Editor’s Note: This article appeared in our March issue, when C.J. Hobgood was facing the task of competing on the 2014 World Tour without a sponsor. He’s since picked up a main sponsor in Salty Crew, and sits at No. 20 on the World Tour rankings. Whether he’s set to retire or requalify remains up in the air.
C.J. Hobgood is living a classic underdog story: aging world champ loses his main sponsor and falls off the Tour, works hard to find his form and requalify, then returns to the fray and starts schooling kids half his age. But in reality, it isn't that simple. According to Hobgood, his requalification wasn't intentional, and after 15 years on Tour he's ready to move on. But when your entire life has revolved around riding waves and winning heats, hanging up the jersey for good gets a little complicated.
You are one of the top 10 surfers in the world, yet you don't have a main sponsor. How does that work?
About five years ago I stopped riding for Globe apparel because they decided to focus on shoes. Then I had an opportunity to ride for To Write Love On Her Arms, which meant that I wouldn't make a lot of money, but I'd be able to be a part of something that I really believed in, helping spread the word about preventing drug abuse and suicide. It was the decision I wanted to make, but financially it probably wasn't the best call. I mean, they were helping me get around the world, paying for my flights and stuff, but there were much better deals on the table. I'm glad I got to do that though, and I'm stoked with where I'm at today. I never really pictured being in this situation, but that's fine. I have an awesome life.
I don't hold anything against the younger guys on Tour with all the hype around them. I had hype and big contracts at that age, and it comes with a ton of pressure.
It must feel strange for someone in your position, winning heats against these kids who have huge sponsorships and so much hype.
I don't hold anything against the younger guys on Tour with all the hype around them. I had hype and big contracts at that age, and it comes with a ton of pressure. It's not easy finding a rhythm against guys who have been doing this for years. But even if I had huge contracts and was winning every contest, I'd still be doing most of the same things. I'd still be traveling with friends and sleeping on their couches. It's actually way more fun to save money than it is to piss it away. I know because I've done both. When you stay with friends and don't live in your own little bubble, I think you grow a lot more and there are way more funny moments.
Do you think you'll still want to be on Tour five years from now?
I'm definitely looking at things a lot differently these days, but that's a hard question. When the jersey is on, in that moment, I'm 100 percent committed to winning, but the rest of the time, I'm just in a different headspace entirely. When I was in my 20s I was making great money from my sponsors, but there was a lot of pressure to do well in events to keep those sponsors happy. Now the only people I need to keep happy are my wife and kids. I've got three girls: an 8-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a 5-month-old, so I'm not as concerned with points and ratings. I love competing, and I'm lucky to still have the ability to surf at this level, but honestly, I always pictured my career ending by the time I was 32. I'm 34 now, and besides winning Pipeline, I've achieved everything I could have ever dreamed of.
I always pictured my career ending by the time I was 32. I'm 34 now, and besides winning Pipeline, I've achieved everything I could have ever dreamed of.
When you fell off the Tour back in 2011, did you think that was the end of your competitive career?
Yeah, I was with my fiancé in New York when it happened, and we thought we were starting a whole new chapter in life. We went up to the hotel room and we cried, not because we were so sad, but just because we didn't know what the future held. The next Tour event was Trestles, and a few people were injured so I got invited to the event as a wildcard. It was so hard for me to process that, because they'd just kicked me off Tour and it shook my whole world. I had really mentally and emotionally accepted the fact that I was done competing. I told my wife, "They're inviting me back to surf Trestles, but I can't do it. Not after all that. I'm done." So I didn't do the event, and then the next event came around and they offered me a wildcard again, and I turned it down again. That happened three times. But as our wedding got closer, I realized we could probably use some extra money to help pay for that. So I entered the Azores Pro, thinking if I did well, it would help cover the wedding. I ended up winning. After that, I accepted the wildcard into Pipe because I've never won there and always wanted to. I made a few heats, and then suddenly I was back on Tour.
So what was it like being back on Tour after mentally closing that chapter?
It's so completely different now; I can't even compare it. I've always relied on surfing, and to believe that my career was over was a shock to the system. But that's probably why I feel this freedom that I never did before—I'm not scared of losing heats or falling off the Tour because I know what that's like and I know I'll survive. I honestly think of this as an opportunity to keep surfing and making money while transitioning into a post-competitive career.
I'm not scared of losing heats or falling off the Tour because I know what that's like and I know I'll survive.
Are you actively pursuing your post-Tour options?
I'm definitely thinking about what kind of job I'm going to have after this. It's funny, because I emailed people about getting a job, and they were like, "Are you serious? You're still on Tour. You're still winning heats. You can't walk away from that." They don't get it, but I'm ready to be there with my girls, to get a more normal routine in my life. It may sound crazy to some people, but if someone offered me a great job that I could do from Florida so my family wouldn't have to move, I'd take it in a second and you'd never see me surf another contest. I'm in a transitional period, trying to be a normal human, a normal husband, a normal dad.
Well, it's understandable that people don't get that. Surfers seldom leave the World Tour by choice.
Jeff Booth did it. He was pretty high up in the ratings when he decided he was done. He just walked away. It's uncommon, for sure, but I don't think it's that crazy when you think about it. Everyone reaches a point where you're ready for a new challenge. I'm ready to try something different, and I want to watch my kids grow. That's pretty tough to do when you spend most of the year chasing the Tour.
So do you even care about winning heats at this point?
I do, because I want to support my family, but it also goes beyond that. When you put me in a jersey, I'm emotionally invested. If I show up to the party, I'm going to give it my all no matter what, because I'm programmed to become that competitive animal the second I enter that situation. But honestly, I'm reading books like Halftime: How to Move from Success to Significance. I'm not reading books to help me win a world title.
The pressure is gone, and it's making everything feel way more fun and easy. There were times on Tour when my surfing felt regimented.
But do you think your current headspace might somehow be helping you win heats?
Yeah, probably. I'm still trying my hardest to win while I'm here, but I'm freer now. I'm loose. The pressure is gone, and it's making everything feel way more fun and easy. There were times on Tour when my surfing felt regimented. Those days are gone.
Is this the best you've ever surfed?
Sometimes I still have that magic, where you can pull some crazy air, or make a barrel, or win an event and all you can think is, "Whoa! How did I even do that?" When I say "magic," I mean that there's this X-factor that you really can't attribute to anything specifically, but it allows you to kind of surf beyond yourself. I think it's possible that my best surfing is still ahead of me, but I can't really say for sure. It might not come to the surface as often as when I was younger, but I know I've still got some of that magic deep down inside me somewhere.
READ: The Hobgood Documentary
WATCH: C.J. Hobgood in No Expectations