There has always been a fierce rivalry between Australia and South Africa and generally the two will argue over anything, especially sport. The South Africans maintain they have two world champions in Tomson and yourself, but you won your world title as a resident of Australia. Where do your allegiances lie? Are you British, South African, or Australian?
Well I have always been on a British Passport, ever since my parents brought me [to South Africa] from England, but my roots are here [South Africa]. This is where I started surfing. This is where I learned to compete. I sort of look at myself as an international, but when it comes to my surfing roots, South Africa is where it all began.
Why, then, did you leave South Africa? Were you opposed to the politics of the time?
Mate, it was more of a career thing rather than a political thing, South Africa is so far away from everything, and just traveling out of here with the Rand was difficult. You know, living in Australia I was surrounded by a lot of world champions. I wanted to further my skills, learn the ropes, and learn how to become a world champion. I hung out with Tom Carroll. And, you know, coming back to South Africa it seemed like everything was so far removed from what was going on in my life. It was definitely more for my pro career. I trained with Tom Carroll, surfed with him, and he was like a sparring partner. There was obviously a lot of trouble going on [in South Africa] at the time. But coming back every year, I realized it was just so far away from where I wanted to be.
But, surely Shaun Tomson’s influence must have helped you.
Oh yeah, Tomson’s influence was huge, you know, the first few years I traveled with him and because I was too young to rent a car and things like that, he pretty much looked after me, which was quite amazing because I beat him three times before, and I was expecting him to say, “Piss off, you little bastard!” but he actually embraced that and I think it did well for him too because it kept his fire going and kept him motivated. I was a surf nut, I would be up super early every morning and I’d be dragging him down the beach going, “C’mon, c’mon lets go surfing”, and he’d be like, “No its two foot, shit, and raining.”
We ended up having a finals together in Australia at the “Stubbies”. He is one of my heroes to this day. But to me, he didn’t have the fire towards the end of his career like the guys like Carroll did have. Shaun is still someone I look up to, still someone I respect greatly, the guy still surfs unbelievably well, but back then I needed to learn a bit more about that “mongrel attitude”, and the Aussies sort of had it at that stage.
Of course, you and Tomson share the same philosophy that it takes more than talent to be a good competitive surfer; it takes plenty of hard work and a lot of training…
I think that is the reason why I won. I always believed I had the ability, but a lot of the time that’s not what it takes. It takes professionalism and training, and getting yourself physically in condition – in peak condition – just gives you that extra edge. I learned a lot of that from Tom Carroll, you know, you just have to take one look at him to see how much hard work he puts in. We were training together, bike riding, surfing, swimming, doing gym work together. Just having that sparring partner and looking up to him and saying, “If I can beat him in the gym or on the bike then I can beat him in the water.” And that just builds that mental strength. And when you believe you can, you normally do.