The SURFER Interview with C.J. and Damien Hobgood
The world doesn’t make it easy on twin brothers. Aside from the effective loss of identity, there is the pain of having every success pocked with the attendant guilt of outshining your brother, and every failure is made more acute with the knowledge that someone with your same resources had triumphed.
So being a famous pair of twins in a world of cutthroat competition is especially difficult. And nobody knows this better than C.J. and Damien Hobgood—two brothers separated by only XX minutes that first came to the surf world’s attention as sprightly 12-year-old goofyfoots from Satellite Beach, Florida, that were continually finishing one and two in East Coast surf contests. It wasn’t until C.J. won a world championship in 2001 that a label could be used to divide them, and ever since, the two have been distinct.
Today, C.J. and Damien are at the forefront of the WCT, ranked Nos. three and six respectively on tour, and daily making their case that they’re only beginning to hit their stride, a point made more acute when the pair became the first brother duo to win back-to-back ASP events at the beginning of the tour year.
If you ask them, they’re simply continuing to walk the path they’ve been on for their entire (un)identical lives. But closer inspection reveals that the brothers Hobgood are entering a new phase. And just as they hit their professional strides, they are also coming into their own as men, as individuals, and as surfers—they’ve grown up, made professional careers, gotten married and are set to lead unique lives. But no matter where their identities take them, they’re sure to always come as a pair. — Brad Melekian
Obviously you two must have been competitive
growing up, but what did that teach you?
C.J.: I think we were always competitive, but with sports it was different, because we were always on the same team. One sport we started to get into was baseball, and I was actually the pitcher and Damien was the catcher. We had to learn to work together to achieve. He’d be there to calm me down, or if the guy would rush the mound, Dame would already have him in a headlock (laughs).
Did that teamwork transmit to your surfing at all?
C.J.: We somewhat brought that over to surfing, because we did things to help each other out. It was always where we knew we had to surf good because if I was surfing bad, people wouldn’t be able to tell us apart, and they’d think it was Damien. If I went out there and bogged, it would reflect on both of us. In that kind of a sense, it was a team thing because he looked like me and surfed like me and people couldn’t tell the difference. It’s kind of always been like that, but now in the last two or three years it’s totally switched.
You guys are getting your own identities.
C.J.: We do have more of our own identities. People can tell us apart, so now if I’m out there bogging it’s not going to reflect on him as badly. And now that we’re getting to the level that we’re at, it’s totally changing.
When you had both made the WCT, did you look around and think, “We’ve finally made it?”
Damien: No, not really, because I knew how hard the ‘CT was going to be, especially the first year. I actually felt like I had the upper hand because C.J. had qualified the first year and I missed it by, like, two spots. I was kind of learning through him, through what he did.
That first year, C.J., did you offer any advice to Damien?
C.J.: I tried to offer advice, but it was hard because I had to dig as deep as I could to do all right.
You qualified first, C.J., and won rookie of the year, and then a couple years later you won the world title. Was it difficult to keep that from splitting you guys apart?
C.J.: At some point it happens with brothers, where one person is going to outshine the next—and it always sucked for Damien because I made the tour one year before he did, so anytime a photo would run, it was me. Then Damien made the tour, and a couple of years went by and I won the world title and it happened all over again. If anyone’s put in that position, it’s hard. Damien always had to make the decision to either rise to the occasion and go the extra mile or cave in. As easy as it is for everyone to look at brother pairs and say, “Look how competitive they are together, and they can feed off each other,” there are still negative things too where it can totally explode.
Damien, you qualified a year after C.J., and then won rookie of the year a year after C.J.. Did you feel like you were always one step behind?
Damien: There were some parallels there, but I think there was a reason he made the tour first, if we’d both made the tour at the same time we both couldn’t have won those awards. In hindsight, I was stoked that I didn’t make it that first year because I could come up and win that award.
You guys have obviously made your case that you belong in an absolutely elite crew of surfers. Do you feel like you’ve finally arrived at that top level?
Damien: I think the media kind of does that, but as a surfer, you’re always trying to do what you do and to elevate your game. Even this year, with us sitting where we’re at, we’re just thinking about those couple of mistakes we made and how they are costing us.
C.J.: The difference in my whole year is that I’ve lost to Andy twice. I keep thinking that if somehow I could have overcome that, things would be totally different. But I’m not trying to take anything away from Andy. I just don’t really look at my year like, “Oh, I’ve reached some elite crew.” I’m trying to improve on my mistakes.
With you guys, the Lopezes and the Irons’, there are three brother combos on tour right now. What is it that makes the brothers so successful?
