Jack Freestone is Australia’s hottest property
Portrait by Duncan Macfarlane, Action by Andrew Shield
"Last time I saw you, Jack," booms Sal Masekela, "you were wearing a very sharp coat and dealing with some very fine members of the opposite side of the species. You should keep that jacket in a special box and only bring it out on special occasions, my man, because that thing is hot."
Such is Jack Freestone's lot, the only 20-year-old surfer in Australia whose name is sung by the voice of action sports. Jack's a big kid — one day he may even be called massive — with high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes that squint from years in the southern hemisphere's brutal sun and wind-whipped oceans. Jack's right eye squints further still, framed by a scar whose origin is long forgotten.
Jack's is also the face that has starred in a dozen Billabong ads and a hundred Instagram selfies, the face that has 10,000 followers folding at the knees. This week, it's the most recognizable visage on the east coast of the Island of the Gods. We're standing at the bar of the new Komune Resort at Keramas, in Bali, and Jack is well on his way to winning a second world junior title. But for now, he's blushing.
Born on the Gold Coast in '92, Jack would always be active. Father Scott played 44 games in the National Rugby League, the premier competition in one of Australia's two major football codes. Standing 6'4" and weighing 250 lbs., Scott was an intimidating prop forward, a battering ram position reserved only for the biggest bodies on the pitch. And Jack's mum, Katy, took on whatever presented, "Netball, running, horse riding, triathlons, athletics, it didn't matter," she says, and explains that Jack's approach was similar. "He was good at anything he picked up: tee-ball, swimming, tennis, golf, skateboarding, karate, you name it."
Katy would drive the kids to the beach with their bodyboards every afternoon, and they attended surf lifesaving a couple of times a week. Jack was swimming and splashing around in the ocean long before surfing presented itself, but when notorious Gold Coast twins Shaun and Dean Harrington finally gave Jack a board at 12 years of age, it was the start of something big.
"He took to it straightaway," says Katy. "I remember the board, this big, brown, thick thing that used to take on so much water. After surfing, the water would drip out everywhere."
Jack was exposed to elite sports from a young age, but never knew he'd one day see surfing the same way. "I was always at Dad's rugby games, but I didn't know anything else," says Jack. "These days I get lots of veteran players coming up and saying, 'Oh, I know your old man,' which is cool." Jack, who wanted to be like Dad, grew into a rugby gun himself. He made the Australian schoolboys team and was offered scholarships to train and play in Europe. Then one afternoon at Kirra, he says, "I got the longest wave of my life and I was hooked. I gave up football, started surfing nonstop, and that was it," he laughs.
Laughing hasn't always come easy for Katy and her three kids. "Scott and I split up when Jack was 4," she says of her marriage. "The children shared time between both of us growing up, but it was fairly uneven from one week to the next."
"I was doing two weeks with Mum, two weeks with Dad," says Jack. "When I got to 13 or 14 I moved in with Dad. Then I moved back in with Mum. It was all over the place." Jack avoids the subject of his parents' relationship, but it has affected who he is. "My mum," Jack says "is my everything. I love my mum; I owe everything to her. She's so supportive."
As Jack's talent in the water became more obvious, Katy moved from inland to a tiny unit right on the beach so that Jack could figure out if his surfing was good enough to chase his dream. "We relocated so that he could be close to the surf," says Katy, who to this day works as a nurse in the Tweed Heads Hospital Emergency Department. "I was often criticized for it but there was just something I knew about him. So we gave it two years to see where it all led." Katy pauses, lost in reflection. "It was the best decision I've ever made."
In the summer of 2007, as tabloid newspapers in Australia sought to label any dispute as a form of "rage," and the Superbank phenomenon was in full effect, Surf Rage become a trending topic. The flash point most widely reported was when an enraged dad hit a man on the beach at Snapper for dropping in on his boy in the water. That father and son were Scott and Jack Freestone.
The former rugby league player and future surf star made for some tasty headlines, but Jack won't be drawn on the matter. "Touchy subject," he says when I bring it up, before moving the conversation elsewhere. His mother is more forthcoming. "The kids were aware that if there was another fight, their dad would end up in jail," she says. A short time later, there was another fight.
"The impact on the children was initially horrific," says Katy. "They weren't shocked, but Jack definitely withdrew. I didn't know which way the community would go with it, but they were so respectful of his privacy and let him be, and I'll always be thankful for that. But his relationship with his father has never been the same. Jack's very loyal to his dad, and won't speak about the topic to anyone, but he did a lot of growing up in a hurry."
With Jack needing the ocean's comforting, neutral embrace, Katy's decision was suddenly looking a wise one. "Jack's drive as a youngster was quite incredible," she says. "He was so determined to make state contests on the Sunshine Coast [120 miles north] that he'd get on the train with his board, pick up a mate halfway, then catch a bus and stay with friends up there. They were 15 years of age and that's when he started winning events. They grew up so quickly like that, having to find out where to go, and working out what to do."
Established Gold Coast surfers agree with Katy, too. "The kid just progressed so quickly," says Joel Parkinson of the spindly grom he'd see taking off behind the rock at Snapper. And Mick Fanning agrees, "Jack was tiny, but then he really started to hit his straps."
