Shaun White at 28; suave, confident and moneyed. Photo by Gabe L’Heureux
Surfing is the most difficult sport in the world
From Stab Issue 81 | Words by Lucas Townsend
Some time ago there was a handsome and intelligent surfer from South Africa, named Shaun Tomson. Both wet and dry he was 33 percent more stylish than any other man. He pioneered deep tuberiding at Pipe, preferred winning to breathing and had politician-like confidence in front of the camera. He helped surfing transform from a poor man’s game in to a gentleman’s sport. With it came global surf fans.
Around the time of Shaun’s great stride, a child was born in Del Mar, California to one of those surf fans. He’d be given not just Mr Tomson’s first name, but also his addiction to good style, progression and winning.
“I was supposed to be a surfer,” Shaun White tells Stab from his New York weekender. “Yeah, my family, especially my dad, loves surfing. I’m actually named after Shaun Tomson… surfing’s all my Dad talked about from the start.”
Professional snowboard and skateboarder and surfing hobbyist, White grew up in Del Mar near San Diego, to surf-mad folks. “We’d surf 15th Street and some other spots along the train crossing,” he recalls. “But I never took it too seriously. I was about eight and my dad was like, ‘Alright, you’re going to be a surfer.’ He went and bought me my first fibreglass board and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I’m ready for this hard board. He took me out, it was super cold, I was in a spring suit and already over it. He sent me down this wave and I remember falling immediately. I went under, came up for air – well, tried to get air – got pounded again, came up and then the board hit me in the face. I was bleeding everywhere and I was like, I hate you, I never want to do this again.”
Eight years old and over it, surfing took a hiatus. But standing sideways was how Shaun would always need to be. He took surfing back up at 13, but snowboarding was already a legitimate career, Tony Hawk was his mentor on the vert ramp and by 16 he was pro in both skating and snowboarding. He’s now a prolific businessman with too much money and too many medals (including the Olympic kind) to count, but he also has credibility in his sports not too dissimilar to Kelly Slater’s in ours.
The way that high performance surfing has gone means our modern day heroes aren’t one dimensional in their board skills anymore.
Particularly in this instance: John John Florence. He is not just a surfer of phenomenal skill, but he’s a skater of rhythm and perhaps a lesser known snowboarder who’s on the mountain every season.
And for discussion’s sake, there’s arguably not one more experienced mind across all disciplines than Shaun White.
So the overriding question we put to these two gents was this: Is surfing the hardest sport in the world?
Sure, there are sports which rely more heavily on cardiovascular fitness, or speed, or flexibility, or strength or endurance. But acknowledging this, the board sports collective is an easy family to compare. Being elite in either three doesn’t require the devotion to strength and cardio training that, say, football does. You either surf more, skate more, or snowboard more to get better at, well, any of them.
John John Florence:
“Surfing’s the most difficult sport in the world. It’s so hard to learn. It seems like in every other sport you can pick up the basics really quickly, whereas surfing takes you a long time to get it going. It’s a limited resource. Surfing’s hard because it’s totally different every time. You’ll never ever be on the same wave.”
Stab: Would you say surfing is the hardest board sport in the world?
Shaun White: Yeah, I would rank it as the hardest one for me to do. My ranking system from hardest to least; surfing, then skateboarding, then snowboarding. Snowboarding has always come a lot easier. Skateboarding is very technical as well. The board is a lot smaller and you’re not attached. You’ve got that element of keeping the board underneath you, keeping it going with the same momentum that you are. That’s a lot more technical than snowboarding. Then surfing adds all of those things together; the environment’s moving, you’re moving and the board is not attached.
Stab: What is it that makes surfing the most difficult?
Shaun White: Firstly, it’s the one I get to do the least. Secondly, half the battle is learning to read what the ocean’s going to do. Understanding which direction a wave will break, and how it’ll break and the timing of the sets. Learning a certain beach has this type of break so it’s going to do this. It’s like somebody explaining music to you, or guitar theory, if you don’t play. It’s very complex, and if you’re an outsider you’re just thinking, “Don’t I just paddle for a wave and get up?” It’s the only sport where you’re conditioned to keep changing. It’s not like the halfpipe or the vert ramp is going anywhere. Once you add those two elements of you moving, and the water moving, that complexity is really difficult to get used to. In my mind, if an exact wave came twice I could do the perfect air, but you know, you’ve got to wait for that. You see guys doing tricks when they’re surfing, like Slater doing his big 540, that just seemed like it was the perfect wave at the perfect time and the lip curled at the right moment and that move was possible. How many more waves like that are out there for him to do it again? Or for anyone? It’s a funny sport. It’s all about capitalising on the situation at hand. Whereas, if I’m going through the halfpipe I know the tricks that I’m going to do, I know what’s going to go down. I’ve learned this, I’ve learned that, I’m going to link them together because I’ve practiced them enough and I’m going to go and do it.
