BY JED SMITH
Watching top Australian pro surfer Davey Cathels rub wax into the wrong side of a miniature soft-top, it’s not immediately clear how what I’m watching is going to translate into one of the greatest evolutionary steps in the history of Australian surfing. I’m standing in the middle of the Australian High Performance Center (HPC) of surfing in Casuarina, just south of the Gold Coast. Surrounding me is the $4 million of expertise and equipment that, according to the center’s website, will “ensure Australia maintains its place as a world leader” in surfing.
Cathels joins the several other HPC scholarship recipients, including Australian Junior Series Champion Wade Carmichael, and promising young pros Perth Standlick, Lincoln Taylor, and Heath Joske. The program’s coordinator and former Olympic coach, Jeremy Sheppard, is also here, as are three of his PhD students who take turns jotting down notes, offering feedback, and unscrewing the fins from the soft-tops. After he’s done waxing up, Cathels holds the board in two hands and runs at the trampoline. He bounces off it and sails through the air in a flawless frontside grab, landing with a slap on the blue mat. He holds his pose for a second complete with “surf arms” pointing out front, reminding me simultaneously of both Steve Irwin and Keanu Reeves. A few claps and hoots ring out around the auditorium before the sound of popping tennis balls on the nearby courts takes over once more. As a slow-motion replay of Cathels appears on the big-screen TV, head coach Sheppard sidles up to him to talk him through it: “Remember Davey, more pizza hand,” he says, drawing attention to the positioning of Cathels’ leading arm.
With his wild bushman’s beard, stocky frame, and short shorts, rural pro surfer Heath Joske epitomizes the contradiction at play here. “For the last few years I’ve just been surfing for fun and not thinking about it,” he says. Just a few weeks ago he was experimenting with soul-arches on his brothers’ single-fins around the deserted back beaches of his rural hometown. Given the opportunity to join the HPC scholarship program, however, he just couldn’t say no. “They’ve got a fine science to it all, which is pretty wild and it doesn’t seem right for surfing sometimes. But the way things are going, if you wanna be at your best, it’s what you gotta do,” he says.
For decades now Australia’s surfing success has been built on a foundation of pure power surfing. From Mick and Joel, to Danny Wills and Luke Egan, Occy down to MR and Rabbit, it’s been clean lines, big turns, and silky down-the-line transitions that have yielded the sunburned nation its world titles. As Joel proved last year, this is still very much the case at surfing’s highest level, but the problem for many young Australian surfers is getting there.
“In my opinion you can’t qualify [for the World Tour] unless your aerial game is above average,” says former Pipe Master turned Quiksilver athlete advisor, Jake ”The Snake” Paterson. With the World Qualifying Series contested in mostly small, windy conditions, the pure power pedigree of young Australians is being rendered impotent in the face of an aerial onslaught. Instead it’s the punt specialists like Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina from Brazil who are making a rapid passage to the Tour. “When the waves are shit they can take to the air, and they can land six out of 10 attempts and get through the heat,” says Snake. “A guy like Davey [Cathels] who has a power base, can do the odd air for sure, but in terms of being able to match it with them, it probably ain’t going to happen.”
The day I visit the HPC the focus is very much on developing the surfers’ aerial repertoires. After the gymnastics session, the surfers are sent out front to put their skills to the test in the water. GPS trackers are fitted to wetsuits to monitor movement, the session is filmed, and the aerial completion rates of each surfer are noted (Cathels has the best strike rate on this day). It’s all part of the highly scientific and multi-faceted approach that Sheppard has developed over 20 years working with Olympic teams, NFL teams, and the Canadian and Australian Sporting Institutes. “As a professional I have not worked in surfing and that actually allows me to come in and say, ‘Well, I can bring in these experiences from other sports,’” he says. “Some people might say, ‘But that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Well, that means nothing to me. Let’s look at how we should do it.”
