Ryan Callinan Is A Blazing Inspiration
The 26-year-old discusses returning to the CT, coping with the loss of family, and the power of positivity.
Ryan Callinan is a 26-year old professional surfer from Newcastle. This year marks his second year on the Championship Tour – after a blunder-filled rookie debut in 2016.
2019 is a year rife with expectations, it lands on the back of a few solid wildcard results in 2018; most notable of these being a second place in France–where Ryan took out the eventual title winner, Gabriel Medina.
In some respects, you could lump Ryan in with his peers. A young, coast-grown Australian surfer, who was fortunate and determined enough to turn their school-skipping days into something semi-prosperous. A competitive surfer whose fleeting film parts astonish us, but one whose competitive entrances have yet to hone a proper trophy.
In short, it all sounds glamorous. But Ryan’s journey as a 26-year old, twice qualified CT surfer has been much more complex than some of his peers. Although he wouldn’t ever play the pity card.
In February of 2016, just prior to Ryan’s rookie year, he lost his father to a long battle with leukemia. A tragic loss, and one which devastated his family and tight-knit town.
15-months later, Ryan’s mother passed away. Short and suddenly from a medical condition on Mother’s Day. “I saw her in the morning, and that afternoon she was gone.”
It goes without saying that most of us cannot comprehend loss like this. And no doubt has this taken a toll on Ryan, his family, and close friends. Today though, these are not events Ryan wants to hang gloomily over his life, nor is it one he wants to avoid or ‘tippy-toe’ around. Instead, Ryan insists the last two years have defined him as a human being in a sense which extends well beyond surfing.
Mr. Callinan has big plans for 2019 – top-5 is one of his goals – and he’s in a headspace that’s hellbent on striving forward while still mindfully experiencing the day-to-day parts of life.
Ryan Callinan is not a surfer we can look up to. He’s simply an inspiring young man.
Below is a conversation with Ryan a handful of days after his Round 3 exit at Snapper D-Bah.
After a couple of very heavy losses in the family, Ryan will not let negativity get in his way.
Stab: So, Ryan, how does it feel being back?
Ryan Callinan: It feels really good. Although the fake heat at Snapper in jerseys was the only time I’ve seen my locker so far [laughs].
I had some nerves and stuff kicking it before the first event, especially since my first year [in 2016] wasn’t all that great. I’m excited to be back though, I’m a completely different person with different outlooks and different goals and just a bit more open in general than I was the first time around.
Last time was quite overwhelming, and just taking it all in was tough. I’m more grounded now.
It’s been three years, a lot changes in three years, especially in your 20’s.
It’s been a while that’s for sure. I had some down time, some review time and now I’m back into it.
Well, not with the best start [RC lost to an in form Jordy Smith in Round 3], I guess it’s tough pulling Jordy.
I’ve actually versed him a lot [laughs], and I think I might have him in one v one match ups. I surfed against him at Snapper in my first event [in 2016], and I got him, then I beat him in France, and then I beat him again at France last year. There’s probably some heats in between though that I’ve lost. I probably just have selective memory and am only recalling the wins. [laughs].
…who cares about the losses anyway…
I had Gabby in my first heat then Jordy in my second, I was straight back into it. I get really excited for those match ups now though.
Previously I thought, ‘oh shit’, I’m versing hard guys and I’m probably going to lose. Now I’m more excited. I see it as a chance to prove myself and my surfing against the best guys. You don’t beat world champs unless you surf against them.
When in Bali, it’s hard to complain.
Do you take a similar approach to these guys compared to say, a rookie, wildcard, or I don’t now, someone you just think you’re better than?
[Laughs] I’d love to say I surf the same against everyone but that’s never how it plays out.
It’s a lot easier against [the top guys] to get sucked into playing their games. You feel like you have to be with them, or near them, and end up falling into the traps they set. I really feel like the best approach is to just consider your own surfing and your own strengths. It’s kind of obvious, but that should be the approach I take towards everyone.
Did those few good results last year help your competitive mindset coming into this year? [Ryan nabbed a second at France, 13th at Portugal, and a ninth at Pipe as wildcards]
It was a huge confidence booster.