Stab: Okay, then what’s the challenge with snowboarding that’s had you hooked for so long?
Shaun White: Snowboarding has a motocross thing going on where if you’re hitting the jump, you’re hitting the jump. There’s no way of turning back. The size of things is a lot bigger. Obviously, if you surf huge waves that can be intimidating. But if I’m going to hit a 90-foot jump snowboarding and do a triple flip, that’s a big commitment. In my mind before I hit that jump, I’m like, this is going to happen. There’s no kicking out like you do on a wave, or running out of a stair set.
Stab: And when it’s overcast, the sky’s grey, the snow’s grey and you’ve just spun three times, you then have to spot a landing.
Shaun White: Yeah, that’s the worst. They put down those little blue lines on the landing and you’re hoping to spot those as you’re coming around. It’s not the best time to be trying stuff. A lot of it is feeling. You feel your way through the trick and if you’ve been clearing the jump and your timing is on, it’s muscle memory that you apply with the spin during airtime.
John John Florence:
“Skating gives you that chance to try something over and over again which you don’t get with surfing. When you’re surfing, you’ll look for a section and try something that’s similar to what you set out to do, but it won’t be identical. You may not get the right section for a while depending on the waves you surf, and the conditions. When I was in Hawaii I wanted to do backflips, but I couldn’t do it for like two months because the winds weren’t blowing into the rights.”
Stab: There’s a real crossover of surfing into skateboarding talent right now. Pro surfers are also great skaters; John John Florence, Noa Deane, Julian Wilson, Kalani David, they all have skating foundations. What’s skating giving surfing?
Shaun White: It’s that way to practice airs without having to worry about the consistency of the waves. People catch on. I remember I had a lot of skate competitors who started snowboarding because they’d say, “Oh okay, Shaun can do big flips and spins and things snowboarding all the time.” When I took it to the vert ramp it wasn’t a big deal. I learned 720s before I learned backside 540s on the vert ramp because it was something I did on a snowboard. There is a lot of crossover. I don’t know if it’s something they do consciously, but it’s really going to help them dramatically to be able to do things they want to do.
Stab: You do a lot of vert skating, and ride halfpipe in the snow. Are there similarities with wave shapes?
Shaun White: I think the shape of the wave and the wall of the halfpipe is different. We have a certain amount of vert at the top of the wall. Whereas with surfing you need that little bit more to throw you back in. With snowboarding, the only thing that’s less like skateboarding and more like surfing is that as the day goes on the temperature can drop, and the snow can turn to ice and all of a sudden the halfpipe that was fun and playful isn’t at all. It’s like if the tide changes and the wind swings and all of a sudden it’s a completely different ocean. We did an event for the qualifier in New Jersey and I remember somebody fell and took a huge chunk out of the wall with them. There’s no real way to repair that so they just spray-painted a circle around it, you know, avoid this.
John John Florence:
“I’m never skating or snowboarding with the intention of improving my surfing.”
Stab: Was it a conscious decision to be great at both?
Shaun White: It was, in a way. The soft part of my heart has always been for skateboarding. If I had to quit all sport accept one, I probably would’ve picked skateboarding when I was younger. I remember going pro at 16 was a double-edged thing. Deep down I wanted to be a pro skater but I had sponsor obligations that were keeping me circling the Earth finding snow. I was in all these places; NZ, Chile, Argentina and I didn’t have a summer anymore and that was heavy because I loved skating. That was the only reason I didn’t go pro earlier. When I did I didn’t want any sponsors in skate because it just seemed like more obligations. I had one, Birdhouse, forever, and with Tony (Hawk) it was never, “Hey man, pay me a bunch of money to skate your boards.”
Stab: Was Tony a mentor for you?
Shaun White: Yeah in a way. I lucked out. I would drive 20 minutes up to the skatepark and he lived nearby, Bob Burnquist did too, and so did Bucky Lasek. They all skated the same park. I ended up becoming friends with them and because I was the pretty talented kid at the ramp they’d bring me to do demos with them. Somebody had to skate the ramp while Tony was taking a break. I’m super observant so, I was witnessing all the things that were about to happen to me before the fact. Tony’s video came out, he landed the 900, he did all this stuff and for me, a couple years later I turned 19, I won the Olympics, did all these things and it blew up, but I’d watched how Tony handled everything - fans, family, business, others’ advice - and learned how to deal with it before it all happened.
Stab: Watch and learn.
Shaun White: Yeah, I went on the Tony Hawk Gigantic Skatepark Tour when I was 15 and it was crazy times, man. Bam Margera was doing Jackass at the time, so all that shit happened and it was the wildest bus ride you’d ever imagined. I was not only learning some great things from Tony, but some not-so-great things too (laughs).