Two years ago on the black sand beaches of Bali, 18-year-old Jack stunned everyone, most of all himself, by claiming the Oakley World Pro Junior in slurping 4-foot barrels. It was the first of two legs to decide the world junior crown, and for Jack, it was only his second-ever big contest win.
On the podium, his then-manager John Shimooka screamed in the ear of his then-Quiksilver-sponsored charge that his "real estate just went up." Jack didn't know what that meant, but suddenly he was back home on the Gold Coast and the subject of a bidding war. The chance to ride for Billabong arose. "A dream," says Jack. "As a kid I used to steal Parko's stickers from his cousin's house, put them on my board and tell people I was sponsored." A month later at the Billabong World Junior Championships, Jack's new sponsor would immediately make a return on their investment, as he claimed the crown on home soil at Narrabeen.
For Jack, that first world junior title was, "kind of a fluke, it didn't really feel like I deserved to win. Don't get me wrong, I'll take it, but…it just seems so long ago." I'm talking to Jack in the apartment he shares with best friend and 'QS travel buddy, Mitch Crews. The unit is remarkably tidy, the pieces on the walls a few years beyond the fratboy-chic you'd expect from two guys barely past their teens. A Native American chief looks down imperiously from behind a large flat-screen TV, while frames and canvas house art cover most other surfaces.
"It's all Steph's," says Jack when he sees me staring at the décor. And then I remember that the boys' landlord is none other than five-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore. After Steph was assaulted in the basement of this same building two years ago, the lady whom Queensland was surely named after hung the "For Lease" sign out and relocated.
Coolangatta's brightest prospects were more than happy to housesit Steph's investment and soak up the 270-degree views over the hinterland, up to Surfers Paradise and along the 20-mile ribbon of white sand and pointbreaks that brings you back to Snapper Rocks. On the balcony, things are as you'd hope from a couple of young blades on the move: more boards than you can count, a barbecue rusting in a corner, decaying outdoor furniture and the debris of a dozen sunset sessions scattered about. This is more like it. "We provide the view," grins Jack, "our mates bring the beer."
In early 2012 Jack was given the opportunity to work with surfing filmmaker du jour, Kai Neville, on a trip that starred Taj Burrow, Dane Reynolds, Kolohe Andino and Evan Geiselman. "That was epic," says Jack. "It was an amazing experience to be with all of them; they're the guys at the moment. Kai's opened so many doors for me and I'll always be appreciative." Jack's answers to questions about the trip are about what you'd expect, but then Jack continues. "Sometimes the trip was kind of weird, though. I stuck one of the best stalefish airs of my life and when I paddled back out Evan and Kolohe both asked if I'd made it. I was like, 'Yeah,' thinking they'd say it was sick or whatever, but they both just went, 'F–K!' and paddled off so angry. They're good mates, but that really showed me how bad guys want to step up nowadays. Especially when you're filming with Kai."
I ask Kai how Jack scored a berth on a boat that would sail a solid section into the heart of Dear Suburbia. "Jack was a last-minute substitute," he admits. "When I emailed him he'd already been in Indo a couple of weeks. And whereas other guys might want to bail and go home, Jack was keen to stick around and shoot. But he was meant to be buying a house on the Goldie so I grabbed the paperwork off his mum before I flew out. Jack and I met in Padang and he signed all these documents and faxed them off from the hotel. It was a stressful situation but he kept his head the whole time. Then we got on the boat and were on our way."
Is it a risk taking an untested talent island-hopping? "Absolutely," says Kai. "If you've got that caliber of surfers on a trip and you wanna throw someone new in, you've got to hope he's ready. Because if the guy gets blown out of the water it's not really fair to him, and it definitely doesn't help the movie. But if it goes the other way, and the dude gets the content and is a total surprise packet, it's a huge bonus. And that's exactly what happened. From the first session we knew Jack could mix it up with the world's best. Kolohe, Dane and Taj were like, 'Woah, this guy's gnarly. He's way more consistent than all of us!'"
"I hadn't seen much of Jack before that trip," says Taj, "and I was really impressed. I always figured he could surf well, but I was amazed when I saw him keep up with Dane and Kolohe's air game. At one point Dane even paddled up to me and said, 'Did you know Jack was this good?'"
I'm sitting with Katy in the house that Jack bought six months ago, just before his maiden voyage with Kai Neville. While she makes clear that she is equally proud of all her children, it's Jack who has provided the roof we're under. "He doesn't even live here," Katy laughs, as I get the grand tour. "He's in the apartment with Mitch, but of course I still keep his room made up."
She shows me inside that made-up room and it is the type that would make any sport-loving mortal jealous. Trophies adorn every shelf, medals hang from cabinets, oversized checks hold the door ajar. On one wall there is a life-size photo of Jack being chaired up the beach at Keramas, just moments after winning that second junior title. The image originally hung at his celebration party, a night that marked Jack's leap from Aussie grom to international star, and his mates graffiti'd the hell out of it. Trophy in hand, Jack grins from his throne, teeth blacked-out with marker, a cartoon bag of money in one hand and the Aussie flag draped over a shoulder. And the love of a hundred friends tattooed across his body.—Chris Binns