The Mark of a King

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The beer-fueled conversation ratcheted up a notch,

"If you think about it, they're all dicks."

At first this seemed like typical buzzed hyperbole, but then the Hawaiian surfer built a pretty solid case and made a closing argument,

"See? It's all of 'em, brah. Tiger Woods. Lance Armstrong. Roger Federer. Barry Bonds. They're all cheaters or jerks or both. Everybody who's number one in their sport is a complete donkey."

Wow. I never really thought about it like this. That's a heavy call. Surely this isn't pandemic. I mean there's Tom Brady and Tony Gwynn and Tony Hawk and guys like that, right?

But then I thought about surfing. About my own personal experience with world champions. About the surfer who threw a punch at my head because my pole-cam "surprised" him. About the champ who paddled out at Rincon with a smile on his face and then cut everybody off. Or the guy who displayed some of the most inconsiderate, ugly American behavior I've ever witnessed. Or the one who liked to spread rumors around like he was still in middle school.

Sheesh.

And then I wondered to myself if this kind of reprehensible behavior is why these guys are able to reach number one. Maybe that's the key—if you hitch your reins to the dark side you can ride straight to the top.

Or maybe this was just all misplaced, Tall Poppy thinking. Maybe these champs were just humans and we were all just jealous of their success. After all, guys at the top of their sport are constantly scrutinized and live under the type of microscope that none of us can even fathom. Moreover, if you had been coddled and catered to and worshipped for your entire life, wouldn't you be a little tweaked by all that attention too?

Maybe the only way to have people leave you alone is by becoming an asshole.

In the end, though, I threw this excuse out. Everybody is flawed and makes mistakes but many of these guys seem to show a near-constant, almost pathological need to be a dickweed.

The other reason that I threw this explanation out was the thought of a couple of other world champions who manage to stay firmly planted on humble soil and retain a 'supercool' street reputation on a human level: Mick Fanning and C.J. Hobgood.

And then I thought of the greatest anti-prima donna of them all.

For those of you who might need a refresher, Australian Mark Richards won four world titles between 1979 and 1982—just slayed it. Shaped his own boards, refined and redefined the twin fin, and ripped the snot out of everything from two foot Huntington to twenty-foot North Shore—competitively so far ahead of everyone else it almost didn't seem fair.

And near the end of his tenure as World Champion, Mark Richards happened to visit California and went surfing at Black's Beach. Just walked down trail by himself one day and joined about four of us that were surfing up north. No entourage, no attitude, no attention grabbing—he just paddled out, asked us if was OK if he surfed with us (!), hooted at our waves, and demonstrated how Black's should be properly surfed.

This session was impressive because it stood in stark contrast to other California visits I had witnessed by famous surfers and world champions. Guys who arrived with a group of lackey blockers, or tons of attitude, or both.

The other reason Mark Richards stands at the top of my surfing pedestal is that he is the protagonist in the greatest surfing performance I have ever witnessed:

It's December 1986. The Billabong Pro has moved to Waimea Bay in anticipation of a big swell. It's about 8 o'clock in the morning and the surf is 15 to 18 feet and there are about 40 guys practicing for the contest and freesurfing. Typical deal.

But then the first heat of the contest hits the water and suddenly the ocean goes completely postal. The sets jump to 20-foot plus with 30 wave sets. Just giant, scary, throbbing Waimea.

This morning there are about a hundred of us watching the contest and shooting photos from the point. This promontory at Waimea is so close to the lineup that it's within earshot of the pack, and as such, we all yell, "GO!", in unison like a giant cheering squad when a set comes.

Sometime mid-heat, though, the horizon lifts and the mood changes. We keep yelling, but this time with warnings in mind, not cheering. Car horns start honking from across the bay and join our chorus. This is serious.

It is fairly obvious that some heavy shit is about to go down.

As the waves get closer, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not a normal set. The competitors scratch for the horizon. The first wave, a solid 20-foot plus dark-faced thing, starts to unload. The attitude from the spectators on the point goes from elation to concern. It's kind of scary just being on land.

As the competitors scramble for the channel, we can see one surfer retain a deeper position as he paddles up the near 50-foot face. Those of us on the point can tell that this guy is thinking about taking this wave, but there's no way—this…thing is too big, too steep, too hollow to attempt.

But then this guy starts to swing around as he paddles up this massive wall. Somebody next to me notices what's happening, and half-joking, starts yelling, "NO!", instead of "GO!". We all join in.

But the surfer can't hear us and doesn't heed our advice. He continues to swing around and then, at the deepest possible point, at the latest possible moment, makes the steepest, meanest, most impressive big wave drop I have ever seen. Almost beyond vertical, with palpable confidence, he lunges into oblivion—just drops out of the sky with front wrist cocked upwards, and flies down the face of this wave with lightning speed, elegance, and panache.

This gull is clearly not wounded. This is Mark Richards.

As this giant step-ladder set continues to pour through, one of the middle waves starts to close out, lands directly on Ricardo Salazar and the chain-smoking Rob Bain, and nearly kills them. They both have to be rescued.

At this point the Bay is a cauldron of white water and haze, but this giant set keeps rolling through. You can barely see through the salt spray, but then we all watch a young Ross Clarke-Jones attempt a massive wave on a 7’10”, and then another surfer stroking for an even bigger one behind.

This outer surfer swings around mid-face on the biggest rideable wave of the set, makes a beautiful drop and rides it to the channel like a walk in the park.

It's MR again. He has somehow managed to dodge the close-out and has paddled back out in time to catch a second wave from the same set.

As most people know, MR went on to make several more massive Waimea drops that day, and then finished the rest of the field off at Sunset Beach to win the event.

So not only is Mark Richards a nice, humble guy, he is a dragon slayer too. To me, at that moment, he was King Arthur. In fact he still is: the combination of his graciousness at Black's and his god-like warrior powers at Waimea has left an indelible impression on me.

In fact, it has left a Mark.