The Surfer Interview

Mark Mathews on Fighting Fear

Three things that don't scare Mark Mathews: 1. Ours 2. The Dark. 3. Ours in the dark. Photo: Grambeau

The irony was rich. Mark Mathews, one of the most fearless big-wave surfers in the world, was about to deliver a motivational speech on fearlessness, and he was backstage sweating bullets.  Paralyzed by a morbid fear of embarrassment, Mark was fetal-rocking, his sweaty palms smudging the ink on his cue cards.  To clear his head he held his breath and imagined himself underwater, a situation he's far more comfortable dealing with.

The soft-spoken 29-year-old Bra Boy's career moonlighting as a motivational speaker survived that initial hurdle, and he now fills his time between swells delivering empowering talks to merchant bankers and businessmen, advising them how to best survive a two-wave hold down.

Q: On a big day, you'll always hear some cowboy saying, "get out there, it's only water."  Is it only water?

A:  Water and reef.

Q: You've been out of the water for six weeks after hip surgery.  How hard was it watching that big day at Cloudbreak?

A: Missing that gutted me more than any swell I've missed in my life. That was as good as waves get.

Q: So you feared not surfing those waves?

A: I reckon over my career the biggest stress in my life has come from missing swells. I get really exhausted when I surf big waves for three days, but I swear I get more tired from stressing out when I miss a swell. I just want to be at every one of them. That's what drives me. But I'm getting better at dealing with missing swells now. After 10 years of chasing swells, you know there's always going to be another one. After that Fiji session everyone was going, "It'll never happen again." But it will happen, for sure.

Q: What emotions do you think the guys in the Fiji contest were feeling that afternoon before they called the contest off?

A: Oh mate, they were shitting. They've got to paddle out and be the only two guys out there with the whole world watching them surf monster waves. That's scary, mate. Nowhere to hide out there.

Q: How much do you attribute your sense of fearlessness to growing up in Maroubra?  Is it easier to charge when you have no choice?

A: It's a huge part. I mean, you learn your habits and what drives you when you're young. Growing up in Maroubra, that whole thing about charging heavy waves was so celebrated by the older guys, and when you're young you're all about trying to impress those guys.

Q: In hindsight has that worked for or against you?

A: It's worked for my career, definitely. It almost became a negative because for a while there I was pushing myself out of the water just as hard, doing stupid things [Mathews was once charged with assaulting a police officer and received 70 stitches in his face after a glassing attack]. But it was a massive positive for my surfing and for other aspects of my life as well. If you're going to push yourself in one part of your life, it will help you to push yourself in others.

Q: Was there a pivotal moment when you crossed your surfing threshold and saw a whole new world open up?

A: I think probably the big stepping-stone for me was the trip to Shipsterns with [Kieren] Perrow and [Drew] Courtney [18-year-old Mathews was part of the first magazine trip to Shipstern Bluff in 2001 and got a rude shock when they stumbled upon it at 15 feet]. It was bigger than anything I'd surfed before and when I turned up I had no idea Kieren was one of the biggest chargers in the world. At first glance he looks like this unassuming, scrawny guy, but get him out there and he's catching every set that comes through, so I figured I needed to keep up with him. But it set a benchmark for me. That one trip made my career. It was the biggest leap I've ever made in my surfing. I stepped that far out of my comfort zone in one day and I handled it and enjoyed it. There haven't been too many waves since that have seemed that scary and big. I seriously didn't sleep for three days, the adrenaline was so crazy, but at the same time I was exhausted.

Q: What was the reaction of the boys back in Maroubra?

A: They were blown away...but Koby [Abberton] wasn't real happy. He was down in Tasmania as well on the trip but thought it was going to be bad so he bailed for the Goldie. He surfed 4-foot Kirra and I surfed 15-foot Shippies. He said he threw up when he saw the photos.

Q: Your career in motivational speaking, how did you fall into that?

A: I have a mate from Maroubra, a mountain climber, who'd moved to the States and has a corporate training company called Peak Teams. He approached me and wanted me to be involved. That led to offers to do keynote speeches, which I was terrified of. So terrified it took me four years to work up the courage to front a crowd and do one. Some people are born extroverts but some people want nothing to do with it, and that's me. I'm as introverted as you can get, and getting up in front of a room full of strangers and talking for an hour is the most unnatural thing I could do.

Q: Tell me about your first talk.

A: It was in New York to a room full of bankers, and I was more scared than I've ever been in any surf, ever. It was like being on another planet. Backstage, if you'd offered me a two-wave hold-down at that point instead of having to walk out there I would have taken it gladly. As irrational as it sounds, my fear of embarrassment far outweighs my fear of drowning. I was so nervous I was sweating and had the shakes. Minutes before, I was so anxious that the only thing I could do to calm me down was to sit there and hold my breath. I'd hold it for 30 seconds to slow my thinking down. The lack of oxygen going to my brain slowed my thoughts, which were all bad at that stage.

