[This interview originally appeared in SURFER magazine Volume 60, Issue 1. Click here to subscribe.]
"They let their surfing do the talking" has long been considered one of the highest compliments we, as a culture, can bestow upon a surfer. It implies a kind of humble disinterest in the spotlight of surf stardom, as if to say that how we ride waves is all that matters and the rest is just white noise.
Over the past year, Koa Rothman's surfing has done plenty of talking, with mind-blowing performances in kegging reef passes all around the world. But, then again, Rothman has had no problem letting his talking also do the talking.
Rothman's vlog, "This is Livin'", started from a simple idea: pro surfers live wild lives, striking out across the globe in search of surf, often getting into all kinds of misadventures along the way—why not film it all and post it to the internet in real time?
First and foremost, "This is Livin'" aims to entertain, and it very much hits its mark. It isn't just a video journal of threaded tubes, it's a behind-the-scenes look at a most-unusual lifestyle. Rothman is getting spit out of Tahitian pits, but he's also cruising around SURFER Awards with his posse wearing audacious jackets with their names printed on them. He's eating donuts with world's best Pipe surfers in the yard at the Weedmaps house during the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout. He's hanging out with Aquaman.
"This is Livin'" is a new take on professional surfing, designed for a generation that doesn't just want to see the hero shot, but everything that led up to it as well, and Rothman has no problem taking up that mantle and putting himself front and center. "All I post are selfies now, that's what the world's come to," he jokes.
Or at least we think he's joking.
Watching your series this year, it seems like you probably got more barreled than anyone else on the planet. Was that an unusual year or is it just that people actually saw it because you were vlogging the whole time?
Honestly, it's not unusual at all. Me and my friends have pretty much been on this same program for years, the only difference being that I actually decided to really document it by bringing my friend Jack [Germain] to travel with us and shoot video of everything. We didn't know what we were doing at first, really, but we thought that we were scoring so many good waves around the world, and having such a crazy, fun time along the way, that if we started posting these kinds of raw edits from our travels it would be entertaining for people to get that inside look at what being a professional freesurfer actually looks like. I mean, we're so fortunate and we're having the best time ever. I get to travel the world with my friends and get barreled. Why not bring people along for the ride?
Vlogging is still pretty new to surfing, and I'd imagine some elements of that were pretty weird, like talking directly to the camera. How'd you feel about that?
Yeah, it was super weird at first. I was really uncomfortable, just thinking, "Wow, I am such a kook" [laughs.] But I thought that if we wanted it to be this real look at what we were doing, you kinda have to do it that way. I've gotten a lot better at it, and it's funny because I feel like it's just made me better at speaking in general, for interviews or whatever else. But, yeah, it's been a trip. If you look at my Instagram from way back in the day, it was all just surf shots. Now I've kind of done a full 180 and I mostly just post lifestyle stuff. People hear about this crazy, fun, pro surf lifestyle, but no one was really showing that part of it, so that's why I wanted to make that shift. I wanted to show the fun side, but then also the amount of work and planning that goes into these strike missions, which is how we end up surfing such good waves.
With the crew you hang with, I'm sure your friends gave you some good-natured shit at first, right?
Absolutely. When I started posting selfies I started getting some serious heat. Same with the vlog as well. But that's totally fine. It keeps you grounded, right? [Laughs.]
It seems like you guys are all super tight. How long have you been surfing with all the guys in your series?
Yeah, these days I'm usually chasing swells with Billy [Kemper], Nate [Florence] and Eli [Olson], and we've been constantly striking for about 5 years. Billy is so on it, he's hitting us up every day with info about a swell going somewhere in the world that looks like it could be amazing. And then before that, when we were kids we'd just surf all day, every day together on the North Shore. We still do when the waves are on and we're all in town.
Obviously you guys have become a real force out at Pipeline over the past few years. What was your earliest memory of surfing there?
My very first memory of being out in the lineup at Pipe was with my dad [notorious North Shore enforcer Eddie Rothman]. I remember I had my brand-new 5’11” Bret surfboard with all these cartoon skulls painted on it. I had a helmet on, and I was basically sitting at Gums. I wanna say I was 9 or 10. In hindsight, it probably wasn't that big, but at that age I was just in awe, like, "Oh my god, this is serious Pipe, this is crazy." I was like, "I just wanna watch," and my dad was like, "It's all good. You'll be there, way out the back one day, getting sets with those guys," and then he pushed me into a couple. I came in with the biggest smile on my face. I knew right then that that's what I wanted to do with my life, to get good at surfing waves like that.
How long did it take for you to get comfortable on big days and put yourself in position to get sets?
I'm still not really that comfortable out there when it's solid. I mean, it's a seriously intimidating wave even for guys who have been surfing it their whole lives. But I've learned a lot over the years, and I'd say I started to feel confident in my abilities out there within the last 4 years or so.
With your dad and your brother [famed big-wave surfer Makua Rothman] being who they are, you probably felt a lot of pressure to get good out there, and to really be able to handle Pipe when it's at its heaviest, yeah?
Definitely. As a kid, just the people that I was surrounded by, I felt like I had the biggest shoes to fill. I really wanted to surf on the same level as Makua and everyone he was hanging with back in the day, but it didn't seem possible, really. I wasn't a super hyped-up grom like some of my friends—I didn't even get sponsored until I was 18. I had actually just applied for a job at Lei Lei's [a restaurant on the North Shore], and then the next day I got sponsored by Quiksilver—at like $500 a month [laughs.] So it wasn't always clear that I'd be able to even have a pro surf career. But the funny thing is, once I sort of stopped caring about filling those shoes and living up to some expectation, that's when I feel like I really started figuring things out and surfing my best.
I know you don't really surf contests, but you're always a standout in the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout. Do you ever think about competing more?
Not really. The Shootout is just in a world of its own and I love any chance I can get to surf Pipe without anyone out. The way the Shootout is set up, you get so much time in the lineup over the course of the event and they only run it when it's firing. The whole reason my dad started that event was because they'd run the 'CT at Pipe, but none of the best Pipe guys would be able to surf it. So he started this event where he'd tell all the brands to put in their best Pipe guys, and of course all the best Pipe guys are from here, so it ends up being this contest for locals. It's so cool to see, and there really isn't anything else like that in surfing that I know of. But I'd be more interested in competing if there were more events like that. In a way, it's like skateboarding or snowboarding in that you get multiple chances to put up your best scores. You can surf the way you wanna surf rather than dealing with a normal heat, which feels like a 20-minute shit show of anxiety [laughs.]
I know that during that event Weedmaps has a house front row and you've been working with them recently. How'd that come about?
It's funny because I don't smoke weed at all, but through the guys at Weedmaps I've learned a lot about cannabis in general, and CBD is like the best thing ever. When the waves are good and you're surfing a ton and get sore, it makes you feel way better and you're still totally clear headed and normal. I totally back it.
If Pipe broke year-round, would you ever leave?
That's tough. Pipe is without a doubt my favorite wave in the world, but I think I'd still want to travel and surf other waves—plus that would just make you appreciate it more when you do surf Pipe.
What was the best part of traveling around making "This is Livin'" over the past year? What was the highlight for you?
The premiere of the movie has been the biggest highlight of the whole experience so far. The turnout was beyond anything I could have ever expected, and it was just all my friends and all these people from the community and it was just really a special night. You never know what kind of turn out you're going to get with something like that, but to see everyone come together to support that and have a good time was something I'll never forget.
For the latest episodes of Koa and co.’s “This Is Livin'” series, click here.