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Friday, February 10, 2012
Updated: February 14, 6:33 PM ET
Laird Hamilton is one of those guys


Laird Hamilton needs no introduction. His reputation as a big-wave surfer of unparalleled accomplishment precedes him. He's one of the most recognizable surfers on the planet, appearing in everything from American Express commercials to Hollywood features to just about every mainstream media outlet in existence. And now you can add "Oprah's Master Class" to his already extensive list of appearances -- the episode premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

This week ESPN Surfing had the chance to catch up with the legend to get his take on working with the O, where stand-up paddle surfing has taken him and why he thinks the resurgence in traditional big-wave paddle surfing is nothing more than a "gimmick."

ESPN: You've been on "Martha Stewart," "60 Minutes," "Dateline," etc., but "Oprah," that's like the Jaws of TV. Did you learn something about yourself in this process that you might not have when on other shows?
Laird Hamilton:
I think that that's true whenever you're sincere about trying to answer questions that people ask you about your life. There's a certain saturation point when you've been interviewed enough times that it's not very common that you get asked a question that you haven't heard. But during this interview, they asked some questions that really forced you to dig back into your past and try to remember things from when you were maybe not really trying to keep track of things. You know, the older you get, you have a tendency to keep track of life's events a little better.

What have you been doing in the water for the last few months?
I'm in my usual position, which is pretty much outside the box. I get little to no support from the surf industry, other than if I catch a giant wave so big that they have no choice but to put it in their magazines. Because of the nature of my sponsorship and the nature of my position in surfing, I'm kind of like ... unless Susan Casey writes a book or National Geographic wants to do a story or you guys ask me questions, the surf industry itself -- or at least as far as the media -- isn't really a big platform for me.

Besides taking tow surfing and stand-up paddling to the next level, Hamilton is still intent on pushing boundries on his hydrofoil designs.

Even more so with all of the stand-up paddling that we've been doing. A lot of the surf industry is pooh-poohing it. But I'm focused on riding big waves on my stand-up boards. Spending my days waiting for Jaws to break -- I'm not hugely inspired by that. Right now it's a circus for Red Bull and these other companies to try and get people to go out and do things for them that will get them press, and it kind of takes away from the essence of what it's all about.

Other than evolving the different aspects of stand-up paddling, my biggest pursuit is continuing to develop hydrofoil surfing and ride the biggest waves in the world. So I kind of always have that challenge in my mind, and that continues to be at the forefront of what I want to do -- keep evolving our techniques and skills so we can handle the biggest conditions that are possible.

Ten-plus years ago since you started riding the stand-up boards -- did you ever foresee its global reach?
You know what? I did see that happening. Part of the thing that helped me understand that it could spread like it has was my involvement in kite surfing and watching that happen, my involvement with tow surfing and watching that happen, my involvement with hydrofoiling and watching that happen. Because of the specialization of those boards, I knew there were limitations to the growth, but the thing about stand-up is that I just knew it was for everybody. There are so many aspects to it that your grandma can do it, grandpa, little kids. I've been down the Colorado River on one; I've been across the channels here in Hawaii on one. We're riding giant waves. There's a performance aspect to it in small surf. There are too many disciplines and too much variety for it not to catch on, and I knew that from the beginning.

What happens in our society is we put pressure on athletes to be the next such and such. But those original guys survived long enough, over a long enough period of time, to accomplish whatever it is that they did. That's why they're those guys. They weren't those guys before; they were those guys after. That's the tricky game.

Did I think it would be in Dubai already? Well, no, but I did think eventually it may get there. I just didn't think it would get there that fast. It really has been amazing how quickly stand-up boards have proliferated.

There's some haters out there, but that's always the case. You know you're doing something right when you get resistance. A lot of people don't like change, but I know that for as many people as there are that don't like it, there's 500 that love it and it's changed their lives. I meet people in Arizona, the middle of the country where there's no water, and they say to me, "You know, I started stand-up and it changed my whole life." And there are old-time surfers that weren't really surfing anymore, they hadn't surfed for 50 years and had pretty much quit surfing, and now they're back out surfing again and they're like kids again. So it's great to see that happening.

The racing discipline -- I see it being an Olympic discipline. I see the big-wave aspect in the future; it's just going to evolve. Besides tow-in and hydrofoil surfing, I think the stand-up paddleboards will ride the biggest waves in the world. There are so many things about it that make it so great, and there are so many people enjoying it. It is everything I thought it would be and more, so that's actually a nice feeling.

I'm curious what your interest level is on the resurgence of traditional paddle big-wave surfing -- the big boards and all of that?
That's a good question because I think that, for me, we were keen on big-wave paddle surfing before we started towing, so we spent a lot of time with big guns and outer reefs. The paddling aspect, well, I think it'll be interesting to see somebody actually make a wave at Jaws when it's breaking properly. You know, that wave is more designed for towing. It's a little bit of a waste to see these guys out there trying to paddle and then so many waves going by unridden. I see guys taking doughnuts, and it's really not the most productive thing, at least at that particular location.

