When it comes to coaching the best surfers in the world, Chris Stone (formerly Gallagher) isn’t exactly wet behind the ears. Over the past decade, the former ‘CT competitor and veteran shaper has been a staple in the competitor’s area at World Tour events, serving as coach/strategic guru to guys like Jordy Smith, Josh Kerr and the Hobgood brothers. But next year, in 2020, Stone will take his coaching skills into unchartered waters as the official head coach for the U.S Olympic surf team. With the Olympic qualification year about to get underway, we called up Stone to talk about his new role, what a gold medal would mean for American surfers and why he thinks Kelly Slater might have a chance at becoming a 48-year-old Olympic athlete.
How do you think this role as Olympic head coach will differ from coaching Jordy Smith or the Hobgoods?
It’s still an unwritten book and I think in a coaching relationship, you have to get along and be friends and build trust. I’ll be there to offer things to people. It’s easy to come in and go, “Okay I’m the coach, I want to come in and qualify the position, let’s go”–that can put people off. Especially on the elite side; people already have their teams, so I have to be there as support and as guidance if they need it. I’m guessing it’ll evolve over time. USA Surfing’s performance plan is just getting started, so it’s hard to see the house when the stakes are in the ground and you just see dirt.
Are you still able to work with Jordy?
Unfortunately, I had to make a choice–I can only travel so much. The blocks of time I'm gone with Jordy are a lot and I can't say no to an Olympic job. It was a hard choice in that our relationship is really good and it's a bummer. Plus there's potentially a conflict of interest there. I still shape his boards and we are still really good friends.
So since you’re the official head coach, does that mean athletes won’t be able to work with the coaches they’ve been working with for years? Take Lakey Peterson working with Mike Parsons for example.
My job is not to step on anyone's toes. I'm just there for guidance and support, but with how the Olympics works, there's only going to be one coach on the play of field and that's going to be me. I would want to be supporting these athletes on the play of field just like their coaches do–so I'm going to be asking questions to find out what each person requires and I'm going to step back help them with whatever they need. Surfing is such a flow-state sport that a completely different routine or person can throw that off.
It seems like there's been a lot of money being thrown at the Australian Olympic team already–will the USOC do the same?
Well, I think the difference is that the Australians have government support whereas the USOC is a private organization. They have support through a lot of corporate entities, but I'm not sure they're subsidized in any way–and I could be wrong–by the government. So they have limited funding and a lot of sports they have to support. I would suspect Australia is getting a lot more money poured into it, and it's understandable. Every governing body in every country works a little different with their Olympic committees.
Not to focus on Australia, but I know a few months back, Surfing Australia booked some time at Kelly’s Wave so potential Olympians could get some practice in there. Does the U.S. team plan on doing something similar?
I don't think Kelly’s Wave translates to the ocean very well, the way that it pulls off the bottom. Whereas at Waco surfers could learn and practice airs on repeat–which is a huge part of surfing. It's a static environment, really. It's almost like going to a skate park and practicing a trick. I have to talk to Greg [Cruse, CEO of USA Surfing] because you have to pay. The Australians seem to have the money so they can do whatever they want. They definitely have some resources, whereas USA Surfing resources aren't as deep.
What are the resources that future Olympic hopefuls can tap into?
The governing body, USA Surfing, has a training facility in Southern California, where athletes have access to doctors and coaches within the governing body. Then once the team is selected at the end of 2019, athletes who make the team have access to USOC training facilities in Colorado and that can be head-to-toe evaluations and training: they do baseline studies, they teach you how to cook on the road, they have top-of-the-line facilities specific to your injuries and specific to your sport.
Maybe they'll build a wave pool out there.
[Laughs]. Yeah, a wave pool at that altitude would be amazing–training at 6,000 feet before heading down the coast. I don't think we're quite there yet, though. I think they're still looking at surfing and going, “Hmm, I wonder…let's see how this goes.”
Do you know what the judging criteria will look like for the 2020 Games? I’m guessing it’d look similar to the 'CT judging criteria.
Well, they have specific rules in the Olympics for judging–it won't just be the old-guard 'CT judges. There’s going to have to be international judges. There could be some controversy in a lot of ways when you're trying to completely rebuild something through these regulations that the Olympics has that we have no control over. Who's job is that, how soon does that happen and how does that get done? Those are big questions. It's hard enough to judge with all the experience that's being thrown at it already, and to completely change the rules and the way you approach it is a bit sketchy. Maybe it's going to be better and it's going to revolutionize judging on the ‘CT level–who knows? But that's up to the ISA and the IOC to train the judges and come up with a system.
What do you think a gold-medal win would do for an American surfer?
John John, for example, could have 10 or 20 times the notoriety he does now. It's hard for us to imagine it, but any other sport that has gone into the Olympics has experienced the growth and exposure it gets. Also, if the USOC looks at it and realizes that we are good at this because we just got a gold medal, then potentially that could result in more funding to create more junior programs, more training centers, a better amateur circuit–everything could grow exponentially.
Do you think fans (and the surfers themselves) will put as much emphasis on an Olympic win at a grovelly beachbreak in Japan as they do a 'CT win at maxing Teahupoo?
I think when the athletes walk into the stadium during the opening ceremony and they're there with all the other 10,000 athletes and they see how big it is, there will be this pride that comes with being on the team. These are things that no one is really going to know until they're in it. An Olympic gold medal–that's a big deal, no matter if you win it at a 1-foot beachbreak.
Who do you hope will make the U.S. team?
Well, I just did a workout with John John and there's no question about his knee after watching him personally at the beach. He's surfing great, feeling good and getting ready for a good season. I'm rooting that he'll be one of the two at the end. From there, if you look at the rankings, it's anybody's game. On the women’s side, the top four are always flip-flopping and beating each other–it's going to be a battle among the women. There's not a clear performance separation between them.
Has Slater been interested in qualifying?
I would imagine, knowing him, that he's sort of going, “Okay I'm going to go full-on through this.” Because if you think about it, anything can happen in any given year. Kelly could do well if the waves are good, he's got a good board and he's feeling good. He could do good anywhere if he is healthy. I mean it's Kelly, right? I imagine it's on his radar–why wouldn't it be? It's the Olympics.
That itself would be a big win for surfing if he made the Olympics at 48. That story alone would do a lot would earn a lot of attention for the sport.
Then we get to Japan and it’s 2 feet. That's part of it, too–you've got this great tour that you're qualifying on to surf a 2-foot Japanese beachbreak. Potentially the people who qualify won't be the best people for 2-foot Japan [laughs]. But I don't even think that's the point. I think the story of surfing and showing these amazing athletes, telling their stories, showing highlights of them at Teahupoo and sharing the potential of what this sport could be in the long term is more the story than the actual jumping around in 2-foot beachbreak. But people can make that stuff look exciting. Regardless, it's a huge opportunity for surfing.