[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
For his 25th surf film, titled Proximity, Taylor Steele took four surfers who defined style, performance, and bravado for the past few decades and paired them with four surfers who carry those same torches today. Each pairing was based on a common thread, whether it was a free-flowing style, a penchant for futuristic maneuvers, or an insatiable appetite for deadly caverns, and they headed to locations that would perfectly suit their shared approach. Goofyfooted style masters Rob Machado and Craig Anderson drew gorgeous lines through frigid Chilean points. Australian freethinkers Dave Rastovich and Stephanie Gilmore shared an offbeat journey through a Central Baja dreamscape. Heavy-water heroes Shane Dorian and Albee Layer sought out the most hair-raising slabs they could find along Scotland’s craggy coast. And fellow world champions Kelly Slater and John Florence went on a surgical strike mission to one of the world’s most high-performance righthanders.
But Proximity isn’t just about getting talented surfers into great waves; it’s about getting into the headspace of the surfers who define our concept of great surfing. So along the road, on the boat ride out, during layovers, or while buzzing after a particularly electric session, the mics came out and the surfers got right into it. What follows are four freewheeling conversations offering glimpses into the minds of eight of modern surfing’s most iconic characters.—Ashton Goggans
JF: This whole place is so pristine. There’s nothing here. It’s so refreshing. When you get in the ocean, there are no phones or anything like that. You get away from people and the nonsense of Instagram and whatever else is distracting. I like that. I wake up every day and all I think about is surfing.
KS: I can’t just jump in the water and feel totally relaxed. If I’ve got things I’ve got to do, then I need to get those done to fully enjoy my surfing. But some of the things are creative things, so you can’t force yourself to be creative. The business side can’t move along until you get the creative things down, but you’ve got to be able to move at your own pace, too.
JF: You seem to move at your own pace pretty well.
KS: If I were to stick to a schedule and other people’s demands, I probably would go a little bit nutty. Some people really hate me because I’m always late and don’t do things I should be doing. But I don’t do that to f–k with other people. It’s just how I keep sane. It’s how I keep steady. Have you gotten to the place on Tour yet where you’re tired of the monotony and the travel schedule?
JF: I haven’t. If anything, I’m more excited. But I’m just realizing now that when you win, there are more responsibilities that come with it. I had a weird episode after I won the title when I felt like I should be on a vacation or taking a little break, but I was still doing the Triple Crown. This was the first year I really didn’t think about anything but competition. I wasn’t going on freesurf trips or making another movie. But I enjoyed it, too. It gave me a routine.
KS: Yeah, I’ve always liked knowing what you’re doing for the year. I don’t like schedules at all, but with the Tour, it made it kind of easy. You know exactly what the goal is. Having won the title, are you more relaxed or more motivated going into this year?
JF: I’m definitely more motivated. I feel like when I finished last year, I wasn’t really finished. I still was in that mindset of “OK, I can fix this, or I can fix that.” When I won, I was almost disappointed a little bit. I have so much more I need to work on.
KS: The way people surf now and the maneuvers that are being done, surfing is where I imagined it could be 20 years ago. It’s almost reached the level that skateboarding is at, where you can’t make many mistakes in a heat, you know?
JF: Well, I think competition is holding back the progression of surfing, because you don’t have the freedom to make mistakes and fall. And you don’t have the time in between events to go and learn something new. You can get lucky and land something one time, but to be able to do it over and over again, you have to really be able to practice it. We just don’t have that time. So I think competitive surfing is kind of stuck.
KS: At the same time, I think that because of that goal of the world title, or winning a contest, it helps push the level.
JF: Yeah, and that was a big thing for me. When I went into last year, I didn’t have a good base to my surfing. I was so used to taking off on waves and just pumping away—
KS: Going for something big? Yeah, that’s where I saw your surfing mature a lot last year. Somebody else might almost think that’s conforming, but to me it’s maturing competitively. In years past, between maneuvers, you looked like you didn’t care.
JF: Exactly. That’s why this year was so much fun. It was a whole different type of surfing. It wasn’t just “I want to do a backflip, so I’ve got to find the good air wave and try it 25 times.” Now it’s about working on boards and all the little things in between.
KS: It starts to become about all the little victories along the way.
JF: What made you want to win? Was it the process or the actual end result?
KS: It was both. But it wasn’t always both at the same time.
JF: For me, looking back, it was definitely the process and not the title itself. Not that feeling afterwards.
KS: The idea that you can improve never goes away. Twenty-five years into pro surfing, I think my surfing’s better now than it was when I won my first world title. Surfing’s evolved. The boards have evolved. I’m actually stronger now, and I have more control over my technique. But I have too many injuries. It’s super frustrating, because there are some days I don’t want to surf because I’m in pain. But I still feel, at this age right now, my best surfing is still ahead of me.
JF: What I really found interesting is how everyone sees surfing and competing totally differently. It’s totally different for me. It’s totally different for you.
KS: I grew up idolizing Tom Curren. I wanted to surf like him. I wanted to hold my arms like him. I did these head snaps and stuff. Then at some point I realized I’m not Tom Curren. I have a different approach. I think differently. And if you’re trying to be someone else, you’re not offering the world what you have.
JF: I think that’s what I learned this last year. When I went into the year, I had so many people coming from so many different angles with different advice: “You need a coach” or “If you’re going to win something, you really need to do this, and you need to do that.”
KS: I had multiple people asking me if you should get a coach. I was like, “I don’t know. If he wants a coach, he should get one. If not, then he shouldn’t.” It’s hard to know what feels right when you’ve got all that coming at you. Did I ever tell you that story about Brock [Little] coaching Andy [Irons]? Andy would be at a contest, like, “F–k, I don’t even want to f–king be here!” So Brock’s like, “OK, go lose, then.” Andy’s like, “Really?” “Yeah, go lose your heat so we can go home. I want to go home, too.” He was just playing this mind game on him, and then Andy would go out and smoke everybody.
JF: That’s so funny.
KS: It was the pressure Andy felt of it being a job and not being fun, and that sucked. So when he was free of the obligation, like “I’m not shackled here,” he was motivated to win. That’s what you were saying about competition: you get shackled; you feel imprisoned by this thing, you know? But I’ve had super-spiritual moments at competitions, which is weird because there are crowds and cameras and money, but if you can get beyond that to the experience—just the feeling of it—there’s something there.
THE PROXIMITY TAPES: