Two days after I sat down with Kieren Perrow at his rented house on the North Shore, there to talk to him about the end of his pro surfer life and his new job with the ASP, his competitive career came to a cruel end. Busted shoulder in his first round heat at Pipe. An unjust finish for one of surfing’s true good guys, the end of a Tour campaign that started way back in 2002. This after he'd flown his family to Hawaii to be there for his last event. As he introduced me to each of them, all smiling and happy, three generations of Perrow lined up in a row, it was clear how much it meant to him that his family would be watching his last contest. Then halfway into his heat, Perrow got slammed by a throaty one at Backdoor, and his family had to watch as the Water Patrol pulled him painfully from the shallows. I assumed Perrow would be devastated. But later that evening, he was celebrating in a Turtle Bay bar, belting out karaoke, right arm wrapped in a sling. Family works wonders for separated shoulders and disappointing contests. Turtle Bay Mai Tais do too. A few of those will cure anything.
Here’s the transcript from our conversation:
What's goes through a twelve-year veteran’s mind during the days before your career's last horn sounds?
It's weird. It's really strange that's it's just a couple days until the event might be over, and that it's my very last event. I really want to do well, that'd be unreal. I'm looking forward to competing at Pipe, but at the same time there's a little bit of that bittersweet feeling for sure. It'll be sad, but at the same time, I've been competing for so long and what I'm going to be doing is a great opportunity. For the last five years that I've been on Tour, ever since I re-qualified (in 2007), my goal was to enjoy it to the maximum. If I fell off Tour and had to re-qualify, I knew I wasn't going to do it again.
What if you'd qualified for next year? Another go-round?
No, though I still could qualify. With a semifinals at Pipe, I could. But if that happened, I'd give up my Tour spot. That was part of the deal of taking on my new role with the ASP. At some point I'd love to compete again, and I'm sure I will compete if the ASP runs some really good Masters events in the future. It'd be really good to do that. But I've known going into every event of the last five years that there are no guarantees. So I just wanted to make sure I enjoyed it. I knew if I fell off Tour I wasn't going back to the 'QS.
Has Tour life been a bit sweeter since you re-qualified?
It's just been different. The first time I qualified, well, when you first make it you feel invincible. Then after a little time you start to panic and realize that, wow, if I'm not careful, the dream might be over. But I'm at a different point in my life than when I first qualified. I'm ready to do something different. It'll be strange not competing, but I'll still get to travel and be part of the events. I think it's the same for any athlete when they quit. You're still passionate, it's really only your age or your skill that's preventing you from doing it.
How did becoming a family man change you as a competitor?
I think it changes your perspective on everything. Everything else becomes more important. Your family gives you perspective. At the end of the day, losing a heat is just losing a competition. It's not the end of the world. Having a family is the most important thing in the world, for me anyway. And to be happy. Competing has its ups and downs, and your family has to suffer through that. But there are some really amazing times that you treasure. When I first started, there were only really one or two guys on Tour with kids, especially who were traveling with their family. But now there's an age group that's matured and stayed on Tour with their families. And I think it's because there's more money available now. Before, having a family almost ruled out being able to travel. Guys like Danny Wills and Jake Paterson dragged their families around the world and people thought they were mad. But they're happy, and that’s why I've done it.
How much has the Tour changed from when you were a rookie?
A crazy amount. The performance level has gone through the roof, especially in the last five years. And the criteria itself, including the judging—everything has adapted. The first year I qualified was one of the first years of the Dream Tour, and that idea is being carried on and has helped the surfing level too. I mean, look what happened at Fiji this year and the stuff guys are doing in the tube. All while riding boards that are 6 or 8 inches shorter than when I first started. And what everyone's doing in the air. The kids really pushed themselves to do that, and now they've brought that on Tour and everyone is sort of doing it. I didn't grow up in a generation that was interested in airs…
Yet you popped that huge air in Bali.
Oh, that was awesome. I didn't even win the heat, which is a bummer. I've had a weird year where my best performances came in heats where I lost. But, yeah, that air was awesome. It was by no means the biggest air ever done, but for me, I came in and I was stoked. It was awesome.
How has your approach at Pipe changed after winning the Pipe Masters in 2011?
It's not really different. Strange to say. Short of the experience of knowing you can win it. Once you win an event at that level it finally feels achievable. Until then it always seems like it slips away at the semis or somewhere. Like the year before where I got second. It just feels like mentally there’s a hurdle, but once you get there you feel like, I can do it. I have the ability to do it.
Which of the young guys are finally gonna push Kelly, Parko, and Mick out the door?
John John is phenomenal across all conditions, but he needs to get his head around the fact that it's a year-long Tour. The performances he's had have been incredible and once he learns how to flow them from one event to the next and into the next year, he'll be almost unstoppable. That could take some time. But between the guys ranked like fifth to fifteenth, any of those guys could pop off and have a crazy year.
What's your new role as the ASP Commissioner all about?
It's a pretty broad role, really. It's about looking after the sport and, really, the integrity of surfing as a sport. Dealing with rules and regulations, scheduling, formats, and the overall structure. I'll have a division within the ASP that I'll manage, and the new ASP has a range of different divisions since we've taken over the broadcast from all the individual brands. It's going to be packaged really well and all about the ASP, where I think before, the Tour was more about the brands. We're looking at other sports that promote themselves well, like international soccer and the NFL, which, as a brand, everybody knows what that is. Whereas the ASP has had a bit of low-level understanding from the fans, in terms of what it is and what it does. So now it's about making sure the ASP is a solid product and a strong brand.
You'll be the face of the Tour.
To a degree, yeah. But I'll also be working in the background. There's a big shift toward making the sport better for the fans and for the athletes. That's the main focus for the ASP. Through the broadcast, and through promoting the surfers as individuals, telling their stories. That maybe got lost a little bit with the brands, as they pushed their own guys a little bit. Paul Speaker (new ASP CEO) has got a great handle on what needs to come together to put together a great sport. Ultimately, that flows through to the sponsors. The better the sport is, the better the ASP is, the better for the brands to be involved. The longtime brands will be better for it. The ASP wouldn't be here without them.
Big change coming next year for us fans?
Pretty big change. But also just basic stuff. Fixing problems like the webcast dropping out. Also a lot of tapping into the surfers’ lifestyles, telling the excitement and the stories of the people in that arena. Especially at places like Pipe. There's so much danger there, and I don't think that's always been made apparent to the viewers. A lot of times guys are fearing for their lives out there at places where it's huge and you're putting everything on the line to win. It's dramatic. It's something everybody loves.
When will we know what to expect?
Well, there's a lot to be done in the background, just making sure that everything works before talking about what's going to happen. Actions speak louder than words. You don't want to go out there with a trumpet, and announce, "Here's what we're going to do," and then not be able to go out and actually do it.
What will you miss the most about life on Tour?
Hard to say. I love surfing no matter what. Whether in a contest jersey or not. It's about the excitement really. Anyone who competes really enjoys it. The tight battles, the winning. The 30 minutes of a heat can be so exciting and disappointing at the same time.