The World Tour can be a humbling place, and no one knows this better than Kolohe Andino. San Clemente’s golden child grew up winning everything under the sun, but when he qualified for the World Tour back in 2012, he hit a brick wall made of the most talented competitors in the world. For the first time in his life he was a small fish in a big pond, and he had to deal with losing—and losing often. To many, it seemed strange that Andino would falter, but it shouldn’t. Despite the fact that he has appeared on podiums, in surf videos, and in the Hot 100 throughout his life, Kolohe Andino’s still only 20 years old. To come as far as he has is already a massive accomplishment, and this is only the beginning. —Todd Prodanovich
SURFER: In the last year, you started winning heats on Tour, finished in the top 10 at Surfer Poll, and now you’ve won the Hot 100. What happened to you this year? What changed?
Kolohe Andino: It mainly started with my boards. I changed up what I was riding and my surfing started to feel better and I could throw more spray, which is good because the World Tour is basically the spray-and-barrel tour right now. If you can’t ride the tube well or throw a lot of spray with your turns, then you’re gonna have a shocker. After that, I had a good result in Brazil, started feeling more confident, and it just kind of snowballed from there.
I’d imagine that having confidence is as important as having magic boards when competing on Tour.
Yeah, when you watch Gabriel Medina compete, that guy is running on pure confidence. If you’re in a room with all the guys on Tour, you can tell that he’s the most confident guy there;it’s like he can feel his own aura or something. He thinks he’s the best surfer in the world, he thinks he should win world titles, and that’s why he wins as much as he does. Confidence is important in any sport at the top level. Everyone is so talented that the difference between the guy winning a heat and the guy losing is usually just mental. When you’re losing and you’re really down, you have to look for any excuse to rebuild that confidence. Even something as small as one good session can get the ball rolling, and once you get a few good results in a row, you start backing yourself in a bigger way. For me, after I got second and third in Brazil and Fiji, I finally felt like I belonged on Tour and that I should be competing against the best guys.
Plus, after a few good results your seed improves and you don’t have to surf against the top guys in the early rounds.
Yeah, it’s tough when you have a low seed and you come up against really gnarly guys in your first few heats. But honestly, if you want to win the contest, you know you’re going to have to face those guys eventually anyway. It shouldn’t matter who you’re surfing against; you need to believe that you can smoke any of them. I was watching an interview with Muhammad Ali recently, and the reason he talked so much trash before his fights was because he knew his opponents would get so angry that they’d forget their strategy. Sometimes when you surf against someone who beat you badly in the past, you want to get them back so bad that you find yourself forgetting your strategy. You just have to stay relaxed and believe in your ability.
You’ve had people invent rivalries between you and other surfers in the past, but are there even any rivalries on Tour anymore?
Well, I think everyone just knows how good their competition is. On the Tour, you have to surf your best in every heat or you’re gonna lose, so picking one guy to focus all your energy on is stupid. You might not even surf against him the whole year, so it just doesn’t make sense. I’m gonna treat every heat the same regardless of if I’m against Gabriel or Kelly or some rookie. I don’t think there are really rivalries on Tour anymore because everyone shares that mindset.
Competing on the Tour was your dream since you were a kid. Now that you’ve been at it for a few years, is it everything you expected?
When I first got on Tour, for my first two years I just kept thinking, “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m on Tour; these are all my favorite surfers. Kelly is right over there, don’t act like an idiot.” [Laughs.] I was really starstruck by guys like Joel Parkinson, Taj Burrow, and Mick Fanning at first, but now I look at those guys as my peers. I realized that we’re all in the same place trying to do the same thing, and I really can’t idolize them like that if I want to beat them. If you’re starstruck in a heat, they’ve already beaten you. Now that I’m used to the Tour, I’d say it’s pretty similar to what I hoped it would be. I think that all the good surfing that goes on around the Tour has really pushed me. We’re all improving so quickly just from being in that environment.
It seems like a few years ago the best surfing in the world was happening in videos and the surfing on Tour was pretty tame in comparison. Has that changed?
I think the best surfing today is either happening in the events or at least around the events. Kelly’s 540 happened around the Portugal event, John John Florence had that big alley-oop in the Bali Pro, and Filipe Toledo does something crazy in pretty much every heat he surfs. I haven’t seen [Kai Neville’s latest surf film] Cluster yet, and there could be some crazy stuff in there that proves me wrong, but I think the best surfing is happening on the Tour, for sure. Plus people are starting to respect the kind of surfing that happens on Tour more than before. Especially at waves like Bells, which is a really hard wave to surf well because you need to have so much power. I feel like a lot of the movie parts these days are all just crazy airs into the flats, which are kind of un-relatable to most people. You have to be really well rounded to make it on Tour, and I think people appreciate seeing that kind of surfing more now.
We haven’t seen any big video parts from you since Dear Suburbia back in 2013. Are you hoarding clips for something?
Yeah, I’m working on a project that will probably come out around April. I filmed all year with some of my friends, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do it was to show everybody how well Ian Crane surfs. I surf with him every day and he rips so hard, and when you film him in the right waves he’s gonna look like a superstar. Everyone can watch me surf the contests, so I wasn’t really putting a ton of pressure on myself to do the craziest stuff in this project. I just wanted to do something cool with my friends.
I know you’ve had some ups and some downs over the last few years. What has been the highlight for you, and when were you at your lowest?
I think the highlight was during the event in Tahiti this year. The visions I got from inside the barrel will definitely stick with me for the rest of my life. My low point was probably at Bells last year. I lost to Kelly in Round 1 because he got a score that he probably shouldn’t have; he did a floater and fell and got something like a 3.5 for it. It was enough to win the heat, and I got super mad and just screamed. The ASP said they were going to fine me for it, but they never did.
Let’s talk about Tahiti. Everyone seemed to be keeping their cool in post-heat interviews, but the waves looked terrifying. What was the vibe in the water actually like during that event?
Everyone was watching these waves and saying, “Oh my God, it just looks so perfect.” Which it was, but it was also giant and could totally kill you. I think everyone was pretty nervous except for John John and Kelly. But the dynamic changes so much when you see everyone else going for it. Before you actually surf those waves, you look at it and you think, “My life is over, I’m going to die out there.” But then you get a couple, realize you can do it, and start pushing yourself deeper. Before you know it, you’re feeling confident, pulling in super deep, and even if you don’t make it you’re still having a sick time. The morning of the last day, it was still dark out and I took off on this crazy set wave that wasn’t really makeable and I had to jump off my board. I got washed into the lagoon and I realized that if I survived that one, I could probably live through a couple more of those.
You look pretty comfortable at Teahupoo these days. I mean, you ordered a pizza from inside the tube. What was it like being part of a huge commercial shoot like that?
Oh man, that was a long…long three days. We shot it before the event, and there were a bunch of guys out there surfing and getting ready for the contest when the production crew rolled up with helicopters and, like, 20 boats. The crew was like, “OK, we’re going to clear the lineup now and Kolohe’s gonna ride some tubes and act like he’s ordering a pizza.” It was heavy. Of course the guys who were surfing were super bummed with me. I was just so embarrassed sitting on the back of the ski, thinking, “There’s no way this is going to be worth it. I never want to do anything like this again.” I felt really bad and tried not to think about it for a while. But then when it aired during the NFL games, I was actually kind of stoked on how it all looked. I mean, I was on TV and Morgan Freeman was saying my name and actually pronouncing it the right way. [Laughs.] It was pretty sick, and I didn’t feel as bad at that point because I think everyone who was surfing that day had probably forgotten about it.
You kind of grew up in the spotlight and have had a lot of expectation placed on you since you were a little kid. How do you think that’s affected you?
People have always expected a lot of me, but at the same time I always had even higher expectations for myself. I want to do the best I can, and when I don’t succeed, I believe in myself and know that eventually I will. So I try not to pay attention to other people’s expectations, and I definitely don’t pay attention to comments sections. I used to when I first started noticing negative comments about me online, and I was pretty bummed on it. It was like these strangers knew exactly what I was insecure about in my surfing, and that’s where they’d hit me. It’s like when you’re already nervous about something and then some 13-year-old kid comes up to you and just goes, “Man, you look sweaty.” You just get even more nervous. I feel like comments sections are just a dark, dark hole.
For years people have speculated about when the younger generation would step up and win a world title. Now that Medina has broken that barrier, do you feel like it’s more attainable?
Yeah, when I first got on Tour a couple years ago, Mick, Joel, and Kelly seemed almost unbeatable. But now there are only a few spots where those guys are harder to beat than Gabriel. He’s got to be the hardest guy to draw right now. Kelly isn’t unbeatable anymore. He lost a bunch of quarterfinals this year and missed opportunities where he could have caught up to Gabriel. I definitely think that when you see someone your age accomplish something, it makes it seem more attainable. But I’m sure everybody is thinking that right about now, so it’s gonna be interesting this year.