after winning the 2016 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, Matt Wilkinson banged his head on a World Surf League–emblazoned sign while being chaired up the staircase toward the podium.
In Wilkinson’s defense, he was too busy high-fiving fans and making jokes with those supporting his 160-pound frame to notice the obstacle. The rectangular overhang was placed at the bottom of the iconic timber steps, and whoever hung the sign probably assumed the victor would remember to duck. But when it comes to Matt Wilkinson, it’s best not to assume anything.
Moments before in the Bells final, Wilkinson and Jordy Smith had been duking it out while an unruly Southern Ocean dealt punches in the form of burly double-overhead waves. The road to the final had been just as turbulent, with event favorites dropping like flies in the early rounds. Taj Burrow lost to Miguel Pupo in Round 2; Joel Parkinson bowed out to rookie Conner Coffin in Round 3; current world champ Adriano de Souza was ousted by wildcard Mason Ho; and Kelly Slater suffered the same fate at the hands of Michel Bourez.
On stats alone, Wilkinson wasn’t favored to win either. He had never defeated Smith in a head-to-head matchup. Hell, before his event win at Snapper the previous month, he hadn’t defeated most people in head-to-head matchups. But if the betting man learned anything from this season, it’s that the notion of an event favorite no longer carries the weight it once had. This year has been anyone’s game.
About 17 minutes into the final, Wilkinson scratched into a bomb. He moved from section to section with ease, like Tarzan swaying between trees. With deep bottom turns, he got low to his board, slingshotted himself toward the top of the wave and swung wildly at the lip, releasing the tail and a cascade of spray.
With those signature backhand turns, Wilkinson left Smith combo’d for the remainder of the heat. As the final horn sounded, Wilkinson rode into the shorebreak, fists pumped and arms locked skyward. With his second win of the season, he fortified his lead over the rest of the field and kept the yellow jersey for another event.
After being chaired from the water’s edge up the wooden staircase and bumping his head on the sign, Wilkinson hopped down to give Mick Fanning a bear hug. Then, in a half-joking, half-sincere manner, Wilkinson looked Fanning in the eyes and asked him what would become the central question of this year’s WSL season: “What is going on?”
was as unpretentious as its owner. Half-empty water bottles littered the floorboard and sandy wetsuits sat in a pile in the trunk. An air freshener bearing Tupac’s face hung from the rearview mirror, swaying back and forth as we zoomed through roundabouts. It had clearly lost its freshness long ago, as the only discernable smell in the car came from Wilkinson’s 2-year-old border collie, Bambi, who was climbing all over me in the backseat.
A few months after Wilkinson’s Bells victory, we were on the road from his new home in Byron Bay to Copacabana, the small town he grew up in just 60 miles north of Sydney.
With Wilkinson at the wheel, we passed acres of hilly woodland broken up by rest stops, antique shops, and vast green plots of farmland. “Look at that farm,” Wilkinson said, tapping his finger against the window at a pasture occupied by a group of grazing cattle. “It’s sooo nice…I think I want to buy one!”
It can be hard to tell when Wilkinson is joking, and often it seems he may not even be sure himself. But Wilkinson the farmer isn’t entirely unbelievable, as he’s often seen sporting a cowboy hat around World Tour events.
“Up until I was 3, my family lived out west, where we had horses and shit,” he explained. “So I think deep down I’ve got a little bit of cowboy in me. My brother and I nearly bought a farm a while ago. We were just going to buy a bunch of cows, but then we realized neither one of us knew anything about farming.”
Wilkinson’s girlfriend, Anna, suggested we stop by her parents’ farm on the way back to see BeeBee and Lettuce—two miniature donkeys of whom Wilkinson had grown quite fond over the past few months.
“Could you imagine if I rode a tiny donkey to Snapper next year?” Wilkinson said.
It wouldn’t be the first time he showed up to an event using unconventional transit. Five years ago, fresh off a less-than-stellar rookie season, Wilkinson rocked up to his quarterfinal heat at the 2011 Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast donning Rollerblades, a black top hat, and a Barbara Streisand perm, circa 1985.
“There had been heaps of lay days, so some friends and I decided to make a silly little video clip in our hotel room,” explained Wilkinson. “There was a secondhand store downstairs and we bought all this stuff for the video. I thought, ‘I should just wear all this to the comp!’ I could barely Rollerblade and was so out of control trying to get down to the beach. I felt like a dickhead…but I guess I was being a dickhead.” As for the perm, there was no explanation.