It was very different though [to surfing on the actual CT], there’s no pressure, you’re just a wildcard. It’s not like there’s much pressure at the start of the year like now, but it’s just nice thinking you’re surfing a one off, inconsequential event.
We saw how that benefited Reef Heazelwood at Snapper, he just went ballistic.
Those differences aside though, I feel like [that second place in France] is just a really good reference point to remember that feeling, and know that I can beat those guys and find that form. I know I can surf at that level now.
Last time we spoke you mentioned meditating. Have you still been doing that prior to heats, in the morning, or whenever you usually do it?
Yeah, still do it every day. I do it first thing in the morning and I’ve been trying to do it a little in the afternoon as well.
It’s a great tool just to bring more awareness into your surroundings. Surfing wise, pre heat, post heat, and just more having more presence in general through life. It’s something that’s really helped me in the last year or so.
It’s not too much time to give and it makes such a big impact – if you’re that way inclined.
How long do you meditate for? Assuming you’re not the couple of hours type of guy?
Probably around 10-20 minutes in the morning. If I’m rushing around 10, or 20 if I have more time.
It’s weird though, I’ve been doing 15 minutes for a while. For some strange reason I look at the clock and think, ‘ahhh 20 minutes is ages’, but when I do 15 it just doesn’t seem that long [laughs].
He’s got the fingers and toes of a gecko and the strength of a mule!
Guided or unguided? I’ve been trying but just fall asleep if I do anything unguided.
[Laughs]. It can be hard. I do unguided in the mornings and usually guided in the afternoon for an extra 10 minutes. I feel like the afternoons are harder. Once your mind is racing it’s harder to slow down. You’ve had inputs from your phone and people around you all day and you can’t slow down.
I’m just a beginner myself though and still trying to figure it all out still. Just to be able to sit with yourself and be content is such a nice feeling and difficult to achieve these days.
You see so many people fixated to their phones, or just constantly obsessed with the next task at hand, I think in general people find it harder to slow down or stop. A lot of people just can’t be with themselves and take notice of what is happening around us as humans. We ignore a lot of what is happening around us all the time.
Do you think this is driven by people being overconnected to their phones and tech in general?
Definitely, that’s a huge part.
How did you get into [meditating] again?
I love to read. I was reading a Tim Ferris book called, Tools of Titans, that was what properly got me into it.
I’d read a lot of books which had mentioned it, and thought [meditating] was interesting, but always thought it wasn’t for me. This [Tim Ferris] book was incredible though. It had 100’s of stories from investors, sports people, politicians, Hollywood directors, writers or whatever and the common denominator was that they all meditated and attributed their success to that.
That’s when I thought there must be something here. All of these people wouldn’t be doing it if it was useless.
When I started doing it is when I started noticing a lot more people doing it as well. It’s like I opened up a spotlight in my brain and started noticing people doing it, either that or it has generally become more popular and there’s a lot more people interested in meditation.
There’s ways to do it and ways not to. People find their own ways though, so whatever works for you.
So you read books other than meditation ones though right?
I’ve been loving my reading.
Any recommendations for us then?
Definitely that Tools of Titans one. The Power of Now, I’m re-reading it now, The Art of Learning is good, a novel, The Alchemist is great, I need to read more fiction though. I’ve read a tonne of that self-help sort of stuff and there’s a lot of info in there. I think I need to break it up with a few more stories and disconnect.
Once you get into this learning path though you just want to keep going and keep learning more.
What else are you reading at the moment?
So, re-reading the Power of Now, and then this other one called The Happiness Plan, which I’m almost finished. Funnily enough it’s a meditation book and you do 10 minutes a day and you have to read a little bit per day as well. I got given it when the Newcastle comp was on and that is a good one.
It’s hard not to smile when you’re just outside the top-10 in your sophomore CT year.
This might be a tough one to talk about, and I don’t want you to feel pressured at all, but how have you found coping with the loss of your parents?
It’s alright, I’m okay to talk about it.
I’ll let you lead.
It was a tough period of my life.
The year that my father passed away was right at the start of 2016, my first year on the tour. I really felt like I was running away from that the whole year afterwards: bouncing from spot to spot, doing comps the whole year, and I had this mindset of ‘I’ll deal with that later’.
