just, like, that can't be it, that looks crazy,” he says. “It looked like a cartwheel. I was wigging out because it didn't feel anything like that. It was weird. At the time it just felt completely normal.

Blake Meyers, who’d been sent to film the trip for Kai Neville, and Tom Carey, who was shooting stills for Surfing magazine, had been covering the session from land and were buzzing when they got back to the boat. Their first words to Ryan were that what he’d done was “fucken retarded.’” Ryan was still unsure and felt that the trick was nothing unusual. Jimmy had been quietly flicking through his photos and, when he’d found it, told Ryan to come and look. Ryan did look, but was certain Jimmy had made a mistake. The cartwheel-looking flip he saw seemed a far cry from the regular spin he thought he’d stomped.

Craig Anderson, Ryan’s good friend who also calls Merewether home, was among the boat’s occupants trying to fathom the footage. He watched the clip back numerous times and heard mentioned that the trick was either a very lucky moment or that Ryan was, to borrow the chosen phrase, one of the gnarliest groms ever. Jimmy, a seasoned photog, was in awe of what Ryan had done. But Ryan said little about it. He had been happy to let the others discuss it.

What Ryan had done was, in essence, a backside air-reverse. But what had everyone on the trip so in awe was the inversion and tweak with which he’d spun, the speed he’d carried through it and the landing, completely laid-back, that he’d so easily recovered from. It was more a flip than a spin. It wasn’t the kind of trick expected from an Australian junior who, until now, had a solid profile in his homeland but had barely trickled into the US and was, by many people’s perceptions, just another junior.

One of those people was then-editor of Surfing, Travis Ferre. Months before the Mentawai’s trip, photo-editor Peter Taras brought Ryan to the Surfing table and showed the team some images of him. No one except Pete had heard of the kid. But, Pete insisted. Travis trusted Pete’s judgment and the publication gifted Ryan a double-page spread boldly accompanied by the words: “Ryan Callinan – remember this name.”

And then came the Mentawai’s trip. Once Ryan had settled the flip at Bank Vaults, the sequence was pulled from Jimmy and Tom’s memory cards and deposited into Travis’ inbox.

“It was one of those ‘holy shit’ moments,” says Travis, “where you’re, like, there’s no way he landed that.” But he’d done it and in Travis’ inbox were two different angles to prove it. Travis liked the fact that, since the magazine had printed the double-page spread prophesying the explosion of this boy, he’d now gone and backed himself up, making the magazine seem genius. Jimmy’s angle of the trick scooped the cover of Surfing’s next issue. An Australian kid, who very few in the US had heard of, jammed in the face of the 100k-plus people who bought the magazine.

Filmmaker Kai Neville, who’d sent Blake Meyers on the Mentawai’s trip as a last-minute impulse, had heard a thing or two about Ryan but hadn’t seen any clips of him. For the trip, Kai had employed a “let’s see how he goes” approach. The plan was simple. Put the kid on the right landscape and see what he came up with. A few rumblings via correspondence from the boat meant Kai had an inkling that Ryan had delivered. Nevertheless, once he actually saw the backside air-reverse, “It was the highlight of the trip, for sure,” he says.

Apart from Kai’s film, Lost Atlas, the trick also appeared in Billabong’s film, Blow Up. The spin may’ve been the trip’s crowning jewel, but Ryan’s surfing is more than just one backside air. Shoulder to shoulder with some already-superstars, he executed repeatedly, even at bloodthirsty spots like Greenbush. Few sports outside surfing can see a New Jack vaulted onto the radar by one trick. Ryan’s surfing is more than worthy of the spotlight, but the corked spin would be the spark in attention that he’d been chasing.


The creases of Ryan Callinan’s smile fade momentarily as his pupils focus on a yellow snooker ball. The wooden table over which he leans doesn’t creak under him. It’s well made and well cared-for, like many of the things in his family home. A corrective, padded boot sits on a wooden chair, leaving crinkles in the velvet cushion, thrown there subconsciously with contempt of what it represents. For Ryan, the boot is a chain that has him land-locked, like an ankle bracelet that keeps a felon under house arrest. For a 19-year-old professional junior surfer, to have no ability to surf is to have no air. The suffocation of lingering injury has manifested itself in Ryan over the past eight weeks, since he blazed an air over a Balinese shorebreak, landed on a backwash hump and felt his leg bend with abnormal angulation. After hobbling up the beach to his filmer, Ryan decided against risk and flew back to Australia for prognosis. An x-ray later and the words no professional athlete wants to hear were delivered – a broken fibula in the right leg. The fibula is the smaller of the two shinbones and sits on the lateral side of the tibia. And Ryan’s now-cracked fibula, which stood in the leg that he’d usually pivot his finners with, would require six screws and a plate.