John John Florence:
“Skating is my time away from surfing but the most similar transition would be skating bowls like North Shore park where everything can be linked, you can just keep going. Snowboarding is the same, I’ve gone every year since I was young, but not this year because I got hurt. Snowboarding feels pretty similar off the jumps as surfing. When you watch those guys do flips you can see how they rotate and learn from that.”
Stab: Was skating your escape from snowboarding?
Shaun White: Yeah, I’ve always said I would’ve quit snowboarding a long, long time ago if it wasn’t for skating. It was my break. It was something else to look forward to in life rather than, “Oh, it’s cold again, I s’pose I’ll just go to the mountain.” Once the snow was done it was time to skate. Sure, I didn’t think about it as a kid, but looking back it helped me get strong and motivated me through the entire summer. It gave me that competitive feeling so I never really left competition mode. When I got back to the snow I was still at it, but I was refreshed again. For those guys it’s not
just about learning new tricks for surfing, it’s mentally helpful.
Stab: Is having the other board sports there the perfect refresher for snowboarding?
Shaun White: Totally. It’s super funny because people in the media have said I’m retiring since the last Olympics. Things didn’t go the way I’d planned and hoped and whatever. But I went and played music, instead of skateboarding. At that time I was burned out on the skate touring scene. I’ve always used skating as my getaway from the snow but it wasn’t giving me that recharge. Being competitive every winter into every summer gets super heavy, there’s no rest. All of a sudden I was like, “Fuck, I love playing music, this could be a good time to do it.” In a way music has become my skating. It’s the thing to take my attention away. I’ve always said my time on the board is as important as my time off it. And it works. I learned a new trick the other day before Mammoth closed. Shit, for me to be excited to go up and learn a new trick doing something I’ve done since I was five is a rarity!
John John Florence:
“There’s a lot of talented guys in those sports. Some of the stuff you watch is just so amazing. It’s mind-blowing. I wonder if they watch surfing and get the same reaction? When I watch those guys snowboarding and they hit big kickers it’s gnarly. And when they’re dropping off cliffs in the backcountry, it’s just crazy.”
Stab: What’s stopping you from bettering your surfing?
Shaun White: I’ve always loved it and taken to it quickly, but like anything if you wanna play guitar you’ve gotta practice. If you want to learn to surf you’ve got to make the time and I just haven’t done that enough. Nowadays I look at what the guys are doing and I’m like, there’s just no way. I mean, I’m not so intimidated about doing the tricks and doing the spins and flips, it’s more the size of the waves that they’re surfing. I don’t know how to fall correctly. No matter what I do I’m getting scooped back over the top. I was surfing Uluwatu, holy shit, my feet just had holes in them from being dragged across the reef. If it was any bigger I don’t think I could manage hitting the reef.
Stab: And then gents like JJF are doing rotations – which wouldn’t look out of place on a ramp – above that reef.
Shaun White: Yeah! But if we took John John and myself up on the mountain and I’m eyeballing this 90-foot jump and I’m like, “Oh, I might just back-seven it to warm up.” He’d be like, “Are you high?” I’m looking at it going, yeah it’s kinda windy and I don’t want to hit it at this direction, I’m going to take this speed, because I know it’s this time of day so I’m going to go a little slower… I know what I’m doing, whereas you show up at a wave and it’s a similar thing. They may be breaking heavier, they may throw differently and John John could see that. It’s all relative. Reading the break is the whole battle, just like reading a mountain.
Stab: John John will surf a certain break to practice a certain manoeuvre because it has a predominate wind direction. Is it the same with snowboarding?
Shaun White: Oh really? Yes, and it also depends on which mountain, and which direction the sun is going as well. Certain points in the day will put the landing in the shade. X-Games is the worst, man. They always put the Slopestyle finals at 4pm. It’s right when the sun is going down the back of the mountain so all the takeoffs are super lit and great, but the landings are in complete shade. Sometimes my strategy is just to land my first run while there’s still light, because no one is going to land their second or third runs. If there’s a cross breeze you can deal with it, you just adjust your direction a little. The best wind is downhill, or no wind. If the wind is blowing uphill it’s tough, you have to go faster because the wind is pushing you back up the hill. Sometimes you’ll be mid-air and you’ll be rotating and you’re thinking you’re going to make it. Suddenly you come up short and land on the knuckle (top) of the jump. It’s like skipping a stone. You have that impact on the knuckle, and then skip off 10-to-20 feet for another impact on the landing ramp. It’s the same with the halfpipe. You can first bounce off the wall, but think about that second impact when the halfpipe is 22-feet high.
Stab: Is boarding in powder snow similar to surfing?