I guess maybe they're trying to prove a point that you can do it. But is it the most functional way to really ride that wave, and are you getting all you can out of it? You're not. So for me, I look at it kind of like a gimmick, in the sense of, "OK, yeah, can I crash on a giant one?" Part of it has to do with the sponsors. A lot of it's stimulated by these bigger surf companies pushing their guys to be different.

The problem with tow-in surfing is that you can tow people into waves who aren't really great surfers. So at least with paddling, you have to be a good surfer. And that's what I do like. But at the end of it, there's good waves for paddling and there's good waves for towing, and you might be paddling into a wave or two at Peahi, but you're never going to match the power of that wave.

"There's a reason why we towed it [Peahi] in the beginning. It's not like we wouldn't have paddled it had we thought it was great for that, but there's just too much water moving out there when it really is happening."

There's a reason why we towed it in the beginning. It's not like we wouldn't have paddled it had we thought it was great for that, but there's just too much water moving out there when it really is happening. Now, can you go out there the one day a year that the wind's not blowing and the waves are smaller? Absolutely, you can go out there and ride a wave or two, crash three times, maybe make it to the end of one. But are you taking off behind the peak and surfing Peahi like we surf it when we tow it? I don't think so. It's never going to happen.

The physics of it -- the board, the guy, the wave -- maybe that's the challenge that these guys look to. But for me, that would be going backwards. I've already been through that phase. I've stand-up paddled big Jaws, but I have other things that are interesting me and drawing my attention. But that's just me; that's my opinion. I could be wrong.

Kelly Slater turns 40 on Saturday, and he's still obviously at the height of his game. The same could be said for you with how well you've taken care of yourself, but I'm wondering if there are any younger kids coming up that you've seen that have caught your eye or have that spark?
I think part of the reason Kelly is able to do what he's done is because you reach a point where you're not looking at the other guy. They're not even in the your equation.

But you could say guys like Andy Irons definitely were part of Kelly's equation?
He gave him a little rub, you know, he got him going again. Without Andy, I think Kelly might have retired at a certain point -- not retired, but maybe not been inspired to surf as aggressively as he did without Andy kicking him into gear again. Then he remembered what he liked and got it going. And I think that happens. I was telling somebody today, one of these younger guys, it's all about retaining your youthful enthusiasm.

What happens is people get older and they're not as enthusiastic, and that's one thing about the younger guys -- you've got this whole crew riding Peahi, Kai Lenny, Billy Kemper -- and they're charging, and you have to love their energy and their enthusiasm. And I think when you've been in this long enough, and I imagine Kelly would say the same thing, when you're looking at these young guys, it's interesting to see who will endure the test of time. You start off with 1,000 of them, and then you turn 30 and there's only 100, then you turn 40 and there's only one.

So it's going to be interesting to see who that one guy is. You can make all the guesses and have all the ideas, but there are so many variables to enduring, longevity, that you just don't know. One guy could get hurt, another guy gets married, another guy loses interest. ... I mean, there are just so many variables, it's hard to point to who the next so and so is. Only time will really show us that.

"I think the stand-up paddleboards will ride the biggest waves in the world."

What happens in our society is we put pressure on athletes to be the next such and such. But those original guys survived long enough, over a long enough period of time, to accomplish whatever it is that they did. That's why they're those guys. They weren't those guys before; they were those guys after. That's the tricky game. The danger that happens to the new generation is it's too much exposure too soon and too much anticipation of "who's going to be the next one" before they've actually done anything. And then maybe you lose your track because you're worried about being the next one, instead of actually doing the things you need to do to be the next one. [Laughs.]

Too much too fast?
It's a tricky thing. You see it in professional sports all the time. These guys get all this stuff up front, but that actually should be the reward for the guys that accomplish something. But that being said, yeah, there are some young guys that are out there ripping. But for me, I'm out in the ocean alone a lot, or with just a couple of us, in a place where there's nobody. And the younger guys are usually at the spot where everybody's watching. But like I said, I know there's a whole group of big-wave chargers out there at Peahi on Maui pursuing it, and it'll be interesting to see which of those guys comes out of the masses.

At the end of the day, what aspect of your surfing gives you the most satisfaction?
I think it is where it's always been: getting a little scared. Getting a little scared and doing new things, things you haven't done before, and continuing that pursuit is the key for me. Getting on the edge seems to keep everything in line. That keeps you humble and keeps your perspective right. That's the pursuit, really. Keep evolving, keep improving and doing things you haven't done ... and get a little scared.