“When it’s all said and done, what’s more important? That you were a cutthroat, ruthless competitor that everyone hated or that you were nice and had fun?” – Dane Reynolds
I want Dane Reynolds to tell me that he cares. Not necessarily that he wants trophies, fame, or an eternal legacy as one of surfing’s greats; that seems overwrought and probably untrue. I just want him to communicate a sincere desire to be great at what he does. Just a simple admission of commitment to his craft. Because he is great at what he does. His approach to drawing lines on a wave is singular: simultaneously furious and indifferent. He has also cultivated a simple, equally recognizable aesthetic that is uniquely Dane. It adds a layer of meaning to his surfing, and I think he has worked hard to develop and refine this vision. Trailblazing a career that best suits his interests was probably a lot more challenging than he lets on. Consequently, I can only imagine what he might be capable of if he started communicating a desire to be great to someone other than himself.
I’m thinking these thoughts as I wait in the lobby of the Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach. It’s July, during the U.S Open of Surfing. Dane arrives at the hotel bar with damp hair, and we make small talk while waiting for the camera guy to arrive for our interview, which I’m happy Dane agreed to do. We’ve only spoken in brief, passing, semi-awkward, obligatory, industry-standard bursts over a period of about eight years; I don’t like that phase of relationship building. I don’t think anyone does, and the phase has lasted far too long so I’m excited to have a substantive conversation with the fellow. I suspect that he’s interesting. Given his recent status as a father, I was curious if he had uncovered any revelatory new-dad philosophies. He says life has changed drastically since the birth of his baby boy Sammy Boo Reynolds in May, but no philosophy shift just yet. I tell him it’s crazy that human beings are basically helpless for the first fifteen-plus years of their lives. He agrees. Gotta keep that thing alive every day. We both share analogies. I think of Tamagotchi keychains.
We begin to talk about social media and how we get to hear every single opinion from every single person who cares to volunteer it. And that does something. It encourages self-awareness, self-involvement, fanaticism. Maybe some anxiety and fear sprinkled in. Lots of things. It’s hard to say exactly what it does – especially to someone who shoulders the scrutiny of the masses as a profession. But it does something. Dane thinks it’s interesting how often he has the opportunity to hear a stranger’s opinion on what might be best for him and his career. Why do people insist that he compete? It’s a fair question.
So we talk about it. And now I become a stranger projecting an unsolicited opinion on him. I believe that for an individual to be great at something, he must work very hard at it. It doesn’t magically develop from apathy; talent alone is rarely sufficient to claw into the elite .001% of participants in a given activity. Despite a veneer of indifference and careless doodle-aesthetic, Dane rules that elite class. It’s no mistake. While Dane might not care much for trophies or the constraints of formal competition, I believe that somewhere in him a fire burns that pushes him to progress surfing, something he cares very much about, to levels unseen. Because he has. His sometimes-violent, unpredictable approach to riding a wave is captivating. I’ll never forget one turn he did at Haleiwa two years ago at the Reef Hawaiian Pro in 2012. It was just a turn. But it was impossibly reckless, angry, spontaneous, and controlled at once. Everyone who saw that turn remembers it. It was something of a revelation – strange only that it happened on a live webcast, wearing a jersey, scored by judges. In 2011, Dane abandoned the World Tour, opting instead to pursue free surfing. But no matter the context, I think Dane likes to be the best at what he does; it just so happens that he chose a path without a formal judging system. Instead, it has far harsher critics. Because they judge everything.
Everyone expects you to have that competitive drive like just because you’re a good surfer, that’s what you have to have,” says Dane. “The lack of that has been what’s so confusing throughout my whole career. Everybody says that you have to have that, but I don’t feel that. I’ve always just been really hard on myself.
He concedes that he used to wake up before school as a kid to surf every single day. He had to. Cold wetsuit. Wet wetsuit. Whatever. Something pulled him out of bed and into the ocean every single morning. He had to land a chop hop. His buddies could do chop hops. He needed to master the chop hop.
I suspect the magnetism that pulled him into the water each morning also has something to do with his status as the most exciting free surfer on this planet. By his own admission, he’s his harshest critic. And while the trophies might fall by the wayside, and conventional accolades don’t seem to motivate him, he has won the adoration of droves of surf fans drawn to the notion that a great surfer can create a life for himself on his own terms. And that’s a bold thing to do. But in a culture that discourages the braggadocio of claims, I can understand how Dane might be less than forthright in revealing that the path he has taken to succeed requires a lot of hard work, ambition, and talent. It’s much simpler to shrug it off. No claim. Consequently, he need not fear a legacy of cutthroat, ruthless competition. It’s not him. He’s pioneered a new way – one spawned by the rare kind of productive, self-criticism that yields a single, violent turn that no one who saw it could possibly forget. Ever.
Or, in more modest terms: He’s nice. He has fun.