Down the barrel: Matt Wilkinson, 27, surfer
I don’t really know when the transition to being a pro surfer happened. It seemed to just kind of …happen. I started having to miss school for some competitions and to travel for surf trips and stuff and then the next thing I knew I kind of qualified for the tour and then I was on the tour and that was it.
I worked pretty hard as a kid. I used to surf twice a day no matter what, whether it was freezing cold and the waves were terrible or if it was pumping.
I only moved to the coast when I was eight years old. From the western suburbs of Sydney. As soon as I moved, I started surfing and absolutely loved it.
My dad surfed back in the ’70s for a few years. I think he lived out in Penrith or something. Mum and Dad split and Dad didn’t have enough money to keep all the kids riding motorbikes. He thought surfing was cheaper, so we moved to the coast. But my eldest brother won seven Australian motocross titles back in the day.
I can’t remember my first surf, but I can remember the time around that time. It was at Avoca Corner and Dad would swim out and push me in. I had an old Ziegler Thruster but one of the side fins was missing, and he just used to swim out and push me in each morning.
If I’m home and I have a week off, I’m like “Alright, I’m surfed-out; I want to have a little break.” And then the waves are good and I’m like, “I’m going surfing”. Because that’s the most fun thing I can think of doing, I guess. It’s not like you’re swimming in a pool looking at a black line and trying to shave off a hundredth of a second. You go out and if you get a barrel, it’ll make your week.
We were on an island near Guam. And a bunch of snorkellers jumped off their boat and one of the guys just swam across, and the waves were eight foot and really, really heavy. And the guy was swimming across into the impact zone and we were like, “Does this guy know exactly what he’s doing or has no idea what he’s doing?” And then it ended up the next wave just landed straight on him and he was this Japanese tourist guy and he got blasted onto the reef and then was stuck in there and lost his goggles and his flippers and we had to go in and save him off the reef. He was just stuck standing there with cuts everywhere and had no idea what was going on.
A few people recognise you as a surfer in Japan. There are some diehards. I was on holidays there with Mick Fanning, and he does get recognised from that video that went viral. He’s won three world titles and half the people just know him for getting ran into by a shark.
I had a little scare the year before last and almost fell off the tour. It shook me up and made me realise that I’ve got to step it up and put more effort in, and last year I ended up 18th. I probably could have been in the top 10. So, I feel like my surfing is right there.
The crowd has more of an effect than you realise. At Teahupoo the boats are only 50 feet away from you, and they see the waves coming before you do. It’s like a little rumble and then people just screaming, “Go, go, go.” And they can’t really tell if it’s just closed out or if it’s a double-up. They can just see that it’s a deep wave and they’re shouting at you. And definitely if you don’t go you feel like an idiot, but then if you do go and you get smashed you might get hurt and be out of the contest or out for the rest of the year or something stupid. So, it’s hard to make the decision and you’ve only got a few seconds to decide.
What does it sound like inside a barrel that size? “Wsssssscchhh.” I don’t know how you’d spell that. You hear the lip and everything behind you just kind of growling, and then it sucks you back really hard, it’s like an 80-knot wind into your face, and then once that stops it blows the other way even faster and stings your back and spits you out into the channel. Biggest smile you’ve ever had.
This week’s highlights…
• Super Rugby: Blue Bulls v Natal Sharks
Saturday, 4am (AEDT), Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria, South Africa
• Horseracing: Golden Slipper
Saturday, 4.30pm (AEDT), Rosehill Gardens, Sydney
• Soccer: A-League – Central Coast Mariners v Sydney FC
Saturday, 5.15pm (AEDT), Central Coast Stadium, Gosford, NSW
• Motorsport: Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix
Sunday, 4pm (AEDT), Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit, Melbourne
• NRL: St George Illawarra Dragons v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sunday, 4pm (AEDT), Sydney Cricket Ground
• AFL: Richmond v Carlton
Thursday, 7.20pm (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Down the barrel". Subscribe here.