I asked if, subconsciously, he was trying to make a cheeky statement about how straight-faced professional surfing had become. “Nah, I was just having fun,” laughed Wilkinson. “I assumed only 10 people would see it and think it was funny. But I guess not many people did that kind of shit on Tour, so it got more attention than I expected. I think people were excited someone was doing something different.”
For the next few years, Wilkinson continued to build a reputation for himself as the Tour’s resident free spirit. He’d show up to events wearing quirky wetsuits designed specifically for each venue. In New York he arrived in a suit covered with $100 bills, in J-Bay he wore cheetah print, and in France, presumably inspired by the nude beaches of Les Cul Nuls, he was coated in perky bazooms. During one event he used a Sharpie to draw black bikini bottoms on his stark-white wetsuit—along with an illustration of male genitalia on his thigh. He was promptly asked by the Association of Surfing Professionals’ (ASP) public-relations team to cover the inappropriate image.
That wasn’t the only time his antics ruffled feathers with competitive surfing’s governing body. Before the start of the 2012 ASP Banquet on the Gold Coast, Wilkinson was warned by the ASP not to do anything silly. “They told us [Wilkinson and Nick Pollet, his best friend and videographer] to take the event seriously because it was a black-tie affair,” remembered Wilkinson. “So we went, ‘OK, we can do black tie. But we’ll do it a little differently.’”
They stuck to the formal dress code, with Wilkinson wearing a Victorian-looking tuxedo and a top hat, and Pollet wearing a red floor-length gown, a pair of golden opera gloves, and heavy makeup. “We thought it was genius,” said Wilkinson. “Nick started drinking and fully got into character. I was shitting myself, thinking he was going to say something inappropriate…which he did.”
Pollet had also snuck a pink sex toy into the event and pretended it was a cell phone, answering imaginary calls on it as they made their entrance. When Kelly Slater walked over to the happy couple and tried to make conversation, Wilkinson’s plus-one whipped the “cell phone” out of his purse and held it to his ear, telling Slater to please hold on while he finished his call. At one point, Dave Prodan, then the ASP’s international-media manager, stormed over to the duo and told them the rose-colored phallus had crossed a line. “Prodan took it away from Nick and started walking away,” laughed Wilkinson. “Then all of a sudden Nick started shouting, ‘Oh, my God, that guy’s got a dildo!’”
Slater won the ASP Men’s Entertainer award that night, but even he knew that was one title that didn’t belong to him. He walked off the stage and into the audience and gave the trophy to Wilkinson.
Wilkinson’s unconventionality was a breath of fresh air during a time when many thought competitive surfing had become too sterile and straitlaced. He rode fun-looking quads and gave offbeat post-heat interviews. He ate as he pleased, partied as he pleased, and never seemed interested in things like heat strategy or event preparation.
“When we first started traveling together on Tour, he’d show up in Tahiti without a full quiver of boards,” remembers Wilkinson’s close friend Ace Buchan, who grew up in the same area as Wilkinson. “He’d be pulling boards out of the rafters where he was staying and surfing those. Somehow he was still able to do really well on them.”
That wasn’t a rare moment of forgetfulness. Glenn Hall, the man who would eventually lead the Matt Wilkinson transformation, remembers the time similarly. “He wasn’t putting much effort in outside of the water and he was never prepared for events,” says Hall. “He never had flights or car rentals booked. He just jumped in the car with whoever was going to the contest. He also probably surfed more heats hungover than anyone ever.”
Wilkinson didn’t live the ascetic life of a world champ, but fans could relate to him. “I never wanted to become the crazy-straight guy that makes surfing look boring to kids,” said Wilkinson. “I never wanted to live like an Olympic swimmer who got up at 4 a.m. and trained for six hours a day.”
Although he had the time of his life during those first few years on Tour, Wilkinson had a hard time translating his natural talent into results. “I always felt like I could win Snapper or Bells or J-Bay,” says Wilkinson. “But every time I would start off doing well in an event, I’d have a shocker in a heat. I could never put a whole event together and it started to weigh on my confidence.”
