Stab Magazine | Sliding doors

Sliding doors

Life is a series of challenges and forks in the road. In the course of a lifetime, some doors will open while others will shut. But, what happens when two almost identical teenagers choose different doors. Jed Smith charts the different life choices of four childhood friends: Taj Burrow/James Catto and Luke Stedman/Ozzie Wright. Taj Burrow […]

style // Feb 22, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Life is a series of challenges and forks in the road. In the course of a lifetime, some doors will open while others will shut. But, what happens when two almost identical teenagers choose different doors. Jed Smith charts the different life choices of four childhood friends: Taj Burrow/James Catto and Luke Stedman/Ozzie Wright.

Taj Burrow and James Catto, both 31.

‘88: Catto qualifies for the West Australian state team aged 10. Taj follows a year later aged 11.
’90-‘92: Taj spends three years losing to Catto in the final of the West Australian titles.

“I definitely beat Taj more than he beat me when we were younger.” James Catto

’93: Taj signs with Quiksilver, Catto with Rip Curl.
’94: Catto and Taj go to Hawaii for the first time. They stay next door to each other, which is convenient for North Shore heavies Mickey Nielson and Marvin Foster who spend two months tormenting the teenage prodigies. Taj flees early, coming home to contest the Ocean Earth/Hot Buttered Pro Junior, which he wins. Catto remains.

“We got so bullied.” Taj Burrow
“People were shooting guns around us. We got handcuffed. They would come home late, wake us up and make us drink straight bourbon. Taj went home and won that pro junior at Narrabeen. Which was big for him. I stayed. I said, ‘You aren’t gonna kill me’ to Marvin, and it was pretty sweet after that.” James Catto

’95: Catto’s parents split up.

“I didn’t know what was going on. I spun out. I had a lot of personal issues. My Mum was a wreck, I wasn’t speaking to my Dad. I only just reconciled with him this year.” James Catto

’95: Taj and Catto team up for Busselton High to smash the national school titles.
’95: Catto is expelled from school.

“I went off the rails.” James Catto

’96: Catto leaves Gracetown for Perth to live with his Ma. He doesn’t surf for a year, drinks a lot of beer, smokes a lot of pot and sells all but one of his boards.

“The waves are fucked at Perth. We get spoiled, so I imagine he would have lost motivation when he was up there. Guys can make careers out of free surfing but you can be a bit lazier. Surfing competitively keeps your head together and keeps your rig in shape.” Taj Burrow

’96: Rip Curl and Catto part ways.
’96: Taj qualifies for the world tour as an 18 year old, only to give up his spot on the ’97 tour.

“I didn’t feel ready at the time, plus the WQS felt easy and I thought I could do it again.” Taj Burrow

’97: Taj qualifies again for the world tour this time accepting his position on the ’98 tour. He will finish 12thh, behind Pat O’Connell and in front of Rob Machado. And win Rookie of the Year.
’98: Catto wakes up one morning and decides he feels like surfing. Oxygen is blown into the coals, the flame reignites, and he heads south to live in Gracetown with his grandparents. He wins the Margaret River Classic soon after.
’98: Rusty acquires Catto on a photo incentive and product deal. He surfs and shoots for Rusty in the mornings and earns money mowing lawns in the afternoon. As Catto learns to parabola through the air, so too does his exposure.

“I was getting shots in every single [Australian] mag. Rusty weren’t paying at this point.” James Catto.

’98: Catto punts an air reverse in the face of the Rusty USA team manager while surfing Margarets. It earns him a spot on a now famous maiden voyage through the Andaman islands with Chris Malloy, Jack Johnson and Tamayo Perry for a Surfer magazine trip that would result in the film Thicker Than Water. It would launch Catto’s international profile.
’99: Taj, just 21, finishes runner-up to Occ on the WCT.
’00: Taj is awarded the Young Australian Sportsman of the Year.
’00: Taj releases the first of two profile films Sabotaj gaining him the reputation as the best free surfer in the world. His tour ranking, however, drops to sixth in the world.
’01: Taj drops out of the top 16 for the first and only time in his career.

(Waiting on wheels here…he’ll be back to me shortly with a quote about Taj sqaundering his best window to win a title instead cutting sick on Euro D-floors)

’01: Bicycle is created by Sam McIntosh and Adam Blakey, starring both Catto and Taj. Catto scores two covers out of the trip despite leaving halfway through it for personal reasons. And retiring from pro surfing shortly after.


“I had a cunt of trip. I was fighting with my chick, it was one foot. I told Rusty I was over it, and I wanted out. Rusty pulled me aside and told me they didn’t want me to quit. I had created an image for them as the smoking, don’t-give-a-fuck guy. I ended up with a pay rise and a couple of months off.”

