Look at the two fresh-faced Aussie pros in the above profile from May 1999. Danny Wills and Mick Campbell had just wrapped an astonishing year on the World Tour, streaked into the pro surf scene like meteors in 1998, shone as bright as suns, and they did it against some of the all-time greatest competitors, no less.
World-title races in the 1990s were not exactly kind to lesser-known competitors. The decade was bookended by Tom Curren winning his third and last championship (1990) and Occy winning his first (1999). In between, Kelly Slater won six titles, Damien Hardman picked up his second and Derek Ho brought the trophy
home for Hawaii. Just a step or two below these heavyweights on the podium were names like Rob Machado, Shane Beschen and Sunny Garcia.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer, every single one of them. So yeah, it was a tough decade for any underdog with world-title aspirations. But in 1998, Campbell and Wills fell seemingly from the sky and nearly snatched the world title from King Kelly's surf championship vault. Campbell and Wills finished second and third that charmed year and both seemed certain to be crowned champ at various points in the season. Campbell lost the title to Slater at the season-ending Pipe Masters, falling short of the champ's year-end point total by a mere 38 points (the closest finish in World Tour history). Had Campbell simply advanced through one more heat at any point in the season there'd be a strange, freckle-covered blip on the otherwise star-studded list of '90s champions.
Their paths from underdogs to relative stardom were quite different. Campbell's ascendance came late in the season like a brazen racehorse charging around the final bend in the oval, thundering down the stretch, but tiring within spitting distance of the finish line. He'd been named ASP Rookie of the Year in 1997, but nobody — except for Campbell himself, maybe — expected that he'd be challenging the best in the sport just one year later. He was a ferocious competitor who out-gritted and out-wanted his opponents; hell, he went as far as coldcocking Andy Irons after a hard-surfed event in France in 2000.
Willsy, on the other hand, finished the 1997 campaign ranked a distant 33rd, but exploded out of the gates the following year. For four months, he had a seemingly iron grip on the ratings lead. Fresh-faced with teen-heartthrob looks and a humble disposition, he was the feelgood dark-horse candidate to bump Slater from yet another championship. Wills had more natural surfing ability than Campbell — fast and decisive, while also smooth and controlled — but not otherworldly. Even if you remember his storied '98 season, it's probably his out-of-nowhere title push that stands out rather than his actual surfing.
Even if their surfing didn't cause any seismic shifts, their approach to competition may have. Wills and Campbell trained with legendary rugby drill sergeant Rob Rowland-Smith, who, before he coached surfers, was the conditioning coach of the Australian Rugby League club Parramatta Eels. Wills and Campbell showed up every day to pump (rusted) iron and do endless cardio in Rowland-Smith's tiny, Spartan backyard training compound in Newport Beach, New South Wales. They guessed that if they wanted to beat the most naturally talented surfers on Earth, it could only help to be the fittest, most shredded surfers on Earth, setting a new training standard for touring pros.
"If not for these guys [Wills and Campbell], the 1998 WCT would have been soft," said Derek Hynd, who wrote the above profile. "They took ten square yards of blood, sweat, and tears to the world's best pros and many didn't anticipate the damage."
Wills and Campbell, running on pure willpower and a foundation of bad-assery drilled into them by Rowland-Smith, gave fans of underdogs a welcome thrill in 1998. Even though they came up short of a title, the duo helped pave the way for the surfer/athlete who would dominate the coming decades of World Tour competition.