A string of early-round exits at the beginning of each year always left him chasing redemption points in Europe and Hawaii to stay on Tour. “There were many years at Haleiwa and Sunset when I’d be counting points at the end. I’d be like, ‘OK, I need to get 1,100 points, and if these three people lose, I’ll re-qualify through the ’QS [World Qualifying Series].’ I’d be sitting there wishing that people would lose.”
Friends like Hall and Buchan loved Wilkinson’s character, but it was frustrating for them to watch him fail to reach his potential. “Over time, the whole Tour started to progress. Everyone was getting better and working harder, but he was still just having fun and barely re-qualifying,” says Hall. “Each year, we told him he was better than that.”
The turning point for Wilkinson came at the end of the 2014 season, when he barely re-qualified through the ’QS at Sunset. “That made me realize it was time to get it together,” says Wilkinson. “After being so close to getting knocked off Tour, I was like, ‘F--k, I’m a better surfer than this.’”
Wilkinson sat on the couch across from an open bottle of Victoria Bitter that had been left on the coffee table from the night before. Wilkinson had invited his old friends over for beer before going out for a couple rounds. Photographer Ted Grambeau, who came along for the road trip, asked Wilkinson if he just opened the bottle for a little hair of the dog.
“Oh, Teddy,” Wilkinson replied. “I’m far too old for that now!”
After cleaning up the remnants of the previous night, we drove to Copa Point to check the waves. It was a clear, brisk morning and a crisp springtime wind had reached the surf before we did.
“And here we have Copa Point: the best left in the world,” joked Wilkinson. There was a new swell in the water, but the direction was too straight, severing the point into disconnecting sections where a few surfers sat. “I surfed this all the time growing up. There’s usually a roll-in section where those guys are sitting, then it hits a ledge and barrels. When it’s pumping, it’s really good, but when it’s not…it’s not.”
Copacabana, as Wilkinson describes it, is one of those sleepy beach towns you’d never visit without good reason. “About 2,000 people live here, and everyone knows everyone,” he said. “There are two cafés, a bottle shop, a real-estate agent, and four hairdressers.”
Behind us stood the Copacabana Surf Life Saving Club, a large two-story building overlooking the point. There was a café on the ground floor and what looked like a new gym inside. “It didn’t used to be so pimped out,” said Wilkinson. “It’s three times bigger than it was when we lived here.”
When Wilkinson was 11, he moved into the club with his father, Neale—a gregarious, jolly figure with an impressively robust white beard. As a single parent, Neale raised Wilkinson and moved into the Copacabana SLSC to work as the overnight security guard in exchange for room and board. Every morning from his bedroom window, he’d watch Wilkinson paddle out and surf the point.
Neale also worked as a truck driver and would earn just enough money to purchase a van for $3,000 and take Wilkinson up and down the coast for contests or swell chases. They’d spend weeks on the road. “I was as comfortable sleeping in the van as I was at home,” said Wilkinson. “We’d park in different lots and cops would knock on our windows in the middle of the night, telling us to move. Dad made up all sorts of excuses. He’d say, ‘Well, I can’t drink and drive,’ when he doesn’t even drink. We always got away with it.”
The van was eventually replaced by a more “pimped out” bus once Wilkinson started winning Junior contests and attracting sponsors. They added solar panels on the roof and bought a Jet Ski and a four-wheel-drive Suzuki Sierra that they’d haul behind the bus, which became an icon at contest sites across Australia. Neale remembers Slater hiding out behind the bus during a few Bells events to avoid hordes of fans.
Wilkinson had a successful run on the Junior and Qualifying series, and was always driven to win. Buchan, who grew up competing in the age group above, suspects that Wilkinson’s success this year is really a return to his roots.
“When he was younger, he was a savvy competitor,” says Buchan. “He was a bit of a jokester for the first few years on Tour, and I guess people got to know that side of him through his videos. But competing is what he really loves, and I think he’s come around full circle this year.”
The man who helped Wilkinson make this shift was, of course, Glenn Hall. The two grew up together in neighboring towns, Hall acting like an older brother to Wilkinson since gromhood. After Wilkinson nearly fell off Tour in 2014, Hall spent the following year converting Wilkinson into an athlete. They surfed together, worked out together, and devised heat strategies together. When the start of the 2016 season began, Wilkinson rose from the ashes 10 pounds lighter and ready to start winning again.