’02: Taj releases Montaj. It wins the “Video of the Year” at the 2002 Surfer Magazine Readers Poll Awards. He places fourth on the tour.
’03-’07: Catto does his free surf thing. Rusty releases a number of videos with him as the star. Life goes swimmingly.

“I just free surfed all through America, hung with Flea in Mexico which was crazy. I drank a shit load of piss and partied with the best people.” James Catto.

’03-07: Taj has three top five finishes, and ranks no lower than seventh, with one runner up. This was considered his best window to win a world title. He gets like, in, with Australian super-ish model Cheyenne Tozzi.
’07: Taj releases Fair Bits.
’08: Taj signs a four-year contract for 1.5 million with Billabong and Globe days before news of a recession breaks. Good times indeed.
’08: Catto’s deal with Rusty expires. It is not renewed. Catto gracefully moonwalks into the shadows of professional surfing.

“I didn’t want to be one of those fuckers who hangs on.” James Catto.

’08: A large swell strikes West Oz’s Cowaramup bombie. Catto is one of the many that tow it on a famous day. He scores a double-page spread out of it as well as a berth on Tom Carroll and RCJ’s Discovery Channel documentary, Storm Surfers.
’09: Taj begins the year with a 3rd and a 17th.
’09: Catto is halfway through his second year of full time work as a shopfitter.

“We go around to chemists and fit shelves and stuff.” James Catto. 

Luke Stedman and Ozzie Wright

’76: Ozzie and Steds ooze out of their mothers’ uteruses, Ozzie into a family of beatniks. His uncle Peter is an artist of some repute who’d exhibited at the Kings Cross gallery, The Yellow House.

“We’d get sketch books for Christmas. All my aunties and uncles used to love painting and drawing, same with my cousins. We used to sit around with our sketchbooks and draw. We’d stick the sketches on the wall and say, ‘Wow isn’t that a good drawing so and so did’.”
’81: Steds is introduced to competitive surfing by his old boy Shane, who commentates the Beaurepaire and Stubbies Classics. In an era where pre-heat routines consisted of callisthenics while pinching a fatty between your lips, five-year-old Luke is given free reign among the competitor’s area. He is star struck by the legends we now know only by their initials: MP, MR, PT.

’85: Ozzie’s father’s band, The Boppin Blackies Boston Bonza Boys reform for a one-off gig at The Yellow House. This can be loosely traced to the genesis of the Goons.

“They rehearsed at my house. My Dad played this giant bush bass. It was a fun, bouncing, rocky brand. They were like the Goons in a way.” Ozzie Wright

’90: Raised a few hundred steps from the gelatinous shorebreak of South Narrabeen, Ozzie develops a unique, quick style. He is picked up by Quiksilver on a product deal and placed in their Back to School’ campaigns. They pay for him to contest the school titles in America.
’90: Steds meets Oz for the first time at a regional contest held at nearby Warriewood. Steds gets schooled and leaves early. But not before this little punker leaves his impression.

“I remember looking up to him. He had the full peacock effect. He stood out from everyone else and already had drawings all over his board. Plus he had this really good, unique style. He was on par with Davo.” Luke Stedman

’91: Billabong acquires Steds on a product deal.
’92: Ozzie goes on his first photo trip. It’s for Tracks and he is taken to the NSW mid-north coast with Dave Nielson, his cousin Denny Shallis and Ian ‘Moonhead’ Ross. He witnesses for the first time a surfer pulling aerials. He likes it.

“Ian did have quite a big head but he was good surfer. And Dave Nielson, he was landing most of the airs he was trying. I thought ’Wow, that’s what I want to do.’”

’92: Steds gets his first snippet of exposure. Surfing World take him and Michael Lowe to Shellharbour and photograph the two in a series of provocative Bill Henson-esque poses.
’93: Steds, Ozzie and Chris Davidson all qualify for the Australian Titles at Middleton, South Australia. Steds gets smoked. Davo and Ozzie go on to contest the final registering a one-two, Ozzie in second.

“Everyone was surfing this one peak. And Ozzie went out and surfed this two- foot left shorey that was like Southy and did a few airs. Everyone was, like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’” Luke Stedman.

’93: Ozzie makes the final of the Ocean and Earth/Hot Buttered Pro Junior at Narrabeen. Again, it’s against Davo. Davo is late for the heat and Ozzie waits for him to arrive before paddling out. Davo wins.

“My Dad was blowing up. He was like, ‘Get out there!’ I didn’t have that killer instinct in the competitive scene I guess.” Ozzie Wright.

’93: Ozzie goes to the World amateur titles in Brazil along with Luke Hitchings and Matt Griggs. He finishes 11th. Kalani Robb wins.
’93: Steds signs with Quiksilver.

“My surfing was anything but strong during my late teens. I hated competitions. I didn’t like being around events. I wasn’t going on many trips, I didn’t have any drive. Oz’s career and Noodles were just blossoming at this point. I was envious of what they had and it gave me ignition to try and attain their status.” Luke Stedman

’94: With his development plateauing, Steds seeks out the help of coach Martin Dunn. But before they meet he wins the state titles.

