The Not–So–Distant Future
An off-the-cuff conversation with six of surfing’s brightest teenage stars
“What…happened?” asks Parker Coffin, peering out the salt-caked window towards Soup Bowl in Barbados. It’s half past 8 a.m. and the rain is coming in sideways, pelting Parker’s rented beachfront house with the force of a thousand marbles. The ocean is a jumbled mess.
Yesterday it all seemed so perfect. I was here for the SURFING Swimsuit Issue, and along with Parker, Jake Marshall, Griffin Colapinto, Nic Hdez, Josh Burke and Stevie Pittman also happened to be here for the first WSL Pro Junior of the 2015 season. Our shoot and the contest both ended yesterday.
Last night I convinced them all to stay (except Josh, as he lives here) by showing them today’s forecast and Kelly Slater’s infamous Soup Bowl session in Campaign 2. Did I think it’d be that good? Nah. But I certainly didn’t imagine it’d be this bad.
Parker — the oldest of the group at 19 — turns his attention away from the disappointing ocean and pours a cup of coffee. He sits back at the table and starts talking shop, and his caffeine-fueled energy quickly sparks one of the most thoughtful conversations I’ve ever heard between six teenagers. About being young and “professional” and exploring the idea that someday, just maybe, they might not be either. About whether they’d rather be marketable or on the world tour. Whether they’d rather have 500,000 Instagram followers or land the front page of SURFING. Although the banter didn’t need much direction, as the only “adult” around, I jumped in with my iPhone recorder and helped steer the conversation.
SURFING: Stevie, you’re the youngest in the room. Parker, the oldest. But you’re all either amateur or junior pro right? Or are you some hybrid between the two?
Parker: Five years ago, when I was Stevie’s age, I was definitely amateur and it was all about winning Open Junior’s or Men’s at NSSA Nationals. That’s what you wanted to win and you tried every year until you were 18. That’s what Bobby [Martinez], CJ [Hobgood], Andy [Irons] and those guys did. After the NSSA they hit the ‘QS and then qualified for the ‘CT. Now, there’s this WSL Junior thing, the ISA, Surfing America, NSSA…and it’s confusing. At what age are you supposed to start the next step? Which is the most prestigious? It feels diluted. It used to be if you won Open Men’s at Lowers you were the guy.
Does it still mean a lot to win any of these amateur titles? Stevie, you won a division at US Championships at Lowers last summer, right?
Stevie: Yeah. I won the Under 16s.
Nic: So, Stevie: Would you rather win that event, or a National title at Huntington?
Stevie: I would rather win a contest at Lowers than at Huntington, just because it is a better wave.
Parker: OK, how about this: You just released a web clip, and it was really sick. Between that edit and your win at US Champs, which was more important to you?
Stevie: I got a lot more exposure out of the video, and a lot more people saw me surf in it, so I guess that edit is probably more important in the long run.
Parker: That’s sick, because the video part is a new way to make — or at least start — a career. Because now the best kids are being recognized online and not just at the beach at a surf contest.
Nic: Contest surfing is confusing. The WSL is gonna change the junior tour to 18 and under, which kind of makes it another NSSA, and makes it hard for guys 19- to -21, who aren’t quite ready to hit the WQS, but are almost forced too.
Parker: Which is a little ridiculous, because why should Eli Hanneman and Jet Schilling, who are like 12, care about the amateur events when they can compete for money? The junior series should be the gap. You should compete as an amateur until you’re 18, and that’s where the WSL junior series should start. It should feed you into the WQS. Right now the junior series is just the new amateur series, except with money.
Jake: But it would suck to have Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina on the junior tour [laughs].
Parker: Yeah, but those guys are good enough to skip it and just qualify anyway. And I’d say they are the exception, not the rule.
Right now, how do you decide where to place the most importance in your careers?
Parker: I think it’s about being honest with yourself. Like, until you feel that you can compete at the WCT level, I don’t necessarily think you should be out there trying to qualify. I don’t think it’s a matter of age, but whether you are strong enough to be on that tour and not just take up space. Look at Filipe. He’s young, but he’s proving that he is totally ready.
