THIS PAST YEAR IN DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA AT THE BALLITO PRO, we were filming Jack Freestone and Mitch Crews at a punchy little righthander a few coves over from the comp site. Some tow-headed, indistinguishable Aussie kid paddled out and mid-sentence, Jack stopped talking and he and Crewsie craned their necks to watch the kid surf.
The kid was quick, light-footed and transferred power between tight arcs without losing a hint of momentum. Jack and Crewsie looked at each other and shook their heads. I had never seen the kid before, never even heard of him, but the boy was 17-year-old Ethan Ewing, from North Stradbroke Island, Australia.
I also didn't know he'd won, like, four different pro-juniors in a row earlier that year, as well as a QS in Burleigh. He'd gotten a wildcard into this particular QS 10K and was mowing through the heats. (A month later he'd place runner-up as a wildcard in the US Open.) And now, to add to this list, a World Junior Title.
But besides being a total contest-junky, after watching Ethan more, what really struck me as exceptional about his approach was his unwavering commitment to on-rail, in the water, finesse surfing. A sort of method you don't really see much — especially in a teenager — anymore, these days.
Between events and on the cusp of qualifying, the now extremely distinguishable boy from South Straddie lets us in on why airs are something he'll work on when he's on tour and how he's managed to (at this point nearly) clench the task that takes many men years to achieve. –Beau Flemister
SURFING: So, is this your first real year following the QS? How has it felt with all this success?
Ethan: Yep, this is my first real year on the QS and it has been amazing. Coming straight off the Pro Junior series the same year, I definitely wasn't expecting this kind of success so early on, but I've definitely enjoyed it!
Do any guys on the QS come up to you, like, "What the f–k man, what's your secret?"
[laughs] Nope, no one has ever asked me what my secret is. Everyone on the QS is so competitive and just wants to win so badly — just like I do — but I haven't really had the more experienced or older guys give me a hard time.Photo: Tom Carey
That's good to hear. Jack Freestone recently told me, "Ethan looks like a hybrid of all the best surfers on tour." You don't really seem to be concerned with airs, but more with that traditional style of surfing with fundamentals and finesse…who are your influences and why?
My main influences have definitely been my two older brothers. They both rip. Also, just any power/rail surfer with good flow. But someone like A.I. has always inspired me because of his style and just how aggressively he always surfed. My brothers and I grew up watching him and Bruce so that inevitably became a big influence on our way of surfing. But also Mick [Fanning] because of how fast and technical his surfing is; I love watching him!
Do you ever get bummed out by all the hype people are starting to amp up around you, or do you not let it faze you?
No, I don't mind all the attention and, consequently, the expectations. It doesn't bother me at all! Everybody has been very supportive, especially the Aussies on the QS, so I'm really stoked about that.
What do you think changed for you this year that made everything click?
I don't think there was really anything in particular…I just changed how I surfed heats. My heat strategy finally improved a lot in the last 12 months and I'm stoked on what results have come from it. Also, I've made an effort to just trust my ability more than I used to, so that made me a lot more comfortable waiting for the best waves and trusting myself to be able to perform.
Being so young, do you ever feel psyched out by some of these guys that have been trying to qualify for, like, over a decade? Like, those 30-year-old men; they don't faze you?
Yeah for sure they do! Some of the older QS guys are super gnarly in the water; it's so much different from Pro Juniors and even just compared to the lower-rated QS events in Australia. Those guys seriously want to eat you [laughs], but out of the water they are great and I've been having a sick time.
OK, but do you have any rivals on the QS that you've had multiple heats with and battled? If so, who are they?
Wouldn't say I really have a rival or rivals, but I've had a fair few heats with Leo Fioravanti over the last couple of years! [laughs] Leo's such a good competitive surfer and you have to be on your game when you're surfing against him. He just doesn't make many mistakes, so it's no accident he's on top of the QS at the moment.
Your dad seems to be a big part of your program. What are the wisest things he's told you or best pieces of advice?
I guess, "Believe in yourself" or "This pathway is a marathon, not a sprint." That's been great advice.
Do you ever feel like you're getting burnt out by all these comps? Or like you just wanna go full freesurf guy?
No way! [laughs] Right now I'm loving comps and if I could do more, I actually would. I think I'm a really long way away from getting burnt out traveling and competing. For instance, I'm in Europe now for the first time in my life and learning so much. How could I get burnt out this fast?Photo: Tom Carey
It seems like you really enjoy being on-rail and are more into finesse-surfing. You look up to A.I. and Mick — who weren't really big air-guys — are airs something you even want to focus on?
I guess I've always just tried to surf the way I wanted and did what feels best. Rail and power is what I love. Airs are great, but they have never been my focus. I'll get better at them with time.
That's cool because I feel like a lot of kids these days progress the other way. They're into air-reverses and nose-pick finners first, and then they get on tour and really have to hone their rail-game and mature into more powerful surfers. Do you think it's possible for a surfer on tour these days to just be a rail, power surfer without doing any airs at all?
I feel that surfers have to have an all-around game for sure and not just one thing or another, but I will probably always feel more comfortable surfing the way I've grown up surfing.
What waves are you comfortable in and what waves do you need to work on?
I really need to spend some more time on reefs. I have grown up surfing on sand bottom every day so I would love to spend more time in places like Fiji and Hawaii to try to get more comfortable in powerful waves of consequence. I'm actually really excited about working on that, though.