Welcome to the Julian Wilson Era
All photos by Jon Frank
Julian Wilson, holding a glass of beer in one hand and a fork in the other, sat at the end of a dark, stained table between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing. They were wanting his smile. They were wanting the twinkle in his eye. They were wanting his Sunshine Coast Australian accent. They were wanting to vampire his youth, to suck on his neck, but he said nothing, concerning himself, instead, with the sesame chicken and chow mein in front of him. He ate a bite. He kept his head down and his Red Bull hat down. He was in San Francisco’s Chinatown and the restaurant was not yet crowded and it was dark. Red lanterns hung overhead. The waitress stopped and asked if anyone wanted fried rice. Nobody did.
Julian Wilson. He is the future of surfing, here eating Chinese food sullenly. He is surfing’s next world champion, more likely than not, but more importantly he is surfing’s next face. His will be the visage that the youth of New York City see when they purchase their new boardshorts. His will be the visage that causes their mothers to swoon. Product does not sell itself. It is sold on the backs of stars. And sport, even more than fashion, needs stars to rise into the popular consciousness. Especially fringe sports. Especially surfing. And Julian has the support. He has the motivation. He has the proper ratio of self-critique to arrogance. He is a diva, to be sure. Reports of his petulant behavior surface often. “He is high maintenance.” “He only shoots with certain photographers.” But which champion in any sport has not been a diva? Kelly Slater is certainly a diva. Kobe Bryant is certainly a diva. Tiger Woods was a diva but he kept it bottled up until it exploded into the public eye courtesy of many, many blonde sluts. Julian has Nike and Nike will make sure his image is seen next to Kobe Bryant on Super Bowl commercials. They will make sure his image is seen flying above cities on billboards. He has Nike and he has himself. He has himself.
I was standing on the beach, next to his brother and manager Bart, when he surfed in the Pipeline Masters this winter. He received a 4-something for a drop. A 4-something. For a drop. The wave was massive and lurched and he paddled hard, head down, and it threw him over its lip into the air. He flew down the face, dropping, dropping, dropping, not connected to the water. Free-falling. And then his rail caught at the bottom and he zagged into the tube for a few seconds before coming undone. It was worthy of a 6 but received a 4-something. Still, an amazing score for one drop. I turned to Bart and asked, “When did lil’ Jules become such a hellman?” And he looked over at me with wide eyes and said, “I have no idea.” Julian has himself.
In a matter of months he would fly to the Gold Coast, to his first stop on his second season on the World Tour, but tonight he was in San Francisco. Tonight he was between two attractive but fading blondes and nearing the end of his first season on the World Tour. Tonight his head was down.
His first season had not been a success, as far as success is usually measured. He hovered near the bottom of the pack and even though a late push earned him the title of rookie of the year, he performed below his own expectations. Few ever succeed, wildly, out of the gate in their first year and Julian did not either. But Julian is not just anybody. He is a brand. He is Nike’s knife-edge. He is Julian.
And then he looked up, ignoring the company, and spoke clearly. “At the start of the year I was trying to pretend there was no pressure but I felt a lot of pressure. I don’t know…I didn’t want to do what Jordy and Dane did, struggle to make heats and that. Still, nobody wants to see a new kid come and run the table…”
His blue eyes appeared wise. Far wiser than his youth would suggest, but tired. But worn. The blondes strained to listen but he was not speaking to them. One picked on her fingernails, her matured body softly molded within tight dark leggings. “As the season went on I had to accept that I deserved to be on tour. That the spot was mine. I had to be smart in the same ways that got me on tour in the first place. That first heat against a top-tier guy is straight into the deep end.” He pushed his plate of chow mein away even though it was only half eaten. “The WT is so different than the ‘QS. On the ‘QS you can surf so many events and so many shit waves. In WT events you are getting the best waves in the world. Everyone gets sorted out. The best guys in the world, right now, are on tour. The best guys have always been on tour and so you can’t just get on and stay on. You have to have the head for it. The ability.” The other blonde tried to interject something about Julian being the best and the cutest. Her lips had been freshly painted red. He ignored her. “Every year somebody gets talked up. The media targets them. When Jordy and Dane came on tour, the pressure to perform, to do what they do in their video sections in a 30-minute heat…that’s not going to happen. That is why Kelly is so good. None of it, nothing, matters until you make the final. You just need to do what you can to make it through a heat. To make it to the final.”
