Daddy Issues And Surfing

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At the contest. On the webcast. Watching the clock. Chewing nails. Pacing. Pacing. Pacing. “Camps” are well-documented phenomena in competitive surfing, and none are more visible than those with Dad as the head counselor. Dino Andino raised a flag on Camp Kolohe when Brother was still competing in the menehune division of the NSSA. Graham Smith has been shaping Jordy’s boards and dissecting heat strategy since the ‘90s. And Ricardo Toledo, Filipe’s father, well, he sure does whistle and yell a lot.

Some call this father-son dynamic “support.” Others call it “smothering.” “Soccer dad” has been thrown around more than once. But whether this relationship is helpful or stifling, it’s obvious that these men are playing this role because they want what’s best for their kids. And what’s best for their kids, presumably, are WCT wins and world titles. So what’s a father to do? Bring on the tough love. Bring on the coaches. Then bring on the Champagne.

Except.

Except, if you look at the many qualities world champion surfers share — freakish talent, hyper-competitiveness, laser focus, etc. — “supportive father” is not on the list. In fact, it might be the other way around. For example:

Kelly Slater’s dad was drunk or absent during much of Kelly’s formative years, and left the Slater household entirely when Kelly was just 11.

At Bells in April, Mick Fanning posted an Instagram of him hugging his dad before a heat. The caption said, “Stoked to make it through the quarters today but even more stoked to have my dad watch me live for the first time…” For the first time? Apparently Mick’s parents broke up when he was a year old, and they’ve only recently reconciled.

Legendary big-wave pioneer Pat Curren, Tom Curren’s father, left his family and moved to Costa Rica when Tom was a young teen.

And Lisa Andersen watched her dad destroy her surfboard when she was 15; the next year she ran away from home to seek surf asylum on the West Coast.

Is it a coincidence that some of our sport’s most dominant competitors had less-than-perfect relationships with their fathers? Maybe. Seems MR and his dad were tight. Parko and Mr. Parko, too. And while Andy’s parents split when he was 11, Mom and Dad lived just a few houses apart and were both in his life. Still, between Kelly, Mick, Tom and Lisa, that’s 21 world titles. Perhaps these surfers used competition to seek the love and approval they never got from their fathers. Too pop-psych for you? I didn’t trust me, either. So I asked Santa Cruz therapist (and talented surfer) Dave Schulkin for his thoughts.

“Typically, a child’s mother is always present; her love is experienced as unconditional,” said David. “But a father is often less present, and his love can be experienced as more conditional. Because of that, children want to prove themselves to their fathers to show them that they’re good enough. Where a child’s mother often reassures them by expressing, ‘Don’t worry, you’re good enough,’ their father might say, ‘Well…show me what you can do.’ So perhaps if your father is absent, you have a need to prove that you’re worth something — it’s the innate desire that we all have to be seen as lovable, good and worthy.”

This trend isn’t unique to surfing, either. Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jay-Z, Tupac and most every artist that lives on your rap playlist all have daddy issues. It seems like whether you’re running the streets, the Tour de France or the free world, an absent or abusive father is almost a star on the résumé.

What does this mean? Depends on the situation. For the established camps behind guys like Kolohe, Filipe and Jordy, it’s an ironic slap in a well-intentioned face. For dads like Shane Beschen, father of potential future tour competitor Noah, it’s a cautionary tale. Not like a pack your bags type thing. C’mon. But maybe permission to loosen the reins a bit. And for current ‘CT surfers that grew up without their dads, maybe it’s a silver lining. John John Florence is much more public in his affection for MomJohn than PapaJohn. And Gabriel Medina calls his stepfather “Dad” because his real father bailed on his family when Gabs was just a child. They both seem to be doing well this year. And while there’s absolutely no substitution for an attentive and loving father, a world title sure seems to be good therapy. —Taylor Paul