Q: How did it go?

A: When I walked on stage my mind was completely blank. I had no idea what I was going to say, but I'd read a couple of books beforehand about public speaking and they said whatever you do, know your first five words. I got up there and said those five words and the rest just followed. I got a standing ovation, which freaked me out. That feeling was amazing. To be that scared at the start and to get that applause at the end was better than surfing for me. Anytime you go through that fear you know there's a big reward waiting for you if you can stick it out. Coming off stage was better than being spat out of a barrel.

Q: What did you talk about?

A: The ins and outs of dealing with big waves. They think I'm crazy when they watch the footage and they think I was born fearless and there's something loose in my brain rattling around that allows me to do what I do, but I tell them that I used to be more scared than the other kids. You're not born with it; you deal with it, and if you can learn to deal with fear in other compartments of your life, you'll live comfortably. The most important thing I tell them is that you have to have more want than fear; you have to want the end result enough to push through the fear to get there. I focus on how badly I want one of those waves, one of those barrels, and that will get me through the week leading up before it, seeing the swell, paddling out, and then taking off or letting go of the rope.

Q: What's the most surreal crowd you've addressed?

A: I did one in Thailand the other day with an 80 percent Asian crowd who had English as a second language. The humor didn't translate. I have lines I've used on other audiences and had the room in stitches, and I used the same joke to this crowd and it was just crickets chirping.

Q: You just made a movie, Fighting Fear.  What's the big message?

A: The main one is how important it is to have good, close friends who are on the same level as you and can keep you pointed in the right direction. A good friendship can make or break how you live your life.

Q: In the movie you guys - refreshingly - put your hands up and admit you've made mistakes in the past.

A: Until you own up to the fact you're doing something wrong, you're not going to change what you're doing and you're going to go backward your whole life. I read a quote the other day that went, "Too soon old, too late smart." Everyone gets to a certain age and they look back with regret, going, "Geez, I wish I'd done that earlier." Own up to your mistakes now and do something about them and you won't have those regrets.

Q: For the closing sequence of the movie you surfed Ours at night.  Why?

A: It was such a stupid idea that it was bound to work. Part of it was the frustration about how many swells go unridden in the dark. For every wave that gets ridden during the day there's an equally good one that no one ever sees at night. Plus we wanted to do something we were never going to forget. No one would back us so the three of us paid for it ourselves, and it came off, which was sick. The insurance guy was a classic. He rang me and asked me how dangerous what we were doing was. I went, "Well, no one's ever been really seriously injured out there. It's the kind of place that always looks worse than it really is." So he signs on to insure it. Then the week after he rang me, Kobi Graham broke his neck out there and it was all over the news. The insurance guy rings me back and goes, "Are you shitting me or what?"

Mathews helped fund the night shoot himself and the results were spectacular.

Q: What advice would you give to people who want to surf past their threshold?

A: You need to focus every day on what it is you want to get out of this. A 12-foot barrel? Keep dreaming about it and use it as a driver. Think about how good it will feel to ride a wave bigger than anything you've ever ridden before, and that will get you out of bed at 5 a.m., that'll push you through your training and you'll be ready for it when it comes, and while you'll still be scared, you'll want it so badly you'll go anyhow. And the most important thing I've learned in 10 years of surfing big waves--and now with my public speaking--is that you don't dwell on negative thoughts. Don't give them oxygen. You start worrying about bad thoughts and it starts a feedback loop.

Q: When was the last time you pulled back and didn't go?

A: I've let plenty of waves go over the years that have eaten me up for weeks after. And I know I regret not pulling back on a few, that big one on The Right that hammered me, particularly.

Q: Who's the most fearless person you've ever met?

A: I'd say Richie is up there [Richie Vaculik, Mathews' co-star in Fighting Fear, fellow Bra Boy, and MMA fighter]. I don't believe anyone is fearless, but the way he deals with fear is amazing.

Q: Is that why you always tow him in first to see whether it's surfable?

A: That's because he's indestructible, not fearless.

Q: Do we need to scare ourselves more often?

A: Definitely. Your brain is hardwired to be scared of things because that's how we survived for thousands of years. When we were cavemen we needed to be scared of saber-toothed tigers because if we weren't we'd die. Now we've still got that hardwiring but no saber-toothed tigers, so instead we get terrified of public speaking. But nothing amazing in your life happens in your lounge. If you don't have fear in your life somewhere you're going to have regret later on. You'll look back and think, what a waste.

Q: Any other irrational fear? The number 13? Clowns?

A: My one ridiculous fear is just a fear of embarrassment. I'm terrified of walking up to a girl I don't know and talking to her. Clowns I'm fine with, but stand me up in front of a room full of clowns and I'm shitting myself.