The boot, though a step-down from the cast is, in a way, more of a frustration for Ryan. Where the cast was definitive and unyielding, the boot is a nagging anchor that causes the last phase of reparation to lag too long. Agonisingly close to being thrown-away, but for now, still a necessity. The ankle itself, having supported no weight for the better part of two months, is bloated and without pigment. As Ryan climbs the stairs of his family home to the rumpus room where the snooker table lives, the movement is an uneven but rhythmic thump-THUMP-thump-THUMP, as he takes one precarious step then quickly shifts weight back onto his strong leg. Despite my arrival, he finishes the game of snooker he’s halfway through with his mum, Janice. Ryan wins easily, but Janice is a gracious loser. She laughs frequently and genuinely while we converse and at the end of the game, Ryan re-arranges the snooker balls in the correct order for the next player. Those are the rules of the house and Ryan respects them. He’s that kind of person. He’s also the kind of person who possesses a surprising resilience, which becomes apparent after discussing the broken bone. He shrugs and smiles, laughs even, speaking never about how inconvenient it’s been, but always about how good it’ll be to get back in the water.

At 19 years old, Ryan’s face is still boyish, but in a way girls describe as cute. His nose is round, his eyes are sharp and bright. His eyebrows are fair, as is the crop of growth on his scalp. A shaved head has grown out a thumb-length, but has returned darker due to sun-and-salt-less recovery time. The jaw juts out a touch more than the hairless top lip, but allows for a more endearing smile, which is worn constantly. His shoulders are broad, his feet and hands large, his chest and stomach flat. One of the few perks of injury has been losing any beer-bloat, since Ryan swore off alcohol for the duration of his recovery. Fashion is not a priority but not completely ignored, either. The long-sleeved collared shirt he wears, buttoned all the way to the top, is light grey and a good example of his style which he describes jokingly as “full surf, but a little more classy.” Dark shorts compliment the shirt, though they’re worn mostly to allow ease with the boot.

“It’s never too late for breaky, huh?” Ryan asks. He glances at his watch, 11:30, and orders eggs Benedict on toast with bacon and a fruit smoothie. We’d just arrived at a small restaurant in the Junction, a suburb that, from Ryan’s house, is only a short drive. He’d removed his rehabilitative boot to drive the silver VX Holden Commodore wagon that, he tells me proudly, he bought for himself. Between large mouthfuls we discuss cracking the code of progressive surfing. “You see kids now and, it’s almost like, you notice them more if they can do good turns,” he says thoughtfully. “Rather than, oh, this kid’s good at airs, which is what it was more like when I was growing up. I swear, this one year, a while ago, I won a bunch of comps and I never did airs, I was just a turn guy. Then Modern Collective came out and you looked at it and went, holy crap, that’s what everyone’s doing, that’s what you have to do.”

Ryan understands the value of adaptation and, while he respects the tapestry of Australian surfing, he also knows that Australia isn’t the only place on the surfing map. “America’s so open to publicity and I think Australia’s… not behind, but I think everyone does stuff a little differently,” he says. “In Australia you grow up watching guys like Parko and Mick, but in Cali or somewhere kids grow up watching guys like Aaron Cormican, Ratboy (Jason Collins) and Nathan Fletcher. That kinda surfing is there for them to see. Whereas, when I was younger, we (Australians) would only see the top guys who were going well at the time like Joel and Mick. Who’re more about big carves and stuff. Until a couple of years ago, there were way more groms that just wanted to do big turns.”

While Australians like Joel and Mick may’ve been who Ryan looked up to as a pup, he now has a new fistful of webcast must-sees. Julian Wilson’s his favourite on high-performance waves, but he also digs rookies Gabriel Medina and John Florence. Jordy Smith and Owen Wright are in there too, he says, and Dane Reynolds, when he shows up. And Taj Burrow will always be a fav. “It’s funny though, you look at the heat-draw now and you just don’t look for the same people,” says Ryan. “Not that the older guys are bad surfers, it’s just that the young guys are more exciting to watch. The older guys aren’t trying crazy stuff.”

Trying crazy stuff is Ryan’s vice. His love of going for broke may’ve driven him into a cracked leg, but it’s also afforded him priceless coverage and an attitude that, according to Craig Anderson, is crucial.

“Until that trip to the Mentawai’s, Ryan hadn’t had much opportunity to surf with guys like Yadin and guys that’re at the top of their game. I feel like that trip was his first opportunity to try something. He had the right idea – throw shit to the wall. All those kids that surf well, if they get an opportunity, and if they’re that type of person, they can grab it by the horns and make something of it. You get put in those situations and you just have to rise to the occasion – which Ryan did better than anyone. That trip will be a defining moment in his career, for sure.”