Jake: A lot of it is about when your body develops. Like Kolohe. He ripped when he qualified a few years ago, but he kind of looked small on a wave. But now he’s stronger, and he finished last year in the top 10.
Parker: Exactly. And that’s not to say he didn’t deserve to be there before, but now he belongs.
Nic: So, would you say him struggling on tour for a couple years helped him? Or should he have waited?
Jake: I think it would have been better for him to wait. When you’re on the tour and losing at every contest, it messes with your confidence. I think part of the problem is the difference in wave quality between the two tours. It’s always been that way. It’s easy for a lightweight guy who rips to qualify off the beachbreaks, but then struggle to make that transition to heavier waves and a more powerful type of surfing.
Does everyone here want to be on tour?
Parker: Griffin, are you with us?
Griffin: Ummmm, mmmmmmm.
[laughs all around]
Parker: Why are you on your phone?
Griffin: My dad is texting me!
OK, Griffin, where do you want to be in five years?
Griffin: I just want to do a couple jueys [slang for the junior series] and a few queys [slang for the WQS] to get some practice in.
[Hysteric laughter all around]
Griffin: What? I just want to make the quarters in a four star or something, that’d be sick.
Parker: I was talking to Kanoa [Igarashi] recently, and he said that after one good result in a Prime last year, he felt almost like he had to spend the rest of the year trying to qualify. But he also said he knows he’s not ready.
Josh: ‘Cause if he qualified, he would obviously take his spot. Nobody would ever turn a spot on tour down. I think Taj [Burrow] is still the only guy to ever do that.
Parker: Exactly. But back to what you were saying. Do I want to be on tour? Yes. But my ultimate goal is just to be some kids’ favorite surfer. I would always be psyched on that. But right now I’m not sure if I’m better off trying to accomplish that by grinding out on the ‘QS and ‘CT or by going on trips for the magazines and putting out edits and trying to really connect that way.
Speaking of favorite surfers, who is yours?
Jake: John John.
Nic: Taylor Knox.
Stevie: John John.
Is it weird that, realistically, you could all become some other kids’ favorite surfer in the not-so-distant future.
Jake: Well yeah, but everyone we just named is or has been on tour killing it. So I think it comes with that.
Parker: Yes and no. I mean there’s something to be said for the guy who can go out and surf two waves to perfection in one 30-minute heat, who can pull out a 10 in the dying minutes of a heat when he needs one. But not everyone is built for competition, some guys connect by filming all year for a movie part.
Nic: And then you have guys like John, who can easily film a video part in his heat.
Jake: And that’s why he’s so many peoples favorite surfer. He’s the best of both worlds. Him, Julian, Jordy, Filipe, Gabriel… Those guys film parts in every heat. They drop nines everywhere. Filipe’s highlight reel from every contest is a video part.
I wanna hear about the role of social media in your lives and careers.
Parker: Sometimes people forget the only reason we get paid is to sell clothes. And these days, you don’t have to be the best surfer to sell clothes because of things like Instagram. And because of Instagram, it’s easy for a brand to see a surfers’ value. If you have 100k followers you are obviously appealing to the masses. Instagram is in every one of the contracts that I have. Is it dorky? Annoying? Maybe. But social media is only gaining momentum.
Josh: At first, it was all just fun. Now, you kinda have to forget about it being for your friends, and think about it in terms of your career. As hard as it is to post a bunch of pictures of yourself surfing or whatever, that’s why those people are following you. And we just have to remember that.
Nic: Some of my friends roust me for it, but…
Parker: …at the end of the day you’re the one getting the paycheck. [laughs] But then you have guys like Noa Deane, he has an Insta but it’s all artsy. He doesn’t give a shit. But maybe people love him for that, too? It’s like he’s created a mysterious aura and people eat it up. I’m always trying to tread the line between doing my job and feeling like a sell out.
Josh: It’s kind of a popularity contest, and some guys who don’t surf as good, but are good-looking are gaining a big following.
Nic: Would you rather be in the top-15 on tour and be unmarketable for whatever reason, or be really marketable and popular but not be on tour and also not surf as good?
