Since his World Tour debut in 1998, Taj Burrow has managed to remain at the vanguard of progressive surfing for a decade and a half. While his prowess in a jersey has earned him 11 World Tour wins and the respect of anyone he’s ever drawn in a heat, a world title has still eluded him. As the Tour’s maiden event at Snapper approaches, the scuttlebutt among surf pundits is that Taj is looking strong to make a serious run for the title that’s stubbornly remained out of reach. Recently, we rang up Taj to get his perspective on world titles, keeping pace with rookies, and how he defines a successful career.
So this will be your 15th year on tour. In hindsight, if you could go back and change anything about your career, what would it be?
Yeah, looking back, it seemed like I qualified with ease in ’98. When I first came on, everyone on tour was really competitive and aggressive and it felt like everyone really wanted to take off your head. So my first year, I kind of stumbled through the season, and during my second year, I managed to finish in second-place behind Occy. I think I could have probably won a title that year had I applied myself a bit more, but Occy had the momentum and it was great to see him do that. But I remember being so shocked that I was even there on the tour my first year, that I never really thought that winning a world title was something I could do in the beginning. So when I finished second to Occy in ’99, without taking it all that seriously, I sort of thought that maybe a title would eventually just fall in my lap. But it wasn’t until about halfway through my career that I got serious. If I could go back and give myself some advice, I’d tell myself to take it a bit more serious in the beginning.
Since you came on in ’98, how have you seen the tour change over your career?
Everyone’s still really competitive, but we only want to take each other’s heads off in the water. Out of the water, we’re all pretty close and friendly. So that’s changed. As a whole, we’re a lot of more professional. We get a lot better treatment now, that’s for sure. We’re pretty spoiled. I see a lot of the young guys come on tour and they’re flying business class and getting royal treatment…and they’re only 18. There’s not a lot of roughing it for them. That’s changed a lot from when I came on for sure.
Would you say that the World Tour is in a much better place now?
Yeah, it’s 100 percent better. We’re so much more organized and more professional. We have a union now, we have a say. We have much better waves, more prize money. There’s a broadcast system where fans can watch us surf from anywhere in the world. It wasn’t really that long ago that you had to read about contest results in the magazine. Now, as soon as you get back home from an event, everyone knows all about it because they watched it happen live or on TV. We’re reaching more people and that’s definitely a good thing.
You’re 34 years old now and you’re still one of the most progressive surfers on tour. How hard is it for you to redefine your surfing every year to keep up with new blood like John John and Gabriel Medina?
Well, you definitely have to put in the effort and work at it more. But I don’t really think of it as work. A lot of people would see it as work, but for me, it’s still fun trying to stay innovative and learn new things. I still feel like a grom. I get super stoked when I pull up to the beach and the waves are good or when I get a fresh batch of boards. I think having that psyche makes it a lot easier to stay sharp. I think that’s why Kelly’s been able to do as well as he has for as long as he has. He’s still obsessed with surfing. My biggest fear is to become irrelevant in the sport, and I think that could only happen if I stopped loving surfing. And that’s not the case at all. I still feel like a grommet.
You’ve been training with Johnny Gannon to help keep your body sharp. How do you feel now compared to when you came on as a rookie?
My body feels really good right now. It’s definitely changed a lot. When I first came on tour, I was a rake. I was just rail thin and couldn’t put on weight if I tried. But when I came into my mid-20s, that sort of changed and I got a little pudgy in my mid section. So I have to work on it now more, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing with Johnny and I feel like I’m in better shape now than I was at 18. I used to get a really sore back when I was younger, from not being as fit or as flexible as I should have been. I would get it all the time. But now that I’ve been putting so much work into my fitness, flexibility, and diet, I don’t have that problem at all. I feel great.
Do you and Johnny have a specific training regiment that you’re using this year?
He’ll usually fly down to my home in West Oz around mid-January and we’ll start training then. In the beginning of our training, we’ll put more of a focus on strength and as we edge closer to the first event at Snapper, we’ll focus more on developing my fast-twitch muscles.
You have something like 11 World Tour victories and a few runner-up finishes, which is a solid résumé. That said, would you still consider your career a success if you never won a world title? Would you feel like you lived up to your potential?
I don’t know, that’s a hard question. As I said earlier, I think I could have put more into my career earlier on, but all in all, I feel very successful right now. When I was first on tour, so much of my focus and effort was on shooting videos. I’m really happy with the way those videos turned out, and I felt they were successful. But contests are my priority now. Personally, if I never won a world title, I wouldn’t be tormented by that thought. Of course that’s what I want, but if it didn’t happen, I’d still be happy with my career. If I could go back and change a few things, I think I would put more into bigger waves and bigger boards. I could have put more time into waves like Pipe and Teahupoo.
Does the tour still feel exciting to you?
It really does. I get the same nervous feelings now that I did when I first came on. I can’t wait to see everyone at the first event. See what boards they’re riding, how they’ve been training…stuff like that. I get super psyched to plan out the whole year and really look forward to competing. I think I’ll only do a couple more years on tour, but right now I have too much energy to stop. I can’t imagine retiring with this much energy.
When that day does come and you do choose to retire, what do you think you’ll do?
I have no idea. Hard to say I guess. I’d probably go back to West Oz and sit still for a while. We travel so much that I think it would feel amazing to not get on a plane for a while. I think I’d really enjoy being in a wide-open space and just surfing the haunts by home in West Oz.
VIDEO: Summer Breeze (Those haunts by home in West Oz)