While Craig applauds Ryan’s ability to step-up, he’s also amazed by how abrupt the ascent to his current skill level was. “I remember when I was working on Innersection, I went over to West Oz and asked Ryan if he wanted to come, too. So we went over there and just surfed North Point for a couple of days. Before that trip I’d been travelling a lot and hadn’t taken too much notice of his surfing, but then we did that trip and he just went nuts. I remember out in the water I was just seeing fins and full-rotations. I’d never seen him do anything like that before and I was just like, what? All of a sudden, he’s just going bananas. We paid a filmer a day rate and when we came back, I had a bit of footage and then I saw Ryan’s footage… from, like, a three-day trip, he had twice as many clips as me.”

But, Craig has also been instrumental in getting Ryan’s surfing to where it is. “Craig pushes me to try new things more than anyone else,” Ryan says. “We’ll be sitting out in the surf and he’ll say, ‘Imagine if you did this kinda air!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ Or, ‘Imagine if you did it like this!’ And so on and so on. He told me that Jordy and Dion (Agius) and those guys all do that a lot, and I think it’s really good for your surfing. Sometimes I surf with guys and they just don’t talk, or they don’t want you to know what they’re trying. But, I think it’s good to talk about it.”

And, Ryan does talk about it, at length. During one of our discussions, the subject of looking to outside board disciplines for inspiration comes up. “I’ve been watching (snowboard film) The Art of Flight,” he says. “I like the way when they spin backside, they grab, say, mute and tuck their shoulder. They fully roll and it’s really corked, rather than just flat spinning. You can really roll and kick it around. I wanna try that and flick right over. I wanna try a tail-grab or something a bit different. I’ve been thinking about a double-grab with both hands on your back rail. A stalefish and a lien. It’d be super hard, ‘cause you’d be so leant-back, but it’d be crazy. Imagine getting a photo of that! Even skating, I love how skaters push their front leg out and really bone stuff. In surfing, that only happens with the back leg to get higher. That’s the stuff you’ve gotta do to stand out. Something no one’s ever seen. A weird rotation or something. I wanna start trying backflips again. But I wanna do it with… imagine if you did it with a slob!” And so on. This thought process is perpetual and unrelenting, but is an integral part of his game.


Ryan’s progression, unusually quick, may also have something to do with a reality-check once he’d left school after year 10. His dad, Gary, took him to work three days a week and let him surf the rest of the time. “I only ended up doing three weeks’ work collectively, but it was a real eye-opener,” says Ryan. “This is what people do every single day of their lives. I was digging rocks and cutting tyres and it made me realise how lucky I was. Back then it was good too, ‘cause I’d get home in the afternoon and have, like, 20 minutes to go surfing, so I’d just be absolutely frothing to get out there.”

It’s this kind of parental support that’s made Ryan the man he is today. And he knows how lucky he’s been. “Dad’s always taught me to be really respectful and to do what I think is right. They’ve always been really supportive. Even at school, if I really wanted to do something, they’d just be like, ‘Well, do it.’ When I was younger, I’d say to mum, this guy’s gonna film me all day if I have the day off. She’d just say, ‘Well, you know you’ve gotta do this assignment, if you do it this afternoon then you can have the day off,’ and I’d go and film all day and do my school work later.”

Those days off to go film sparked something in Ryan – he was intoxicated by the thrill of scooping a good clip. But, as appealing as the freesurfing route is, Ryan genuinely enjoys competition. Though, not for the reasons you’d expect. “I like trying big things in heats,” he says. “I like to try and surf how I freesurf, like Dane does. But, I’m not as reckless as he is. If I need a two-point ride I’m not gonna go for the biggest air-reverse of my life. Contests are a different way to push your surfing. You come up against Gabriel or Kolohe and you wanna beat them so badly it pushes you to surf better. It’s like when you’re freesurfing and someone tries something nuts and you wanna try something even crazier.

“I’d rather be known as a good freesurfer than a comp surfer, but I do like competing a lot. I hate freesurfing really well and then holding back in heats. If I hold back in a heat, I get so embarrassed. If I don’t win but still do something nuts or feel like I’ve surfed well, I’ll still be happy.”

Says Kai Neville: “No one in his age-bracket, in Australia, comes to mind for doing the things he’s doing.” Craig Anderson agrees. “He’s the best junior in Australia. There’s no one else that goes for it like that.”

So, what next? Ask Ryan and he’ll tell you that after taking a year off (like many of those he looks up to did), he’ll dive headfirst into the qualifying series. Ryan has poise, the determination necessary to land him in the big leagues and just enough charm to hide that determination – the right combo for someone who’s just about to knock on the door of the dream tour. And then navigate the chancy waters of that game.

Kill a deer with a lone bullet, cock the hammer and squeeze in a game of Russian roulette, or throw an inverted spin into the wind. The one-shot don’t lie. –Elliot Struck


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