Interview: Kyle Thiermann
Santa Cruz is an environmentalist town. Not just because of the hippies–because of everything. The trees. Giant primordial redwoods that used to come all the way down to the shore. And that coast. There is no Newport Beach two miles away. No Huntington Beach and its hot sand and silicone-enhanced breasts. There are no parking meters. And it’s a radical town.
From its history with Huey Newton and Angela Davis at the university, to the surf scene down on the cliffs, people have always carved their own path. In the early days, the Petersen brothers went to Hawaii and ruled. Richard Schmidt and Vince Collier controlled the ’80s with a mixture of grace and explosive anger. The ’90s were blazed with the meth-infused big wave aerial charging of Flea and the crew of vermin that really opened up Santa Cruz to the outside world.
Into this path comes 24-year-old Kyle Thiermann.
People often talk about how a certain surfer blends the different styles of others and makes them their own. Well, Kyle has taken all the elements of his hometown and made himself into one of the most unique pro surfers the world has ever known. Not only does he charge, pumping through giant Mexican barrels, he also busts airs through the slop like any other pro.
But he is not just like any other pro. He’s a critical thinker.
A lot of us have learned to ignore the problems we encounter in the hopes that we will never be affected. And pro surfers are no different. Most ignore the injustices and head straight for the surf.
One day, while on a trip to Chile, Kyle stopped ignoring. He opened his eyes and he took action. Since that trip, he has started many campaigns that have seen incredible amounts of success. From his website and videos on Youtube to his talks at Ted conferences, he has truly become the change he wants to see in the world.
Noah Dundas: Surfers often talk of mentors, people who have helped them along the way. Are there others outside of the surfing world that inspired you?
Kyle Thiermann: My friend Kyle Buthman is a killer filmmaker and has taught me a lot about moviemaking. Annie Leonard (Story of Stuff) inspires me with her web movies. My parents are documentary filmmakers and they push me for sure. Joe Rogan and Shane Smith (Vice) are two of my non-surfing heroes.
You are making a career out of being active and showing others how to be active. What inspired you to do this, to be the change you want to see in the world?
I’ve always dug traveling and surfing. That’s what set me on the course I’m on now. Ever since I was big enough to carry my own board bag, my parents would take me on trips to places like Mexico and Peru – a lot of poor surf destinations in Latin America. When I was on these trips, I remember my Mom and Dad would make a point to have me interact with locals there. They would tell me, “Kyle, these people are just like you, you were just born in Santa Cruz and they were born in Peru, so they weren’t given the same advantages as you.” That helped me develop the mindset that given my unique position as a pro surfer, if I could help, then I should.
One of the problems with activists in the past has been their inability to go from criticism to pro-active action. One of the great things about your work is you give people concrete steps they can take. How were you able to see solutions when others have only seen problems?
It pisses me off when people stop at the problem. I think, in some ways, it does more harm than good because it makes people feel hopeless. I recognize that we’re up against some serious problems, but I’m also excited about the fact that people are figuring out innovative ways to fix these problems. I’d like to cover the solutions because they’re more fun.
Most professionals only worry about how to get a cover shot. What made you want to do more than that? Wouldn’t it be easier just to kick it on the beach and worry about work out routines?
To be perfectly honest, I get stir-crazy if I don’t exercise my mind. I love to surf when the waves are good, but if the waves are crappy and everyone’s just sitting around doing nothing, I have a hard time with that. I really can’t imagine living a life where I didn’t push my mind.
You have a series on Youtube called Surfing for Change. How did this get started and do you find this as an effective way to get messages to a large audience?
Yup, Youtube the site gets a billion unique views per month so I’d say it’s a pretty effective platform to get a message across. You can watch my Tedx talk to see how I started the project.
Let’s talk about surfing. Do you think anything is ever going to replace the thruster as the predominantly ridden setup?
I’m really excited about quads right now! I’ve been going down to Puerto Escondido a lot recently, and I just changed my quiver to quads. I feel like they give me about 20% more squirt off the bottom into barrels than thrusters. But my Santa Cruz quiver is still pretty much all thrusters. I’m actually trying to ride bigger boards right now to help smooth out my style.
How does an activist and professional surfer like yourself get your message across to the big businesses behind the surf industry?
I made a conscious effort to associate with specific companies in the surf industry and steer clear of others. I am stoked to surf for Patagonia, Clif Bar, Pac Wave, and Sector 9 because they all do business in a way that reflects my values. If I put a sticker on my board, I want to feel good about the brand I’m representing. These companies are not scared to make bold statements, which I need because Surfing For Change is a bold series and I need my sponsors to stand by me when I release these videos.
One of the first projects you worked on was changing your bank to a local one which became very successful. What about your method is so effective at getting people involved and not just bitching on Facebook?
I guess I try to give simple solutions that people can act on.
What are some of the issues you see as most pressing and what other new projects do you have coming up?
Stand Up Paddle Boards! (laughs) I don’t know how we’re going to solve that one. Seriously though, I’d say plastic pollution is at the forefront of issues we face today. Change starts when the citizens demand it. It can be as simple as refusing plastic bags and telling the storeowner at your favorite taco shop you think it’s lame that they use plastic bags. That might sound small but hey, in the ’50s, a bunch of black people got together and refused to ride segregated buses. That small decision ignited a movement that changed the world forever. As far as projects go, I have a few pretty big documentaries coming up, but I can’t talk about them too much yet. Stay tuned though. You’ll be able to see it first if you sign up for our email list.
Is there anything people have told you that has been instrumental in your success that you would like to pass on to others?
Just stick with it. Whatever it is that you’re passionate about, just keep going and one day you’ll wake up and realize, “Wow, I’m living my passion.”