Acquiring his services was a major coup. Based most recently out of the Australian Institute of Sport where he worked with the Australian Volleyball team, Sheppard, who has surfed on and off for the past 18 years, was at a crossroads in his life when Surfing Australia came knocking. Sick of uprooting his family every four years as per the Olympic cycle, the opportunity to settle on the NSW north coast and live the lifestyle he’d always dreamed of was too good to pass up. “I’ve got a young son and he gets to grow up next to a beach, and my commute is on a rusty single-speed beach bike that I ride up to work while listening to tunes. It’s a pretty good lifestyle,” he says. That Surfing Australia had the faith to offer him the job also means he’s committed to Australian surfing forever. “I’ve chosen to work with Australians in the water and that’s where my heart is, mostly because Surfing Australia has put their faith in me, a guy who is not from surfing but happens to surf. I wanna reward that faith and be loyal to it,” he says.
After the surf, the real work begins. The surfers are plunged into a grueling two-hour weights and conditioning session. The regime is based on a hybrid of Olympic diving, gymnastics, and figure skating programs, with a bit of ballet thrown in there too. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. With more than a dozen surfers spread across the three-tiered scholarship program, each from a different part of the country, the HPC has created a coaching network that covers every wave-rich region in Australia. From the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast, the mid-north coast to Newcastle, Sydney to Victoria and over to southwest Australia, Sheppard coordinates coaches in every region. But he admits that the science of surfing is still in its infancy, and as such has a team of six PhD students at his disposal to collect data and make recommendations on how the surfing program should be developed.
As I take a seat next to the Swedish Biomechanist PhD student, Lina, she shows me a clip of Mitch Crews attempting a backflip off the trampoline on her laptop. Except it doesn’t much look like Mitch. All I can see is a series of dots and lines spinning around like a screensaver. “We can put the athletes in a full-length garment that gives us a 3D biomechanical analysis of what the athlete is doing,” Sheppard explains later. “So instead of saying, ‘I reckon your knee is collapsing too much in your landing,’ we can actually quantify that down to the joint movement as well as the knee angle, and then we can use that 3D model to educate the athlete.”
“It’s next-level shit,” says Paterson. “The kind of stuff that should have been happening years ago.” That data can also be the surfers’ worst enemy too. With each of the AUD$10,000 scholarships up for evaluation at the end of the year, a failure to meet targets or poor attitude will see surfers kicked out of the program. “There are some training principles that are non-negotiable,” says Sheppard. “There are just things that are not a part of our training culture because world champions in any sport don’t sacrifice on certain principles.”
Not all of it is high-tech, however. The biggest problem in coaching surfers is the amount of time they spend on the road (up to five months in some instances). To counteract this, Sheppard has come up with a selection of novel solutions to keep his surfers on track. Whether it’s filming himself cooking a high-protein omelet, talking them through relaxation techniques to get them through a long flight, or demonstrating stretching and breathing routines to calm their nerves before a big heat, Sheppard uploads it all to their iPhones. “It’s not too scientific, but it doesn’t always have to be. Just little solutions like that are a little less eloquent but still effective,” he says.
But as Joel Parkinson demonstrated in 2009 with the botched air-reverse that killed his unbeatable world-title lead, there is no shortage of risk in this path of progression. With Sheppard looking on, I grab a soft-top and run at the trampoline. I hit it and bounce into a sloppy frontside grab, blowing it on the landing and toppling forward. “Ah, that’s the John John Florence,” he says, alluding to the injury suffered by the Hawaiian superstar at the Quiksilver Pro recently. As I appear on the big screen, he talks me through it: “See, you’ve compressed too quick through the knees.” According to their studies this classic technical flaw, when applied to the high-velocity rotations of John John and Gabriel Medina, can send up to 880 pounds of force through bones and ligaments.
The transition of Australia’s power surfers to birds of flight has been a far smoother process, however. Perth Standlick had never done a stalefish air-reverse in his life before coming here. In his first session after, he stuck four in one surf. Bede Durbidge, the lone Men’s World Tour surfer using the facility, says Sheppard’s coaching has done wonders for his aerial game. “It’s amazing. You can see whether you’re over rotating or how much you’re compressing on the landing. It’s helped a lot,” he says. Davey Cathels says a mere two weeks in Sheppard’s program leaves him feeling “more fit and in tune” than ever, but this is just the beginning, according to Sheppard. “What we have is change coming from multiple factors, so if I become inflexible in how we approach training then I’m not going to evolve with the sport. And I don’t wanna just evolve with the sport, I wanna be driving some of the evolution.”
This article originally appeared in our September issue.