Tom Carroll punches the clock on the ’80s generation

In putting together our 400th issue Generation Now feature story, one fact became cruelly clear: it’s better to be part of a surfing movement than not. From Cheyne Horan to Shane Beschen, existing on the fringes of a breakthrough generation could stick you in the shadows forever, especially in the dark days of competitive surfing — the ’80s. Barely 10 years old, the ’80s were a hard-slog series of brutally long events in brutally harsh conditions, one where winning meant everything. So, when ’82/’83 World Champion Tom Carroll saw future legends Tom Curren, Mark Occhiupo and Martin Potter rising up the ranks, he figured the best way to beat them, was to join them.

SURFING: Who would you list as the top surfers of your generation?

TOM CARROLL: Geez, I kind of came at a funny time. It was Shaun Tomson and Mark Richards when I first jumped in, but I came through competitively with Tom Curren, Martin Potter and Mark Occhilupo. I cut across a large group of surfers and spanned a lot of careers — I went from single fins through thrusters — so it was a big one to say the least. And a really fortunate one, too. It was an extraordinary time to be alive and be a surfer.

SURFING: Describe the particular type of surfing your generation brought to the sport?

TOM: We brought a very energetic, physical approach to performance. I think with our generation we lifted our performances on small waves, big waves, and pulled the energy level a lot higher — of course, with the help of surfboard designs of the day, like the thruster. There was also the idea that you get to make a living out of surfing. We wanted to bring it along beyond just a dream. And that lifted our performance levels up against each other in shit surf. Or at least the perception of shit surf. But really, when you surf, you surf what you make of it. We sort of made something gout of nothing.

SURFING: It’s almost like the Free Ride guys created the tour as a dream, and you guys inherited the job aspects of it.

TOM: We wanted better waves and we were pushing for better waves, but we took for granted that you had to surf contests in whatever came along. Sometimes you’d get great surf, sometimes you’d get bad surf, and for the most part you did get bad surf. I mean the dream and idea of good surf was always there — and it’s always there in a surfer’s mind because you want to get a better surf — but the fact is we were surfing whatever was dished up to us and events would run regardless of conditions. Whereas now there’s a waiting period and you get to surf the best possible waves in that waiting period. So you had to improve yourself, you had to surf and practice and get better in marginal conditions, which we kind of seemed to be happy to do at the time.

SURFING: So even though it was hard work sometimes, it was still a killer job.

TOM: Yeah, we were out there doing it, we were traveling, we were getting into it. Obviously, you’d get the odd one or two whinging about it. But there wasn’t any great expectation. Like now, there’s this great expectation, which is fantastic, they’ve really stepped up to the mark. God, what a dream tour, man.

SURFING: When you look at you, Curren, Pottz, Occy — what do you think united you as a group?

TOM: I think just begin highly competitive against each other. When you’re super competitive against each other, you gain a camaraderie. You tend to be out there in a little world all your own, you become kind of an elite crew that stands out. And that’s kind of special in a way. And I think that sheer competitive drive and rivalry is something that brings you together in a way. In a big way, really. You gain a mutual respect for each other and you’re humbled in each other’s presence and you surf against each other and you watch each other and you’re inspired by each other. It’s a little world that grows into a very strong world.

SURFING: Can you give us an example when you felt like you were in that world?

TOM: I felt like I was stepping into that world in 1982 when I won my first world championship tour event. Curren had already won one and I finally won my first one at Sunset Beach. And I think when you start to win those sort of events and you’ve been there for a time, you know you’re all in there for the long haul.

SURFING: Obviously, it must’ve been even more special to do it at Sunset.

TOM: It was huge. For me, I really wanted to win at Sunset before Pipeline. And it meant a hell of a lot to me and my performance. I think to win Pipeline was something that was going to come. But Sunset was something that just wasn’t going to come, you know what I mean? So to win at Sunset first was a bygone for me and I needed to do that to settle myself into a love of world championships and all that sort of stuff and to feel like I really deserved to be there. There’s one thing about winning, but there’s another thing about really winning within yourself, you know? And I’d say it’s important.

SURFING: What were the biggest moments for your generation?

TOM: I’d say winning my world titles was huge — for me. And obviously that Bells event where I watched Occy and Tom in the Semi final. I went on to beat Tom in the final, but to watch them go blow for blow in that Bells event in 1986, I think, 1987 maybe, that was huge. And then also down at J-Bay when Occy was surfing backside in 1984, that was very powerful watching him surfing backside. That was a big moment for me because I sort of had to lift my act.

SURFING: Well, you were obviously the goofyfoot to beat.

TOM: Well, I knew he was going to be tough down the track because I’d seen him surf for a few years, but all of a sudden he was just doing shit where we were all going, “What’s he doing?!” So I sort of had to figure myself out with that and come through with something significant. And so, yeah, it was a hard battle, and it’s very confronting, with the question of how significant are you? You know, there’s another guy right here who’s better than you right now. You’ve got to come through with the goods here. You can’t think anything else but to lift your act up now and get better than what you are. And that’s tough. It’s a real big task. You’ve got to dig deep. I think watching Tom, that’s always been a real confrontation for me — within myself. I had to confront myself a lot with him and improve my technique. His technique was so advanced, it was brilliant, I had to get my head around my own style which was very, very basic compared to those guys. And those guys sort of turned me, ‘You gotta dance here a bit. You gotta step up and dance, buddy.”