We choose our role models based on our inspiration. My first role model in surfing was Col Smith from Narrabeen. He was a brilliant goofyfooter, just a super-radical surfer. He never used to drink, he wasn’t a big party guy, but he was all about fun — getting out in the ocean and really surfing up and down a wave. That’s what I wanted to do. He became a big influence on me both in and out of the water. With all the challenges you faced at that age in the ’70s, that influence was invaluable. It may look all groovy in hindsight, but the ’70s were a pretty dangerous time around Sydney.
A friend once told me, “In life and in surfing, always remember that there will always be somebody better than you.” I always tried to keep that in mind and stay grounded, which proved to be pretty hard as I moved on as a young surfer. Professional surfing had no definition in the early days — it was all a gray area — and with all the attention I was getting, my friend could see it was a dangerous situation for me.
The ability to concentrate and work hard is more important than having raw talent. I think that pays off in all areas of life. Sure, John John [Florence] and Kelly [Slater] have a lot of raw talent, but a lot of work went into their approach, and there’s concentration in the surfing they do and the importance they put on it. And no matter who you are, you’ll face highs and lows in a long and successful career. When you’re down and need to lift yourself back up, that’s when the hard work truly pays off.
When money enters the surfing picture, it definitely places more tension in the camp. You’re forced to lift the bar, the pressure starts to mount and it’s really up to the surfer to compartmentalize that. The best surfers today do a wonderful job of it, though. If you’re using that money to run a really tight ship with a good support network and a good manager, you can put everything else aside and stick to your surfing.
You need to find your own motivation that helps you reach a goal, and it’s different for everyone. For some people, being angry can focus the body and mind to achieve something. For me, using anger as a driving force in competition always seemed to mess me up. I carried a lot of tension when I was competing, and I think my surfing improved when I left the Tour. I realized that we’re not boxers going toe to toe in a ring; surfing is a solo dance performance. We have these moments to perform and show our style, our grace, our power and our sense for the ocean.
If someone is competing for a reason greater than themselves, watch out, because that’s incredibly powerful. Losing someone in my life right on the cusp of surfing the Pipeline Masters, it just kind of cleared all the other shit out of my head. [Carroll’s sister was killed in a car accident in 1987, the day before the finals. — Ed.] It’s like when you drop oil in water and see everything separate; it just separated all the crap that didn’t really matter from what was actually important. I wanted to skip the event and go home, but my father said, “I think she would like you to win the Pipeline Masters.” As it turned out, surfing was actually the perfect thing for me to do in that scenario to work through what I was feeling. Everything was stripped back, and it’s almost like the event wasn’t happening. I was surfing for my sister and entered this flow where nothing was in the way. You can’t capture that, you can’t control that; you just go with it and let it happen.
Injuries always seem like shit at first, but can turn out to be a gift. I never want to take breaks from surfing; I love surfing every day. But when I have injuries and can’t surf, it’s a time to actually sit down and take stock of things I’ve neglected, or new things I should do. There’s so much more to life than just surfing, even if we get pretty single-minded about it.
I don’t know if it’s possible to get clean from drugs and alcohol without hearing the message of recovery from other people. Our recovery programs use anonymity, which is really important for people to get comfortable and open up, but I felt that I had an opportunity to offer the message to more people looking for help by speaking about it publicly. I was five years into sobriety when I felt strong enough to share the message in a book. I talked to Nick [Carroll, Tom’s brother], and with him being a brilliant writer, and being my brother, it was the perfect scenario to be able to just talk clearly, honestly and openly about the journey. I could really trust my brother. It’s a very personal thing and I wouldn’t advise anyone to just go out and do that willy-nilly. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got to tell the world, but if you do that too early, you might still be on shaky ground. It’s very important to get grounded and have a lot of support before you do something like that.
There are so many inspiring things happening in surfing today that keep it interesting. But I’ve always known that I’d be in it for the long haul. I try different ways of engaging with the ocean, from bodysurfing to open-ocean paddling and everything in between. Watching how other people approach it and seeing what they get out of it is great because you feed off that energy. I look around and see very healthy human beings — mind, body and spirit. We all get so much more positivity out of our day if we have a surf in the morning.
[Top image: Tom Carroll on the North Shore, 2016. Photo by Ellis]