“You drop a stone, it creates a ripple that turns into a wave someone will ride.” Little thoughts and nuggets of wisdom like this seem to come from Shaun Tomson regularly, who has long since transcended his role as World Champion surfer by finding ways to share surfing as a metaphor for life. He’s been doing this for years now. He’s served as a keynote speaker for some of the largest corporations on the planet like Disney, Cisco, Google, and the people behind their success. He’s written books. And he’s done it all with his own life story as a backdrop. But he says his most recent project, something he calls the Positive Wave Tour, turned into the most rewarding trip of his life.
A decade ago, Tomson lost his 15-year-old son Matthew in an accident. It’s a heartbreaking story he eventually decided to use as inspiration to help others, both for his own healing and as a way to memorialize Matthew. He says giving back is his responsibility. And so like I said, that’s what he does. “I surfed on the pro tour for 16 years. And I loved it,” he says. “I loved every minute of it. And I gave it everything that I had. I always felt that surfing had given me so much that I had a responsibility to give back. Not because there was ego involved in that. I just felt that surfing gave to me so I wanted to give back and it’s also a way to memorialize my beautiful son. I get to turn a terrible loss into something good and hopeful.”
He’d recently written his second book, The Code – The Power of I Will, outlining a number of lessons he’s learned in life, often coming to him in an “a-ha moment” out in the ocean. He writes about the first time somebody offered him heroin on the North Shore of Oahu, what he learned from the biggest wipeout of his life, the loss of his son, and a handful of other seminal moments. As a way of bringing all those lessons full circle, he returned home to South Africa to retell those stories earlier this year. He visited 24 different schools, ranging from the poorest to the most affluent. One school in particular, Ohlange, was South Africa’s first ever founded by a black man and the place Nelson Mandela chose to cast his vote in the country’s first racially inclusive election in 1994. By the end of it all, he’d given tens of thousands of South African children one positive message: they have the power to create their own future – an idea that wouldn’t have been shared in South Africa as recently as 30 years ago. But even though the students he spoke to were born after apartheid, many are still affected today by the poverty it created. His life lessons and inspiration are just as important now as they would have been in the four decades institutionalized segregation dictated every opportunity a South African had, based on nothing more than their race. None of this is lost on Tomson. At each school, he’d ask students to write 12 lines, each beginning with “I will…” just like he’d done in his book. The idea was to open the door for them to make a positive declaration about their own future. He admits he tears up watching some of those students read the promises he’d inspired them to make to themselves.
I will be myself. I will dream. I will face my fears. I will never give up. I will create. I will heal. I will pray. I will give. I will make a difference. I will imagine. I will have faith. I will share stories. Those were the twelve promises Tomson had made to himself, mostly with pretty obvious parallels to a life devoted to riding waves. “Many of those students had never seen the ocean, but surfing speaks to them on a very visceral level,” he says. “It engages people, even if they’ve never seen the ocean, on a very emotional level. There’s just something about what surfers do that’s very pure. And kids get it because kids can see right through a story that’s not authentic.”
So the students came back with pretty amazing declarations of their own. I will dream big, and I will be who I want to be. I will face my fears, and I will take charge of my life – declarations that drive home Tomson’s biggest takeaway from it all.
“You turn on the TV today and there’s a lack of hope,” he says. “But you speak to those students and you see hope. Optimism. You see their incredible power, and it just makes you feel great about the future destiny of the world. If you want to get inspired, listen to kids.”
Drop a stone. Make a ripple. Watch it turn into a wave.
Editor’s Note: This INSPIRED feature was done with the help of our good friends at Cobian and of course, the very awesome and very inspiring Shaun Tomson. This series looks at compelling moments, people, and places that inspire athletes to do what they do, that in turn inspire us.