It was such a big thing, of course, and being young I thought that my personal and professional life were completely separate entities; I’ve now realised that they are one and the same. To perform in a professional sense you have to have your personal life right. Working through and accepting everything that has happened and is happening around is what I needed. Your personal life all translates into your professional career and I felt that a lot in 2016.
Then to lose your Mum a year after… I’m sorry mate, I can’t even comprehend it.
Losing my parents year after year I experienced both sides of loss. My dad was sick for a really long time before he passed, my Mum on the other hand was quite sudden. I saw her in the morning, and that afternoon she was gone.
It was horrible. But it forced me to deal with tragedy. I would obviously do anything to have them back, but those events and what has happened has accelerated me towards the person I am today. And that’s more towards the person who I want to be. I realised there’s more important things to life than surfing and other trivial stuff. Friends, family and yourself are the things which last far longer and are much more important than your career, material goods and the money.
I think about my parents every day, but it made me stop, look, and think about what has happened and where I was at. I’ve built a better life attitude and outlook because of it.
I feel like me saying “they’re gone” has helped. It feels horrible even thinking that, but I have to accept what has happened. I need to try and look at the positives and look forward, how is this is growing me as a person.
Going back to meditation too, before [I started that] I was the biggest culprit of not being able to sit still and face this sort of stuff, especially the emotions I was feeling. Meditation has allowed me to do that. It’s hard to face, but I had to take that time to look inside and see what was going on.
I’m more than happy to talk about it now too. A lot of people tippy-toe around the subject, but I’ve accepted it, and normalising it is something I have to do.
I can’t begin to fathom what you’ve gone through, but the outlook you have now is inspiring, even hearing it puts things into perspective, there’s more to life than what we often take notice of.
Now I’m just trying to look forward with a positive approach.
Let’s get back onto a more positive and lighthearted topic: surfing. Other than reading and meditating, what’s the big plan for 2019. You got Richard ‘Dog’ Marsh coaching you again?
Yep, got Dog coaching again. I’m trying to not get too far ahead of myself plan wise though, I don’t really know.
Mmm, alright, this is kind of lame, but would advice would you give to your 2016 self?
[laughs] That’s alright.
I think I would say don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Just go out and surf, don’t go out with expectations or think about the expectations others might have. If you just do what you know how to do, and enjoy it, you’ll be better off.
In those events I did well in last year I was exploring a lot outside of the comps and doing activities outside surfing. My focus wasn’t just surfing. I saw some cools places, did some cool stuff.
Where exactly are you keen on?
J-Bay is one of them. I’ve only been there the one time. I was really excited to surf it and I feel like I didn’t surf it very well [laughs] and got knocked. I’m hoping to surf it a lot better. Places like Bells as well. I’ve done a fair bit of practice on my backhand and it’s definitely another aspect I’ve improved on.
I’m excited for all the stops.
Oh come on, you can’t like everywhere.
You just want me to say Brazil.
Ha! No it was the best event on tour last year, I back it.
Nah, honestly the other year I always had high expectations for the conditions, so I’m trying not to get too excited or bummed about anywhere.
The future, similar to this outlook, is bright for for Ryan.
So, back to a more serious note [laughs], do you think taking a wider view and widening your focus beyond surfing helped?
Absolutely, you can put all your eggs in one basket – which is what we do as surfers, want to win a comp – but that mindframe doesn’t work, you can get locked in and it can be draining.
What do you do to switch off then?
Umm, I like exploring, taking photos, I guess I don’t have anything set really actually [laughs]. Just embracing the area, in general, would be the main thing,
For instance, I went to a few nice restaurants with my girlfriend in France, we went down to Biarritz, just keeping my view wide. Not so serious.
So you’re not doing that ‘in and out’ thing for the comp and bail when you get knocked?
I try not to [laughs]. This year might be a little hard though with the events all packed together. I want to try and get a decent amount of home time where I can, but I certainly don’t want to arrive for a few days and bail. You can have a good time in all these locations regardless of your results.
Are you going to be taking in the QS locations this year?
Umm, I hope not. I love the QS but I felt that, the other year when I did both, I couldn’t focus on just one [event] and I felt half committed. So my goal at this stage isn’t to do it.
Do you mean you felt like you were just trying to stay on the tour?