Parker: Griffin! Get off your phone…
Griffin: My dad keeps texting me!
Parker: Just put your phone down.
Griffin: [Sets his phone face down] Ummm. I’d rather be marketable…and not ugly?
[Laughs all around]
Parker: So is that it Griffin? That’s all you have to say?
Griffin: [Laughs] Well, I dunno. I want to be top-15 on tour, so…
Jake: We all surf to feel accomplished. It would always feel way better to be in the top- 15 than just have a huge Instagram following because it’s really hard to be in the top-15. Everyone there is a really good surfer. And if you’re on tour you can kind of control your career. Instagram might just be a flash in the pan.
Parker: This isn’t lasting forever. We all know that. So I guess what it comes down to is: What would end up making you happiest?
Josh: Freesurfers are kinda like models. Everyone is always looking for someone newer, younger, hotter…
How much thought do you give to life after professional surfing?
Parker: I think about it every single day.
Josh: I think about it a lot but it comes back to qualifying first. If you have a career on tour, there are so many places that will take you. So many jobs and opportunities later in life.
Jake: Kelly is 43 and he’s been on tour forever, but he’s a freak. Most guys’ career on tour is over by 35, and they still have half their life left, so yeah, I definitely think about life after surfing.
Nic: You’re probably going to be my son’s coach, Jake.
[Laughs all around]
Parker: Gally [Chris Gallagher] is coaching Jake to be the next Gally! But seriously, let’s go around the room. What do you guys picture yourselves doing after surfing?
Nic: I’ll be going to Vegas to hang with Griff. [laughs] He’s gonna deal me into some nuts poker tournaments.
Griffin: What? You think I’m gonna be a poker player?
Nic: Nah, a poker dealer.
[More hysteric laughter. Griffin shakes his head]
Jake: I want to go to college and eventually start a business. Very few people are going to retire from the money they make in surfing. Look at Luke Egan. Investing in the Komune hotel, creating a company…and he had a good, long career on tour first.
Parker: Or look at the Malloy brothers. I could try to be those guys, who are literally cowboys working out on a ranch, or I could be Pat O’ Connell, running Hurley. Those guys are from the same generation. It’s the same as all of us sitting at this table. I’ll probably go to school, get a business degree and try to get a job in the industry because I think surfing is the best sport in the world and I always want to be a part of it.
Griffin: I want to go into marketing, because I think it’d be really cool if my job was to go down and hang out at the Lowers Pro.
Jake: My friends have asked me, especially after I come back from long trips, “Do you ever wish you lived a normal life?” And I’m like, dude, nobody gets this chance. Why would I not take advantage of it?
Parker: If I went to school I’d be friends with kids in a 20 mile radius. Because of surfing, I’m friends with Josh in Barbados and Nic in Santa Cruz and guys in Australia and Tahiti and all over the world.
Jake: I know we all stopped going to actual school in, like, the 5th grade. But I wouldn’t trade being homeschooled and traveling the world for anything.
Parker: I go through customs and they ask me about my occupation. I say student. And they’re like “Well, you’ve been out of the country for six months. How do you go to school?” It’s so hard to explain to them because I’m not even sure how to refer to myself. Everyone in this room gets paid money, but it’s not like skateboarding, or other sports, that have a clear definition between amateurs and pros. In football, you can’t make money until you’re out of college. In skateboarding you’re pro when you have a signature deck or shoe. Curren Caples turned pro in skateboarding recently, and he’s one of the gnarliest skateboarders around.
Jake: If surfing were like other sports, and you couldn’t make money until you were, say, 18, how do you think that would change things?
Nic: I think it would make people worse, because it’s really expensive to travel and surf new waves.
Jake: Exactly. There are so many skate parks. There’s a basketball and football field in every town. But with surfing you need to be able to travel the world and improve your surfing. What if you were stuck in Santa Barbara, Parker?
Parker: I would suck. [laughs] So I guess, when you put it that way, I’m glad it is the way it is. It might be confusing or whatever but none of us can complain about traveling the world and getting paid to do what we do. We have the best lives ever.
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