It’s a week before the race for the 2009 ASP World Title season is due to kick off, Luke Egan and Joel Parkinson have bolted two hours down the New South Wales coast to escape the human flotsam of Coolangatta. The two Australian surf legends are surfing a deserted back beach, and while the ocean is boiling with fish, there isn’t a single living biped spoiling the panorama. Luke watches Joel weightlessly tag a little right four times with turns that have no beginnings and no ends. As Joel’s guru-in-residence, Luke has seen him reinvent himself at close quarters over the past six months, physically and mentally going all-in, self-prescribing himself a “spoonful of cement” (an Australian recipe for “getting a bit harder”). Not the type of man to talk just to hear his own voice, Luke turns around, a broad grin spreading across his face. “He’s ready. I reckon he was ready two weeks ago. You can just see it in him. There’s nothing else he can do, he’s just waiting for the day to come now.”
A week later the day does come, and Joel Parkinson tanks spectacularly.
The World Title favorite crashes and burns in his first heat of the new season, losing on his home beach of Duranbah to Taylor Knox and Jay Thompson. Trudging up the beach, looking for answers in the sand, he ignores the scores of kids asking for autographs. The trademark Cheshire Cat grin is gone, replaced by a scowling pucker.
“I was walking up the beach, knowing I’d done shithouse,” recalls Joel of the moment. “I rode the wrong board and did everything I shouldn’t have done. I was way too serious. I was way too intense. I froze. I just locked up.”
Joel’s fishing boat, moored on a private pontoon behind his house, doubles as a psychiatrist’s couch, and he made a wordless beeline straight for it. He jumped in, sped across the Tweed River bar, past the D-Bah lineup where the contest was still in full swing. He punched nine miles straight out to sea, contemplating how it had all gone so horribly wrong. They say you should never trust a man who smiles all the time, just as you should never trust a man who doesn’t smile at all. And it seems, in his transition from one to the other, Joel had simply lost trust in himself.
“I hadn’t smiled all day. Not once. Before my heat, during my heat, after my heat. I hadn’t smiled once, which isn’t me. Then I got the text…”
“Winning your first heat is overrated.” —A text from Bruce Irons that Parko says saved him after losing his Round One heat at the 2009 Quiksilver Pro
While taking his frustrations out on the local yellowfin population, Joel’s phone beeps. Bruce Irons. “The message read, ‘Winning your first heat is overrated.’ I just lost my shit right there. I pissed myself laughing. Here I am getting contest advice from Bruce. It was too funny, but also too true. He made me remember I’ve got to enjoy it. I’d taken the whole thing a bit too far. From that point on I walked down the beach without a thought in my head, straight into the water, and things started happening for me. Bruce saved me by sending me that text.”
Joel didn’t lose another heat for the next three months, and all of a sudden this world-title thing was becoming very, very real.
“But you know the best thing?” Joel adds as a postscript. “I caught two yellowfin that afternoon, and I caught them both on a lure I’d stolen off Bruce in Tahiti last year! I had to thank him twice.”
It’s a lay day at the 2008 Globe Fiji Pro, and a dozen Aussie surfers are gathered around a table outside the bar on the island of Namotu, Tavarua’s little sister. Strewn across it are sheets of contest results going back 20 years, and they’ve drawn an inquisitive audience. Occy doesn’t exactly possess total recall when it comes to his exploits of the ’80s and ’90s. Chunks of it have broken free, drifting loose from their moorings inside the part of his brain responsible for the decades of his youth. His biographer, Tim Baker, has found that the best way to prompt these pivotal and often slapstick flashbacks in his subject is to piece his past together one heat at a time.
Among the heat sheets was one for the 1999 Billabong/MSF Pro at Jeffreys Bay. Joel Parkinson plucks it from the table, and scans it from left to right until there is only one name left. His. The eyes glaze over and it’s clear he’s having a moment. He’s thinking pretty much the same thing the rest of us are…that it’s hard to believe it was almost a decade ago that the skinny kid with the big nose and ear-to-ear smile had won J-Bay. That win launched the 18-year-old prodigy—who many considered the most gifted of his era—into a giddy orbit of surf stardom that, most presumed, would one day lead the kid to a world title.
Even though it was only May, for Joel Parkinson, the 2008 ASP World Title was already gone. Kelly Slater had just won his third event from four starts and was snuffing the life from his rivals. “I’d watched it eight times before, so it wasn’t new,” recalls Joel. “It was frustrating to watch how easy he got it, but by then there was nothing I could do about it.” The seeds of discontent were being sown right there in Fiji. Joel had lost to Adriano De Souza, out-hustled and out-hungered. Joel knows a surfer of his talent shouldn’t lose to Adriano. Even Adriano knows, and later that day came up almost apologetically to shake Joel’s hand. Joel has had a skinful of Fiji Bitter by this stage and hisses, “Just wait till we get to J-Bay, ya little c-nt!” It’s not Joel’s style, and he apologizes, but it’s clear his frustrations are starting to abscess.