Yeah exactly, my goals for this year are a lot higher. I’d like to be finishing in the top-5 soon and obviously to be getting those results I shouldn’t be fighting on the QS. In saying that, if it all breaks down and doesn’t go to plan then I can get back on.
You can do about five events on the CT now before the primes start, so if you’re in a good position you can avoid them, and if not, then make your way to the primes.
Aside from a headspace sort of sense, do you think there’s aspects of your surfing you’ve improved?
I think that, this is a weird thing to say, but my surfing is less raw. A few years ago my surfing was quite raw, which is exciting, but I find it doesn’t work in heats. I was doing one really good turn, then bogging the next one, and in general, having trouble putting waves together. Now I feel like I’ve fixed that. I’ve got more flow through the wave and can link turns throughout a wave and finish it.
I’m trying to mix all the stuff I love to do in my surfing, airs and progressive stuff, mixed through with more traditional surfing. It might be a bit less progressive at times, but it’s helped me put together full waves.
Is this something you and Dog worked on?
Yeah, I think after that first year Dog and I figured out that this was what I needed to work on. In general, I feel like I’ve improved a lot, and it’s got me really excited to go back to some places.
We spent a fair bit of the start of this year preparing for competition in that sense.
Anyway, how’s this new format going to work for your top-five campaign or world title [laughs].
It’s good! Although I was properly scared of getting one of those thirty thirds.
Ooh, the dirty turd! It’s back.
Man, they’re going to be brutal if you get one of them. Honestly though, I think it’s going to be great. One sick part is that overlapping heat aspect. It’s super exciting, and we get to surf better waves too [as the contest time is reduced]. It’s obviously better for the fans, but also for the surfers.
In that first half you’re forced to catch a lot of waves [under priority] and forced to make scores from lesser waves. You almost see better surfing because of that, and then the last 20 is to build on that on better set waves.
You can also see who’s on your side of the draw.
It’s a bit more straightforward for people watching too.
Do you think it makes sense moving what was Round 4 down into Round 2?
Yep, I do.
It gives everyone a better chance to surf good waves. It keeps more surfers in the draw longer, and if you get third place twice in those opening two, then yeah, you haven’t had a good run and probably shouldn’t be in there that event [laughs].
Only four people get knocked and then most people get a chance to surf better waves, which we’re expected to be surfing on the tour. 16 heats is a big call though.
They’ve changed to points system too, rewarding winning even more.
It makes sense to me. I found it bizarre Italo won three events last year and to not be in the title race in the last event was kind of mind blowing. He had ups and downs, but he did some of the best surfing of the whole year. Italo won as many events as the eventual champ, Gabby…
He was 20,000 points behind Gabs!
Woah. Yeah, the tour is about consistency and getting decent results at every stop, but winning events is a huge part to me…
…shit, I forgot Julian won two events as well, I’m not a very good ‘surf journalist’. I guess that’s why I’m talking to you; you can surf and people are interested in what you have to say.
Well, sometimes [laughs]. I guess it depends on what my opinion is
Let’s end of a positive note, don’t want to be too negative…
What do you love about surfing?
Awww man, I love surfing.
I love the fact you can go and do it any day, even if it’s flat you can paddle out and get a wave on a log. If it’s 100-foot, you can always find a corner to surf.
A lot of people say it’s a lifestyle, which is cliché, but it really is. Anyone and everyone can do it. It’s free. And the way it makes you feel once you’ve had an incredible wave is insane. It puts you in nature, it puts you in some beautiful spots in the world you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and it just keeps you outside being active all the time.
It’s second to none to me. It never feels like a job…actually, sometimes it does… but most of the time I’m genuinely so stoked to surf.
Well, when does it feel like a job?
Come on, you just admitted it [laughs]. Spill it.
Well, I was talking about it today with a friend. When you paddle out on a little peak by yourself and a crowd of people follow you… man, that kills me. It’s so annoying. I try not to do it, because I know how much it pisses me off, but I probably do it too [laughs].
As the sport grows it’s great for us professional surfers, and it’s great for the WSL, but when it gets crowded at a spot, of course that part sucks.
If I see you somewhere, I guess I better not paddle out on you.
Nah, I guess you’re alright…just [laughs].
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