At 27, Ace is already a key player in the World Pro Surfers union and the decision making process that charts the future of competitive surfing. He's also the published author of a children's book and last year finished equal first with Owen Wright for the World Tour's "goofy-foot world championship" (or equal 7th overall). Here he discusses the handicap of having just one lefthand wave on tour, the Kelly effect, why Freddy P is wrong, and what we can expect from the tour in 2011 — if Dane Reynolds doesn't return. —Jed Smith
Ace: The standard has definitely gone up a notch. There are no easy heats anymore. You've gotta work hard for your points and for your wins. Everyone is really comfortable with the spots on tour and the wildcards that are coming through are getting better each year. Also, the guys that make it on tour are much better because there are fewer of them. That also probably reflects the WQS, which is held in a variety of waves now rather than pretty average beachbreaks.
Kelly is the front-runner to claim an 11th world title. What will it take to stop him?
It's so early in the year but he's obviously confident right now and having fun competing. They're two elements that are pretty lethal. He's so experienced when he gets into those [high-pressure] situations; he doesn't get flustered, and younger guys get flustered. I was excited when I had him needing an eight with five minutes to go (in Round 5 at the Quik Pro) but he got an eight. You've gotta be able to come through those situations and have what it's gonna take to beat him and produce your best surfing when you're under pressure.
Is he that much better than the rest of the tour or are there other factors to his success?
Talent wise, I don't think he's that much better than everyone. Obviously he's an extremely talented guy and he's got that experience. I think it's amazing that he's had that longevity. He's physically in great shape. He doesn't actually look like he's getting older. He still looks very fit and you'll look at peers that are his age and retired a few years ago, not naming any names, and they look ten years older than him. Being around young guys, you get to a point in your career when your brain is telling you can't keep doing these things anymore. But if you look after your body there is no reason why you can't. You see Kelly and hear his interviews and he's got that belief and sees no reason why he can't replicate his best surfing. I read an interview with him in the latest Surfing World [magazine] and he sees what Jordy and Owen and those guys do and he's kind of in awe. But then he's like, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
There is a little bit more anticipation and excitement. He's definitely got a presence as a competitor. You build that up over years. The longer you're on tour you develop that persona or competitive alter ego. Kelly is definitely very comfortable paddling out for heats and being in that space. Kelly has that confidence. You've gotta have that confidence and expectation of a positive result. That's what competing is about. Whether you're making a shot or trying to execute a move, you've gotta have that expectation that it's gonna come off and obviously Kelly has that. When some guys come on tour you can feel that they're still feeling their way. Competitively, surfing is such a mental sport. A lot of it is about being comfortable within yourself.
Good surfing is gonna win you heats. You saw that on the [Gold Coast] with Kelly. He was able to mix it up in heats but he wasn't surfing super new school. Taj was the most exciting guy and he had a pretty innovative attack but he wasn't busting out many airs. And Tiago made the semis and he's just a really solid, powerful surfer. Good surfing, whether it is above the lip, in the barrel or on the face is gonna win you heats. And if you're maturing as a surfer and progressing. Dusty really showed that in the first event, that he'd gone away and worked on things that he failed to execute last year.
So you think there is an element of getting judged against yourself?
Yeah definitely, definitely. It shows when the surfer is surfing out of their skin or above their level. I think the judges see that as well.
Isn't that unfair though?
I don't think you're judged solely against yourself. You're against the surfer on the day but I think if I go out and do my best surfing and do a big air at the end, that will be [judged] different to someone who does airs often. The surfer has to show the judges different stuff. Last year they must have got sick of me doing five-thousand backhand reos. By the second to last event in Puerto Rico, they didn't want to see another one. That's when it comes down to being judged against yourself.
Dane Reynolds was absent from the opening event. What affect did that have on the level of surfing on show?
Obviously Dane is amazingly talented and we all watch his heats. It's hard to say. He's been hot and cold for the last few years. He did some of the best surfing all year at the Gold Coast last year. It was a bit of a shame not to see him and the waves this year would have really suited his surfing. I'm sure he would have been bummed not to be able to compete there but maybe this is what he needs — to step back and have a look and decide whether this is really what he wants to do now that it's been taken away from him. I'd love to see him competing and throwing everything at it.
Does Dane's absence affect the judging patterns of a contest and was his presence accelerating the progression of competitive surfing?
I wouldn't specifically pin it on him. With Dane or Kelly or Jordy, if someone puts in a benchmark performance in a round, the judges are going to look at that and say, “The bar has been raised. Here's what's possible.” Dane did that in the quarterfinal against Joel last year. Would things have been different if he had been here this year? I don't know, but obviously those other guys have the ability to change the judging.
It's definitely an issue and it's becoming more out in the open. As a goofy footer you have to have a phenomenal backhand to stay on tour, 'cause we go right very often. I've been on tour for a while now and I'm really comfortable going right and at times I actually see it as an advantage. But I'd like to see more lefts on tour because I can't remember the last time I saw Kelly or Mick do a backhand reo. I think it would be great to get some more lefts on tour and it would show some more weaknesses, not only among the naturals but the goofies because we work on our backhands so much. I think it would be exciting to see the top guys go left a little bit more. Day in, day out, surf fans are going left and right. They don't wanna see guys just going right.
Freddy P was recently quoted as saying the new 35-man tour doesn't work and competitive surfing is headed in the wrong direction. Both of you are involved with the surfers’ union — how do you feel about the changes and the direction the sport is moving in?
I disagree that the tour is moving in the wrong direction. The way that it happened and how the numbers got cut, things could have
been different. It was tough that the numbers were shortened and we all lost friends from tour and now it is more competitive and harder.
The argument is that we are becoming a global sport, and to encompass all those smaller nations, by having smaller numbers, we are limiting the opportunity of guys from smaller nations to get on tour. Three or four years down the track we might be able to reevaluate it, but I think it's working really well and I love the format. The way it is now you're seeing the best guys surf more and that's what surfing lacked. A few years ago with [a proposed] Top 16, I thought that was a step in the wrong direction. Look at tennis and the amount of hours you get to watch Federer or Nadal or Roddick on court, compared to the time you get to see Jordy or Kelly surfing. It's a big difference. The new format is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of seeing the best surfers surf more in the best waves.
Last year was a good year for me and re-establishing myself in the top ten was my goal. Top five this year. I'm enjoying competing more than ever. I'm excited about every stop. Surfing wise, I'm having fun trying different stuff and adding new moves to my repertoire like airs. Just to be there competing with the top guys is enough motivation for me to improve. As long as I'm motivated and passionate I'll enjoy it.