Stab Magazine | Oliver Kurtz and the freesurfer's dilemma
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Oliver Kurtz and the freesurfer’s dilemma

Story by Theo Lewitt In pro surfing, we’ve got two basic groups. First, the contest guys. These studs spend every waking moment with the noble goal of world touring in mind. Get certain results at certain events, and bam! You’ve made it. Then, the other guys; the freesurfers. These cats err on the aesthetics side […]

style // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Story by Theo Lewitt

In pro surfing, we’ve got two basic groups. First, the contest guys. These studs spend every waking moment with the noble goal of world touring in mind. Get certain results at certain events, and bam! You’ve made it. Then, the other guys; the freesurfers. These cats err on the aesthetics side of life and cruise the globe with their lens-pointing pals, spending more time in the editing bay than shaded scaffolding. While not mutually exclusive, let’s think of these as separate entities for our purposes here. The competitor’s dilemma is simple. Make the tour and maintain a career… or don’t. For the freesurfer, things get a bit trickier. Without a single moment at which to pinpoint success, how do you know you’re hot stuff, worthy of that paycheck? Is it a berth onto Kai Neville’s screen? One-mil groupies on the ‘gram? To gain a bit of insight, we phoned Oliver Kurtz, a freesurfer who dances with this dilemma all too often, to get his take on the matter.

Stab: In your opinion, as a freesurfer, when have you “made it”?
Oliver: I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently. Just with my career over the last year and half or so, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. I got a cover last year and put out my best edit to date (Serotonin). You do these things and work really hard and accumulate these accolades. There’s definitely a glory aspect to it. You get a good barrel or land a big air, and that’s sick and people can appreciate it. That said, the shelf life of it all, and the legacy of a freesurfer isn’t all that great to be completely honest. No big freesurfer is in their 30s right now, so it’s gonna be interesting to see what happens to those guys pretty soon. You’re kinda only as good as the last contract you signed, to be honest (laughs). That’s pretty much your career, and it’s hard to predict. It’s a really uneasy feeling. There really isn’t that one moment.

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The freesurfers’ dilemma, in a nutshell. Photo: Graciella Tallon

Do you see your contest-grinding friends dealing with the same things? I mean, with freesurfing, you’ve got to look at it completely from a business standpoint. You see those kids that act like they don’t care and just acting like it’s all “whatever,” they know damn well that they’re making 200k or more a year, and know exactly what’s going on… they’re making all of this money because they’re producing tons of content that’s attached to a brand, and is inspiring kids in one way or another… that’s why a freesurfer gets paid. You see someone on the QS who’s been on it a few years and not qualifying… how’s their sponsor seeing its investment? If you’re not in the top 40’s conversation each year, it’s hard to justify some of the salaries. So, I’m sure the contest guys deal with the same uneasiness that the freesurfers do. There’s stress either way, just different.

Clearly Kai Neville’s films are the most anticipated in the freesurfing world. Is it defeating to be a freesurfer and not be included in a movie like Cluster? Kai’s movies are definitely the pinnacle of the freesurf world. And yeah, it’s a bummer to not be in Cluster, obviously, but it’s not the end of the world. There’s lots of behind-the-scenes factors that go into getting into movies these days, but people who aren’t in Kai’s movies are still getting really creative and it’s cool to see. Inspiring, even. Take Matt (Meola) and Albee (Layer) for example; they had an idea, pitched their story, got the funding together and found the sponsors, and put their heads down and produced Attractive Distractions. I think the surf world is going to see more of that in the coming years.

You used to be in the contest scene for a while… Yeah, my junior career, all I did was surf contests. I was just really bad at them! I was getting so smoked by people who could barely surf (laughs). I couldn’t wrap my mind around it and got really down on myself.

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Keeping that credit card swiping. Photo: Tom Carey

So you’re sticking to the freesurf route? Yeah, basically. A lot of people say they want to do it for the next couple of years then peace out, but I mean, I want to be successful in anything that I do. It’s just tough because you never really have that point as a freesurfer where you can go, “Great, I’m successful now and have made it as a freesurfer.” It’s like that movie, Birdman, where the main guy is having a crisis, thinking about how he was once great and is now gonna be irrelevant. You kind of always have to think about that stuff. It’s not like being a golfer. A golfer can come into his own in his late 30s or 40s because if you get the ball in the hole in a certain amount of strokes, you’re gonna beat someone. In surfing, especially as a freesurfer, there are so many other things that go into a successful career. You’ve gotta think about not only your surfing and what tricks the other guys are doing, but also how many hits your videos are getting, how many selfies you’re posting a day or how many 16-year-olds are following you on Instagram and things like that (laughs). You’ve kinda got to manage yourself like a business.

In that sense, it seems the freesurfer has to be quite entrepreneurial… Exactly. I was just doing my taxes the other day, and was tripping out on how much coin you burn throughout the year to be successful at it, and try to set yourself up for a comfortable future, which is crucial. Man, I sound like a parent right now! That’s not limited to freesurfers though, but pro surfers in general, I think. You’ll see these horror stories even with the guys on tour… a surfer can be one bad injury or one bad year away from losing everything they’ve worked for. We all want to live this amazing lifestyle, travel the globe, get barreled and, I don’t know, drink fine wines (laughs). I don’t care if you’re a hippy or not, every surfer knows you have to have some scrilla to do all of that unless your dad works for an airline or something. Being involved in projects like VNDA (a loungewear brand) has definitely opened my eyes to this kind of stuff. Having a strict budget, following a plan, and seeing it grow… that’s taught me a lot about life in general.

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Kurtz tries on Central American solitude. Photo: Tyler Cotrell

What’s your involvement with VNDA? Kerrzy approached me about getting involved when we were on a trip to Costa Rica almost three years ago. He knew I’ve sort of been around that fashion sphere of influence, whether hanging in NY, LA, or Miami. I liked what they were doing, so I invested a chunk of money into the brand. It just came together and is actually doing really well. It’s cool to have a project that you can dip your hands into outside of surfing. As a surfer, unless you’re on the World Tour or Kai calls you to film for one of his movies, you have a lot of downtime. So, if you’re not a complete idiot and you have the tools to do something really cool that may give you some longevity outside of your pro surf career, it’s rad to work on it.

Is getting involved in these non-surfing projects key for the freesurfer? Kinda. But going on trips, and that feeling of getting something great on film and putting it together with some creative direction… that’s really what my passion is still. It’s just hard to do more of it because it does eventually come down to a dollar sign. It all costs quite a bit. I want to live in a nice apartment, go out and be able to take girls on really nice dates, so I want to make money, but at the same time,  I want to be doing what I’m passionate about. You kinda have to deal with a bit of a limbo.

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Oli oops on the Sunshine Coast. Photo: Tom Carey

Does knowing that you’re essentially always proving your worth as a freesurfer motivate you or bring you down? It’s motivating, f’sure. But it definitely gets overwhelming from time to time. With surfing, as a sport, everyone is getting so next level. Someone’s always doing a bigger, more tweaked air. If you’re not constantly progressing, you’re just gonna be irrelevant. Simple as that. That’s what makes me nervous. Every time you go online, it’s like, “Ok, did some Brazilian kid do a double backflip today?” Shit! That said, not knowing what’s happening next with it definitely keeps you on your feet. At the end of the day, if I’m getting stressed, I sit down and tell myself, “You surf for a living… come on.” With surfing, we’re living this amazing lifestyle, so I definitely don’t want it to end because I’m dumb about things. I think that’s that one main think every freesurfer thinks about.

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