Stab Magazine | Why Julian Wilson can't win a heat right now (despite his top 5 skills)

Why Julian Wilson can’t win a heat right now (despite his top 5 skills)

Story by Lucas Townsend Julian Wilson is having his worst year on tour since he qualified for the 2011 season – but he’s never surfed better. Besides a third place at Bells this year, knocked in the semis after a beach commentary gaffe against Mick Fanning, Jules hasn’t made it past round three. Seven 13ths […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Story by Lucas Townsend

Julian Wilson is having his worst year on tour since he qualified for the 2011 season – but he’s never surfed better. Besides a third place at Bells this year, knocked in the semis after a beach commentary gaffe against Mick Fanning, Jules hasn’t made it past round three. Seven 13ths and two 25ths for a gent who has never finished outside the top 10. Digest that, and now press play below on his latest edit, Swamp Duck, and it just doesn’t make any sense.

How is one of the top five best surfers in the world currently having to compete in qualifying events, like the O’Neill SP Prime in Brazil, to requalify? Sure, it’s a precautionary measure. Jules is 21st on the CT and 22 will re-qualify through those rankings. But, Hawaii is an unpredictable velodrome and Julian, like anyone, could slip easily.

And while our attention is with a new name (Gabriel) and his hand on a title, Julian’s position so close to the red poses a lot of questions. “He told us after Portugal that he was going to go to Brazil to chase the QS,” Taj Burrow told Stab. “I was like, what the fuck for? He told me it was to qualify and I couldn’t believe it. I never expected him to be on the border.”

“He’s one of the best guys, he should be top five. But you can be the best surfer in the world and still not make a heat, because heats aren’t all about being a good surfer. It’s quite a game. It’s not a performance slump that he’s in. He knows how to compete, he just hasn’t clicked with it this year. But he will.”

It’s not rare for a surfer of Julian’s individuality to have these kind of years. Taj has been there, Andy Irons, Jordy Smith, John John Florence, too. And if we look deeper into the rear-view, even legends like Tom Carroll, who’s known Jules since he was a puka shell-clad Quiksilver grom.

“Let me start by saying it’s very easy to look at it from this distance and take a position, but Julian’s definitely been on my mind,” Tom told Stab. “Julian’s having one of those years, and I relate them to ones I’ve had where I couldn’t get my confidence and results no matter how hard I tried.”

“In ’85, I’d won two world titles the years before, and had two wins at the start of the season. I was on top of my game, keeping myself really fit and in-tune with my boards. I got home to start training again and while surfing at Whale Beach I did a floater, got whacked by the backwash and separated the fibula and tibia in my leg. I strapped it for the next six months and I just couldn’t get any confidence back for the rest of the year.”

“It took me a couple of years in fact to get that winning form back and all through ’88, the year Barton Lynch won in Hawaii, I was battling with the craziest interference ruling ever. Every call just didn’t go my way and BL came from nowhere and won.”


Technical play is Jules’ game. Stalefish, clear as the day. But do the judges appreciate? Photo: Woody Gooch

Tom simplified and narrowed his life down to the basics to be a clear-favourite for the title heading into the ’88 Billabong Pro: “I see Medina come on so well and it must be killing Julian. Talent-wise, there’s nothing that separates them. Gabriel just has a very simple, stripped back approach to tour… Julian can be devastating if he’s rebuilt. It’s just his confidence. By the look of his results, there’s something going on in the background within his own decision-making.”

Few watch professional surfing as closely as Surfing Australia head coach, Andy King. He’s spoken with Julian at length this year and has a definitive reason: “Julian wants to change the world, he wants to change the sport of surfing. That’s his goal.”

“In his mind, the criticalness of the turns and airs that he’s doing – and they are – are way more critical than most of the other aerials and grabs. But they’re not relevant and it hasn’t been the theme on what people have been judging.”

“Our conversation basically was like, you’re doing this kind of surfing, but only you and John John and Jordy actually appreciate it because the judges, and ourselves, we don’t understand the criticalness of it. We’re looking for those basic things like obvious grabs and height.”

Like Taj battled with through the early 00’s where his inversion, the height of his tail release, the speed of his rotations weren’t getting recognised, Julian’s ingenuity is currently better suited to a Kai Neville film than a judging spreadsheet. He is the most technical surfer on tour. But his variations, whether it’s a harder grab, a further degree of inversion, or the combination of it all, are too skate-orientated for a judging criteria that was set in concrete on the Gold Coast in March.

“Look at Medina’s boards and the change of volume,” says Andy. “They have a lot thicker rail and wider tail so they can surf with flow. They’ve adapted their equipment since picking up on the judging theme on the Gold Coast. Judges wanted to see people ride out of a turn with more speed, they wanted that flow, that connection on the wave. So the criticalness, if you were to risk a massive turn and miss four sections, were getting you crucified. Julian didn’t adapt, he was sticking to his morals on surfing to change the sport. He just hasn’t been rewarded and that’s turned into a bit of a spiral. But I really respect and admire him for the pathway he’s taken.”

John John has found a happy medium. He’s learned to surf to the criteria. But the individuality that Julian and John John hunt must come in the form of adding just enough variation to ‘wow’ a judge (and us, for that matter), but not to confuse them. John John does it with his shallow bottom-turns into big carves where he loses not a shaving of speed, or his tweaks above the lip. Julian is just missing that balance to come inside the system that John’s found midway through this year.

“I’ll put my word on it, Julian will be a genuine contender next year,” said Andy. “I believe he’ll get past this, he’ll give them what they want. He doesn’t have one weakness in his surfing.”

The dreamiest fold. Even if it never came together on tour (it will), life for Jules will never be bad. Photo: Woody Gooch

The dreamiest fold. Even if it never came together on tour (it will), life for Jules will never be bad. Photo: Woody Gooch


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