The restaurant had started to fill. An elderly man in a three-piece suit with arthritic fingers was bumping up against one of the blondes, either trying to flirt with her or steal her seat. She glared at him and then turned her attention back toward Julian, resting her chin on her hand. Gazing intently. The other blonde had lost interest and was texting on an old RAZR phone. “You have to know what you are doing in the water. Guys who know what they are doing deserve the victories. Guys who are nervous or shaky, you can see it. At the start of the year I was surfing shaky, so when the judges gave me bad scores I never felt hard done. I deserved to lose. Not necessarily in the way I was surfing but in my headspace. I felt really vulnerable. I would rock up to the beach and take little bits of information from everyone. I wanted to go good so bad. You are supposed to be clear and level-headed but I was scatterbrained. And the judges are there to make sure they pick the best surfers in a 30-minute heat and everybody has an opinion but…Kelly knows what the judges want to see. This year, at the start, after I lost I would pack up my bags and leave. But then I thought I should stay and watch and see what the boys who are winning are doing. So I would sit and watch.”
The waitress had returned and asked if anyone wanted another drink. One of the blondes nodded and pointed at her empty martini glass before looking back at Julian, nodding her head like she understood what he had been saying. The other had finished her text and yawned, covering her mouth with a chipped-nail hand covered in many gold rings. She was bored. “When the tour moved to Brazil I was losing all these close heats. I lost by half a point and had a full dummy spit [which is to say a temper tantrum]. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I stayed four weeks in Brazil to try and figure it all out. I actually made a bet with Wilko that we wouldn’t drink or party until J-Bay. Right there I accepted my spot on tour. I manned up and took on the pressure because the pressure is always going to be there. At the start of the year I was doing what people wanted me to do. Saying what they wanted me to say. I didn’t want to look nervous but in reality I was having a shocker.” The blonde continued nodding. The other scanned the room. “I had to figure out what worked best for me. Which people to have around and which to leave behind. Like Dane said, you have to be selfish to be successful on the World Tour. There is no way you can satisfy everyone and give yourself the time to do what you need to do. It is hard. I’m not a selfish person and I had to tell my friends that things had to be different.”
The blondes were both listening to the music pumping over the restaurant system. One of them had covered her eyes behind oversized Marc Jacobs sunglasses. The other was thinking about rubbing Julian’s back but had done nothing yet. Just thinking about it. Julian kept looking straight ahead and his eyes had lost their worn-out look. He looked fresh. Invigorated. “Things turned around in J-Bay. I felt like I finally got a hold on things, getting a good result. Putting the pieces together and really going for it. I always knew I wanted to do the tour. I always knew I needed to give myself time and it is starting to get fun. I never wanted to be going through the motions at 22. I am learning to adapt to the conditions. There is a certain way to surf every break to get the scores and it is just figuring out what that is. At J-Bay you have to have the best rail game in the world to do well. From here on out no one is going to win Trestles without doing an air. No one will win Tahiti without sitting on the foamball. But that is what is so fun about being on the World Tour. I’ve never pushed myself harder. There is no way I’d be able to push my ability like this freesurfing and being a punk. I’ve pushed myself and scared myself like never before and I think it is important that I waited for a bit. I didn’t want to go to Tahiti and hear about massive waves and not be able to sleep at night. I didn’t want to be there not catching waves. Now I love it.”
The blondes were looking at Julian again. His excitement had washed over them and they wanted his attention even though he didn’t give it to them. One of them squealed. The other touched his shoulder. “This next year will be intense. Owen is going to be in the mix. He has the hunger. Mick is not going anywhere. He had bad breaks this year but he’ll be so fired up next year. The Brazilians? As an all-around game I don’t think they have it right now but they are sponges. They learn. Kolohe loves to compete. John John has such a well-rounded game but I don’t know how much he is into it.”
And with that the bill came. Julian pulled out his credit card and paid and then pushed through the crowd into the night, leaving the blondes behind. They were crestfallen. Depressed. One blamed the other for blowing their chances with surfing’s next champion.
Because Julian Wilson is surfing’s next champion. — Chas Smith