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5 Minutes with the King

by Andy Davis, images by Craig Kolesky / 29.07.2010

Ever since Jordy Smith first started winning surfing events on the junior circuit, he’s been tipped as a world champion. That’s a lot of expectation to lump on a kid. But he was just that good. And he seemed to thrive on the attention. He dominated every level from the national juniors to the seniors and finally when he graduated to the World Qualifying Series (WQS) he soon finished on top, ahead of literally thousands of other professional surfers from around the world, to be able to compete at the highest level of the sport, on the World Championship Tour (WCT). His rookie year on “The Dream Tour” was one to forget, but he still easily requalified, while showing the occasional glimpse of what he is capable of. Considering that he has dominated every stage of the surfing pyramid up until the apex, some would say it was only a matter of time before he occupied the number one spot. But rarely do ambition, skill and circumstance combine to make potential possible. South Africa hasn’t had a world champion surfer since Shaun Thompson rode the barrel at Pipeline on a single fin in the late 70s and early 80s. Now all these pressures and expectations rest firmly upon the shoulders of a 21 year old kid.

I remember meeting Jordy Smith for the first time when he was 15. Sitting in the carpark overlooking Impossibles at J-Bay with his long time buddy Damien Fahrenfort. I remember thinking what a sussed kid he was; natural, friendly. Even back then Jordy had an air about him. The special one. He was just a kid with a huge amount of raw surfing talent, but we were all hoping he would one day prove us right. This week, he returned to Kommetjie as the King, ranked the number 1 surfer in the world, to sign some autographs and show some face at the O’Neill Cold Water Classic surf event. But how does it feel to be the king?

“It feels good you know. I’m not going to get ahead of myself. Like last year we saw Joel Parkinson win the first three events of the year and still lose the title race. So you can’t get too comfortable. But it’s a good position to be in. You’ve got to kind of look at it like a boxing match. We’ve only been through four or five rounds, but there are 12 rounds in the match. We still have a few more left and you just have to put your best foot forward.”
“Do you feel the world title is yours to lose?” I ask.
“Not at all. If you look at the guys who have won, the guys I am up against, they’re all former world champions. They’ve got a lot of experience and know what to do in these situations, but it’s all still a learning curve for me. I just put my best foot forward and go for it. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“Do the same thing I’ve been doing. Just relax and go surf the heat. Take it heat by heat, wave by wave. Focus on the things I can control.”

And even though he talks with the swagger and platitudes of a professional athlete, you still get the feeling that this kid is special.
“How surreal is your life now?” I ask as another Kommetjie Waldorf kid sidles up to him and asks him to sign his poster.
“Definitely changed.” He says over his shoulder as he turns to swoop his practiced signature on the kid’s poster. “Going from the normal average high school kid to signing autographs for people, it’s a pretty big thing to adapt to. But I think I’ve done pretty well so far. It’s a big change when people start noticing who you are when you’re walking down the street or going into malls… but you know, it’s all part of the job.”
“Do you like it.” I ask.
“Ja I don’t mind. I’ve got a lot of time for fans, friends and family. I’m not an insecure person, so I like getting out there and shaking everyone’s hands.”
“Do you feel your whole life has been building up to this?”
“I’ve definitely put in the hours to become the world champ. So we’ll just see how it goes. I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself. I’m just going to think of now and do what’s in front of me. And not think too much of what’s in the future.”

I look around the little restaurant, and everyone seems to be watching us. Expectant and smiling. It’s kind of disconcerting.
“So who is the dream crusher?” I ask. Jordy looks back frowning. “Who is your biggest threat on the tour?” I rephrase the question.
“The whole tour is a threat, you never know who is going to drop a 10 in their heat. Obviously the usual suspects Mick, Taj, Joel, Andy, Kelly, Dane. They’re always a threat. And then in every event you always get guys who pull aces out when they need them. Everyone. You never know who it’s going to be.”

“South Africa seems to produce a lot of very talented surfers… but few have had the headspace and the presence to step it up at the highest level.” I say. “I mean not since Shaun Thompson in the late 1970s have we had a World Champion.”
Jordy looks thoughtful. “Other countries have a lot more surfers than South Africa. I mean you look at Australia and half of Australia surfs. In South Africa not many people surf, and out of this small community we have a huge amount of talent. The guys just need to realize that they have what it takes. It’s all in the head.”

Another snotty little grom takes the gap and drops in on our conversation. “Can you sign this…”
Jordy just smiles and swooshes the pen.
“How do you keep your head straight?”
“I just do my own thing and never look back. I always just keep thinking that there’s always someone better than you so you have to just keep going harder and harder. There’s no point when you can sit back and relax. No matter how many events you win, you just have to keep going.”

21 years old. Ranked number 1. Sponsored, endorsed, rich, athletic, tanned, the centre of attention everywhere he goes. It’s good to be the king.
“Are you single?” I ask.
“I am.” And then he pauses, as if silently reminding himself of some half forgotten fact, some midnight promise. “Well actually not so much at the moment.”

*All images © Kolesky/Nikon

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