“I won that and I was like, nah I don’t need a coach anymore, I’m ripping. But I did need a coach.” Luke Stedman

’94: Ozzie signs with Volcom. They endorse his free surfing career and give him creative control over, um, everything.
’95: Steds and Ozzie begin their term on the junior series. Steds fails to progress past the second round in 90% of his heats.
’96: Ozzie gets a job at Woolworths packing shelves. He also spends time landscaping and mopping factory floors.
’96: Steds spends six months surfing in America courtesy of a billeting program he’d been a part of. He arrives home and gets his first genuine magazine spread – a double pager in Waves.
’99: Steds hires a campervan and travels Europe doing the WQS. The campervan breaks down leaving him stranded in Spain unable to get to Portugal for the next competition. He finishes the year ranked 60th.
’00: Sam McIntosh and Adam Blakey, then of Waves, create Seven days, Seven Slaves. It’s the biggest profile boost Ozzie will receive in his career, though largely confined to Australia.

“Luke Weinert said, ‘It was like you had won the world title.’ Whenever I went to a beach from that point on, grommets would ask me to sign or deface their board.  A grommet came around today and brought a board and asked me to draw on It.” Ozzie Wright.
’00: Steds is dropped by Quiksilver. In a masterstroke, he tells no one, keeps the Quik stickers on his board and continues on his merry way as if nothing had happened.

“They thought I was just a good local surfer who wasn’t gonna make it. I didn’t want people to know I’d been dropped so I kept it quiet and went after Mambo. I’d lost my meal ticket and I realised surfing was all I wanted to do. That’s when I really applied myself.” Luke Stedman.

’01: Bicycle is produced by Sam McIntosh and Adam Blakey. It’s another profile boost for Ozzie.
’01’: Stedz signs with Mambo.
’02: Stedz qualifies for the world tour.
’02: Volcom gives Ozzie creative control over his profile video, 156 tricks. It’s an international cult hit and Ozzie’s first rush of international acclaim.
’03: Steds breaks up with his girlfriend of eight years prior to the beginning of his tour debut. He is one of only three tour graduates that year. All fail to requalify. Tom Whitaker receives the wooden spoon, while Steds, with a ranking of 37th receives Rookie of the Year.
’03: Steds meets future wife Malia during the Hawaiian season.
’03: Ozzie and Adam Blakey produce Doped Youth. It’s another international cult classic. The proceeds off the film are used to buy musical instruments. Ozzie teaches himself to play. The Goons of Doom are born.

“We had a premiere in Glebe for Doped Youth. It was in a proper movie theatre. It was packed with people, everyone was dressed up and the Goons played a gig after it at the Civic pub in the CBD dressed as vampires. We were really bad.”

’04: Steds requalifies for the CT.
05: Steds finishes 32nd on the CT but requalifies via the WQS. He begins work with sports shrink by the name of Michael Martin.

“Michael just said, ‘You gotta believe in yourself, mannn. Like, block out the bad energy keep in the good, block the bad, keep the good.’ I was working with [surf coach] Martin Dunn too. I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.” Luke Stedman

’05: Ozzie goes on a trip to Nokanduis with Bruce Irons. Epic, epic surf. Ozzie appears in the Taylor Steele classic Campaign surfing in a skeleton suit. He gets two waves. Bruce scores arguably the section of the film.

“That’s the problem with going anywhere with Bruce, the cameras tend to focus on him.” Ozzie Wright.

’06: Stedz makes the semis at the Rip Curl Pro Bells beach on his third try at the WCT. He vows never to compete on the WQS ever again.
‘06. With only the Pipe contest remaining, Steds needs a quarterfinal finish or better to requalify.

“I had Bruce Irons, Kelly, the Hobgoods and Machado in my way and I just kept squeaking through. I made the Semis and requalified. It was the highlight of my career.” Luke Stedman

’07: Ozzie exhibits at the Space Junk gallery in France. One of 15 exhibitions of the year.
‘07: Steds signs for Insight, after knocking them back in ’05.
’08: Ozzie has a child, a boy he calls Rocky.
’08: Ozzie gets a Stab cover.
’08: Steds finishes the CT season with a career best 11th in the world.

“I never thought of myself as a world-title contender. I set my goals as top 10. But when I finished 11th, I thought there is no reason why I can’t get a higher figure. “ Luke Stedman

Feb ’09: Steds’ boy, Spike, is born weeks before he injures his toe and ankle attempting a floater in Hawaii. It required surgery, ruling Steds out until Trestles and forcing him to rely on the elusive injury wild card for requalification.
’09: Ozzie tears his hamstring off the bone 200 metres from his house at South Narrabeen. He too faces surgery and a lengthy stint out of the water.


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