C.J.: Everyone’s elevating their games, whether it’s individual or with the brother at the same time. Andy shows up for Bruce’s heats, and gets bummed when he loses. Maybe they’ve looked at our relationship and how it’s grown and they know that they can help each other. Same thing with Shea and Cory. Cory’s not having a great year, and I think he needs his brother around to tell him how bad he’s blowing it. Not only is everyone lifting their game individually, they are also doing it as teams.
Damien: I think it also applies to friends too. Every one is elevating their games, but we don’t have coaches. So the person that’s going to help you is the one that knows you best. That’s either going to be your travel partner or your brother. Which are like your coaches, getting you pumped…
C.J.: …waking up at four or five in the morning to surf, feeling your boards, getting focused, that’s the times on tour nowadays. Nobody sleeps in.
Damien: The waves on tour too, it might be super big and gnarly and you’re not feeling it, so you’ve got to have that person to get you amped up to want to do that.
C.J.: With the competitive level so high, anybody can win on any given day and whether it’s the brother combo or whatever, you’ve got to have someone to help you win. If you aren’t pumped and ready, it’s not going to happen.
Kelly—who helps him?
C.J.: That’s a good question. Personally, I think Kelly did have a hard time finding someone to help him. Now, I think Andy and the rest of us help him out. Times are different—no one wants to see Kelly lose every time. With Andy doing so good, people want to see Kelly make it, and people cheer for him. People used to never, ever do that. People genuinely want him to win, to make heats. A couple of years ago, there wasn’t one person that wanted him to make a heat. I was the same way, I was a victim. But now I want him to make heats. It’s a balance.
Is it fun to have Kelly on tour?
Damien: It’s exciting. I mean, you never know what he’s going to do when he hits the water.
C.J.: It’s really fun. At J-Bay, he does crazy stuff and he surfed just as well this year as when he won last year. He’s still pushing the performance envelope all the time. He’s still always setting the bar and we’re trying to get there.
Damien, you got your first WCT win this year at Tavarua. What does that do for your emotionally?
Damien: I’m super stoked, and I’m glad that I could do it, but surfers look more at what they’re doing wrong than what they’re doing right. As my year goes on, I’m thinking, “I lost at J-bay, that was my heat.” Now, if I can just clear my mistakes and always be on my game then I could be in the elite.
What about you, C.J.? You won a world title in a shortened year without winning an event, which led some people to call it a fluke.
C.J.: I don’t really look at that kind of stuff as a milestone, I just look at that as something that no one can take away from me. There’s one thing that no matter how hard they dis me, I’ve got that.
One trend on tour right now is that guys from the East Coast are having much more success than guys on the West Coast. Why?
C.J.: I don’t think that there’s one thing that you can put your finger on, because everyone’s different. Everyone ticks differently. A couple of things come to mind. I enjoy being in California right now because I know Florida sucks right now, and I don’t have to go home. As much as I love it, as much as it balances me out, I don’t have to go home. I’m able to recognize that there’s nothing that’s there that’s fruitful for me in my career right now. I’m enjoying right now, eating breakfast, I’m enjoying where I’m at, and I don’t know how many people from California can truly say that. For so many California kids, things always seem bigger and better. These kids are trying to make the ‘CT at 18, 19 years old. There’s so much growing time right there where you’re figuring out the world and how it works, and then you’re also trying to make the tour, that if you have those things in line and you’re able to mature quickly and know what you want in life, it makes it so much easier. Being from Florida, it’s so much easier to look and say, “Okay, this is what I want.”
Damien, what do you think? You live here now. What separates West Coast kids from Florida kids?
Damien: I would say, from spending a little time out here—and, who knows, we might be saying the exact opposite ten years from now—there’s a lot of people out here and a lot of things on your mind besides surfing. Sometimes I come over here and it’s actually hard for me to go surfing. There are so many things—there’s traffic, or it’s going to be crowded, or whatever.
Do you think that being from Florida has made you more comfortable, then, with the ocean? Last year at J-Bay, Damien, you stayed put with a Great White in the water while Taj Burrow went running.
Damien: Being a fisherman, you know a little more. You see a lot of sharks in Florida, but they don’t kill you. Like the ones at J-Bay, they’ll kill you, but out in Florida they’ll just give you some stitches. You know what school’s out there, what’s feeding off that, sometimes you don’t even see the fish but you see the wake and you pretty much know by the wake what’s under there. I remember at J-Bay, looking over and I didn’t see the shark but I saw the wake and I knew that whatever it was that made that wake, 90 percent sure it was a shark.
But you stayed there. You stayed put.
Damien: I knew that the one area where I was sitting was shallow so that if I saw his wake start coming then I would have time to head up onto the rocks. But I also knew that because of those rocks that if it was a joke and Taj was just trying to get priority I could get back out. I positioned myself in a spot where I could do both (laughs).