“I felt 100 times more prepared going into Snapper than previous years,” said Wilkinson. “After I won that close quarterfinal against Adriano, I think something clicked in my head and I was like, ‘Man, I love winning.’ When I took the whole event, I was freaking out.” Surf fans were freaking out too—especially the gambling variety. Australian bookmakers gave him 31-to-1 odds to win Snapper. “I heard someone made 15 grand off my win,” said Wilkinson.
The naysayers said it was a one-off, but Wilkinson was quick to prove them wrong with a win at Bells. Then, in Fiji, during Burrow’s weeklong retirement celebration, Wilkinson was caught doing sit-ups down the beach while the rest of the competitors played bocce ball, drank beer, and laughed at the absurd sight. Wilkinson went on to place second in the event.
A couple months after Fiji, Wilkinson and I met for lunch in San Clemente, California. He had just lost to Brett Simpson at the Lowers event and slipped to third in the ratings behind John Florence and Gabriel Medina. If it were 2013, he would’ve shrugged off the loss and went straight to the liquor store. Instead, I found him solemnly eating a kale salad.
We started talking about the changes he’s made this year, mainly his newfound ability to surf smart heats. “Years ago, if I needed a 5 or something in a Round 2 heat and there was an air section, I’d try to be a hero by doing the biggest air I could,” he said. “Now I know that’s stupid.”
He continued to list all the things that he now knows are “stupid”: “If you make a mistake at the end of the heat and you lose, then you’re an idiot, because that’s when the scores are all set. Or if you fall off a wave, dwell on it for too long, and then miss your next wave because you’re dwelling on the past, then you’re an idiot. Or if you’re waiting for a bomb on the outside, but a bomb doesn’t come and the other guy gets an inside wave and wins, then you’re an idiot. If you lose priority for a silly wave, then you’re an idiot. There are so many little things Micro [Glenn Hall] makes sure I’m on top of during my heats.”
I asked how he’s managed to tone back the partying. He told me he’s found a balance: “I try to work out six days a week and be hungover one day.”
As we finished our meals, Wilkinson looked down at his empty plate. “I can’t believe I just lost a Round 2 heat and ordered a kale salad with no beer.”
Wilkinson, Anna, and I ate breakfast on their rooftop deck, taking in the view of the pool beneath us and the ocean on the horizon. Wilkinson purchased the spacious home six months ago with the prize money he earned from Bells and Snapper. The respective trophies sit on display in the living room.
Wilkinson told me that one of their first home-improvement projects was refurbishing the deck from a rusted, unused eyesore into a wood-paneled beauty complete with an outdoor dining area. It’s a far cry from Wilkinson’s living situation two years ago, when he was given 24 hours’ notice to vacate his messy Bondi apartment after he and his housemates missed multiple letters from their landlord saying their lease was up.
At 28 years old, Wilkinson reinvented himself as a bona fide world-title contender, and he’s become a symbol for the larger metamorphosis currently happening on the World Tour. For years, the names of the world’s top seeds seemed carved in stone. The outcomes of Snapper, Bells, or J-Bay had become predictable, as Slater, Fanning, Parkinson, and Burrow traded wins for the better half of a decade. But 2016 saw WSL podiums around the world graced by more underdogs than in previous years. With surfers like Wilkinson, Keanu Asing, and Sebastian Zietz winning events, it feels like competitive surfing has slipped into a parallel universe where any one of the Top 34 could win anything with a little grit and hard work. Competitive surfing feels wonderfully unpredictable for a change.
Wilkinson’s dreams of becoming the 2016 World Champ were dashed in Portugal after he fell to Jeremy Flores, and John Florence went on to win the event and claim his first World Title. But with his newfound mojo, it’s likely Wilkinson will be a title threat for years to come.
Hearing the new Matt Wilkinson say those words, I wondered if the oddball ways of the old Matt Wilkinson were gone for good—if in the process of gaining a new world-title contender, competitive surfing lost one of its most eccentric characters.
We cleared our plates and started making our way back into the house to get ready for a late-morning surf. Looking down at the pool below, I joked that if Wilkinson really wanted to “pimp out” his new house, he’d add a waterslide from the deck. Anna gave me a look, shaking her head.
Wilkinson went quiet for a second, the wheels turning in his head as a mischievous grin spread across his face. “You know what?” he said. “I think that’s a great idea.”