You might remember Pancho Sullivan as the guy who displaced more water than anyone from the mid ’90s to late ’00s. But while the Hawaiian powerhouse can still be found throwing spray skyward across the North Shore, he’s shifted focus since his retirement from competitive surfing in 2008. Since then, he’s worked for surf brands, coached a women’s world champ, and is now starting a business of his own. In the interview below, Pancho opens up about his life after the Tour.
It’s been about seven years since you retired from the Tour. How has your life changed since you hung up the jersey?
For one, there’s been a lot less surf travel and a lot more business travel. This new chapter in my life, which has been more career driven, has required me to use my brain a lot more than my body. In pro surfing, you’re managing a lot of things simultaneously, which helped me a lot. But there are a lot more highs and lows in pro surfing compared to business. At least in business your livelihood isn’t dependent on getting a competitive result, at least not quite as much [laughs]. Now, my life’s more about juggling work and kids. But I’m still making time to get in the water. I’m very fortunate that I’ve found a niche that’s keeping me connected to something that I love so much.
You really lived in two separate worlds with your career. A lot of your time was spent as a freesurfer, but then you transitioned into the competitive level later on at 32.
Yeah, in the beginning of my surf career, I was presented with a couple of options and I chose the path of a freesurfer. Later in my career I came to another crossroads and felt a desire to test myself on the highest competitive level. I put down a credit card, did the ’QS, qualified and finished 7th on the World Championship Tour in 2007 and was able to experience that aspect of surfing as well.
So you’ve just started your own business. What led you to that?
I felt like I came to another crossroads and was ready for a different kind of challenge, so I just dove in. That’s been a recurring theme in my life. At one point, when I was younger, I had just sold a few boards to pay for rent and when I was driving home I just happened to stop off at the World Cup of Surfing contest at Sunset Beach. They were accepting beach entries, so I took my rent money, and on a whim I beach-entered the contest, made the main-event rounds, and that laid the tracks to a career in pro surfing. More recently, I helped launch Aulta, a watch company, with Marty Pomphrey and Abe Allouche. With our passion for surfing, we decided to create a watch line geared toward the everyday, working-class surfer. It’s amazing to take on a challenge like this with your friends and have it revolve around surfing. I wake up every day stoked and excited to pour myself into it.
You’ve also been doing some coaching with Carissa Moore recently.
Yeah, a few months back I went to Fiji with Carissa. I was honored that she asked me to go down there and help her out at the event. I’ve been coaching her for about five to six years off and on. This past winter, she called me up and wanted some support before she surfed in the women’s Pipe event and she ended up winning. We have a great relationship. We do a lot of video training and I help her with strategy, mindset, and equipment. Fiji played a big role in the title race last year and that’s where she sort of slipped a bit. This year, I helped her understand the wave, the intricacies of the lineup, and made sure her equipment was dialed in. It’s really helpful to have someone in your corner. Although she didn’t get the result she wanted in Fiji, she felt good about learning and improving. She was really going for it and was in great form. But competition has a habit of throwing you curveballs.
As someone who’s spent a lot of time in the professional and freesurf side of the sport, what’s your impression of the WSL so far.
Our industry seems overly focused on on competitive surfing, but people gravitate toward the surfing lifestyle as a whole because riding waves it’s one of the most exhilarating feeling in the world. I have mixed emotions about the Tour, and the Tour is going through a big change. It seems like some of the surf companies that have put so much into the sport are now taking a back seat to larger corporate sponsorships. But I love surfing and watching the level of where guys are at these days. If the WSL is successful and it can expose more people to surfing, then that’s great. Surfing changes people’s lives. Sure, it may get more crowded, but who am I to want to keep that to myself? Surfing has shaped my life and I hope people who are new to surfing realize that there’s so much more to it than the competitive aspect. I’ve had much more enriching and life-changing experiences without a jersey on that were better than any heat or contest I won.