Shaun White: I think surfing’s stance and the weight distribution is totally different. If you’re in powder, yeah, you have to lean back and it’s a bit like surfing on your back foot, but then I think the newer surfboards are a lot wider and have changed that traditional back-foot stance. I remember switching to a Channel Islands Dumpster Diver and it helped me a bunch because I naturally put a lot of weight on my front foot as a snowboarder. With the wider point further forward it made it possible. If you’re on the pipe you’re diggin’ that edge in to hold your line up the wall. It’s all driving forward. Whereas with surfing if you push too far on the front you can push the board underneath.
John John Florence:
“If surfing’s missing anything that skating has, it’s the culture. Their’s is really sick. Everyone is always stoked when they’re skating, and amped on each other’s runs. They’re a lot happier to teach you, whereas surfing seems a lot more competitive. Guys are just like, no, I want to be the best surfer, I want to do the best trick or get the best barrel. Skating’s culture is a lot more chilled. When you walk up to a park, people are cool, they’re stoked to see you. Whereas in surfing you can walk up to a break and people are bummed to see you.”
Stab: Is there any aggression in your sports?
Shaun White: No, not really. I mean, I understand why there is in surfing. It’s a limited resource in the ocean. This particular wave might only come once every 20 minutes. It’s just funny because there’s that whole lineup of guys and they’re all thinking the same thing: This wave is coming right at me, this is the one. Even the guys who know they’re not in position to paddle for it paddle anyway. It’s such a mind fuck. I don’t see that too often in my sports.
Stab: Ever helped out any pro surfers on the mountain?
Shaun White: I don’t see a whole lot. I see the Ho family in Aspen, that’s about it. But I went surfing once with Kalani Robb and Sunny Garcia when we were shooting for GoPro. They were like, “Go Shaun! Snake me! Go in front of me!” It was messed up because every instinct was going, “Do not snake these guys. Whatever you do!” (laughs). That’s another reason why I’ve kinda shied away from the sport, not to knock it or anything, but there’s a lot of agro-ness to get a wave. It’s strange, it’s the most peaceful place in the world where you can find the most aggression. You’re in such a serene scenario in the islands and you’re like, “Oh my god somebody’s getting hit in the face.” When I go surfing and it gets like that I’ll just go in, I don’t really feel like fighting for waves.
John John Florence:
“Snowboarding and skating have definitely inspired my surfing. Watching their flips and spins and corks and the way they’re in control in the air, it’s insane to see. I’ll watch a snow video part really closely and it’ll make me want to go out and try different flips. I’m really good friends with Greyson (Fletcher), and while we’re skating together he’ll say, you should try this while you’re surfing… and that opens your mind to other things.”
Stab: Are there things in surfing you think we’re doing wrong?
Shaun White: I always thought some tricks were a little strange looking. For example, I think it’s called a double-grab in surfing, but we call it a truck driver where you’re in the air and you grab both rails. That’s something we’d do just joking around, it’s always looked strange to me.
Stab: Did you see Matt Meola’s swindle flip? It’s a frontside rodeo with extra rotation.
Shaun White: I saw that! It was huge, too. I remember thinking it was massive and he throws his arms up in the end and he’s like, holy shit. (laughs). Fuck it man, I was into it. It was impressive. It was like we said with Kelly, the right wave at the right time. It made me feel pretty shitty about my back-180 to the flats. That air, I was like what the fuck? What wax is he using, because I sure don’t have it.
Stab: There’s a lot of debate about rotations in surfing. What’s your take on it?
Shaun White: Snowboarding is strange. If I was to do a 180 off a jump, that same 180 in a halfpipe is called a 360. They’re taking the fact that you started already slightly behind the circle, and then to land you over compensated at the end, and that would make up that second 180 degrees. But if you went up and did a flip it’s considered a 540. Personally, I don’t really see it. I s’pose they’ve got to call it something with some sort of rules otherwise it’d be chaos. Plus, I’m not going to complain when I’m doing a double mctwist and they’re calling it a 1260. I’m like, hell yeah it was! I’m interested to see where it’s going to go for your guys from here, whether somebody can do a double flip, or something that would involve flipping the board while flipping your body. It’d be similar to vert skating. Is somebody going to come out with a two-directional board where you can surf it front and backwards? Is that something that’s on the horizon? If you could surf a board either way it’d change everything. That was the big turn-on to snowboarding for skiers. Skiing, you could only go straight, snowboarding came out and it was like, oh cool, let’s ride switch. Then skiing became more popular again because they came out with freestyle skis that allow you to go both ways. I was thinking about it surfing the other day when some guy took off on his longboard backward and spun it around. It was probably Laird out Malibu or some shit.
Stab: Surfing’s future could be in fin design then?
Shaun White: Yeah, well, it could be. Surely there’s a way to come up with a fin arrangement that’s smaller, but on both sides. Can’t some guy in a lab somewhere figure it out? I think that’s something slightly lacking for surfing. It’d make it a lot more like skating on a wave and really open you up to a number of different manoeuvres.