It seems like a lot of being on tour for you guys is questioning yourselves or looking at your mistakes and trying to prevent them. When does the moment come when you can finally recognize your accomplishments?
Damien: When you quit the tour (laughs).
How hard is it, then, for you to separate tour life from the rest of life?
Damien: It’s just like anything, if you work and that’s all you think about 24/7, you’re going to burn out.
C.J.: That’s one thing that you have to learn how to do. When I was starting out, I had to learn it. It’s one of the big things that makes or breaks people. It’s a rude awakening to spend a lot of years on tour without a win. You do lose a lot. So, you have to be able to look at why you lost and learn from it and move on. That’s what it takes to be in the elite ranks; you have to learn to have a balance.
Pro surfing is unique in that you go straight from high school to traveling the world with no coaches or anybody guiding you. How did you guys cope with that?
C.J.: I’d say we helped each other out. But it’s like anything else, when things came up that we didn’t have a grasp on, we’d be asking questions, trying to associate ourselves with people that were in a real upbeat mood and who knew a lot about doing the tour.
Who were those guys?
C.J.: Shane Beschen and Pat O’Connell, Jake Paterson… You just had to watch how those guys were making it and learn to apply it. It’s a humbling experience—you’re going to lose to people that you are 100 times better than, and it’s going to happen a bunch of times. And then you’re going to do good and no one is going to know about it. There’s going to be times that are hard. Look at Bruce, he’s got the choice. He could say, “You know, this tour is hard,” and just go on his own route. Or, he can do what his brother did and get really pissed off and come back and watch everything come out good. It happens in everybody’s life. I had a decision to make, I didn’t do the tour last year, so was I going to do it this year or was I going to use my foot as a crutch? Just like Damien had to make the choice to step up or to cave in when I made the tour.
Your injury, C.J.: Was that one of the most emotionally trying experiences that you’ve had to deal with?
C.J.: Yeah, it was definitely emotionally trying for me, but it was…
Damien: You can’t say that when you were going through it, it wasn’t the most emotionally trying experience you went through.
C.J.: Oh, no, no. I can definitely say that. But it was just a point in my life where I had a decision to make, and I made a decision to not use it as an excuse and to come back from it and grow.
Speaking of growing, surfing’s popularity has exploded. A year ago, Damien, you were on Boarding House: North Shore. Have you guys felt the effect of that growth?
Damien: Oh yeah, for sure. I think surfing’s more popular now than it ever has been, and I especially feel that when I go back home. I used to barely see any kids surfing in our town.
But now surfing’s everywhere. You guys just filmed a TV show in Hawaii.
C.J.: Yeah, it’s always good and bad. I’m part of the cause of that, but there’s good and bad to everything. I was watching TV last night and I think every show had the token surfer in it. I just turn the channel.
Outside of surfing, what is your bigger goal for 10 or 15 years down the road?
Damien: I think just being happy and content, and I think that’s going to apply with everyone no matter what they’re doing. You always hear when you’re a kid that it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you’ve got to enjoy yourself and what you’re doing. It’s not just a clich. You see guys on tour and it doesn’t matter how good or bad they’re doing, it matters where they’re at in their life. There are some guys that will go and win a world title and it won’t make them happy.
What about you, C.J.? Is it still the dream house with a huge garage full of toys?
C.J.: That’s still my dream house, but now that I’m married I’ve got to compromise with my wife. The house part grew and the garage part shrunk a little bit, but I’m still happy. I definitely still think the same way, I just have to meet somewhere in the middle now. I’d love to spend more time at my house in Hatteras, especially when I get older. Florida doesn’t break during the summer, and my dad used to take us up there to Hatteras and I want to share that same experience with my kids
One of the major changes in your guys’ lives recently is that you’ve both gotten hitched. How has that changed life for you?
Damien: I’m not married just yet. I’m getting there. I’m engaged. She’s doesn’t travel with me that much now, but I think that once we get married, she’ll start traveling with me a lot more. So C.J. and I won’t stay together as much but we’ll still stay together.
C.J.: I’ve been married for a year and a half now, and it’s a balancing act. We started to travel a lot together, and then this year we’ve kind of converted back to the way that always worked for us. That’s why I say it’s a balancing act—sometimes you need room to breathe, so we’ve just stuck with that formula because it’s worked. When there are times that we need to be together more, she comes out on the road. You kind of just go with the flow.
Damien: It’s good because I wasn’t so close around my brother all the time. Most of the time on tour we travel together. It makes it hard if you’re living in the same town with a person and then you gotta go travel with them. So, now we’re never at each other’s necks. Where before I might have been pissed at the guy and now I’ve got to go travel with him. It’s just worked well for both of us.