“There’s a lot of losses that have gone into this,” Jacob Willcox said. “This is the first year it’s felt easy. The rest have felt like an uphill battle.”
The West Australian was talking to The Inertia in Portugal after officially making the Championship Tour. It’s been a decade-long slog since he burst into the scene way back in 2013. Having recently turned 16, he made the main event at Supertubos by winning the Trials. He took a few scalps, before being defeated by Mick Fanning, and Australia thought they had a new, once-in-a-generation surfer. His surfing was groomed in the power of Margaret River waves, his personality humbled by a working-class background. He was smart and grounded. He could also pack any barrel that came his way. His CT status seemed pre-ordained.
Since then, he has surfed an incredible 13 CT events, almost exclusively as a wildcard at Rip Curl’s events, his longtime sponsor. The best result was a quarterfinal finish in 2019 at Bells. He finished just outside the bubble on the old QS in 2019 and 2020 and came agonizingly close in 2022. At Haleiwa, he was a few seconds away from qualifying, until Kelly Slater stood up on the buzzer, did one turn and was over-juiced for the score. That left him needing a fourth to qualify at the next event at Sunset. He finished 5th.
In 2023 though, he has finally summited the hill and has been coasting down the other side, qualifying with an event to spare. The question is; what’s changed?
“It might be a combination of being more experienced and mature which means I know what to do under stressful situations,” said Willcox. “I’ve learned more about myself and how to get the best version of myself when I am competing.”
Willcox also points to a move from Margaret River to the Gold Coast two years ago as being pivotal. Despite being in what he called an easy groove of friends, family and great waves, a move to the East Coast meant his training and the way he could structure his weeks was much more professional. He was also closer to his shaper Darren Handley, and a closer relationship meant better boards. Finally, he was training, surfing and traveling with fellow Challenger Series surfers including Morgan Cibilic, Conor O’Leary, Mikey McDonaugh and Jackson Baker.
“All most people have seen Chippo surf is in crappy beachbreaks on the Changa (Chippo being Jacob’s nickname since he was a toddler and “changa” The Aussie abbreviation for the Challenger Series),” said Jackson Baker. “I mean he’s incredible in those waves but wait to see him in 10-foot slabs. He’s a dead-set fucking lunatic.”
Throughout all those close shaves competing, Willcox would periodically drop freesurfing clips from his swell hunting in West Oz. The latest, and best, was “By Default,” shot during Covid. It showcased his backhand tuberiding at home near Margarets, and incredible performances at maxing, gnarly blue-green Gnaraloo. It was one of the best freesurfing vids of the year.
“I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time in the northwest desert and I definitely feel comfortable in big left barrels, and we just don’t get the opportunity to showcase that side of our surfing on the Challenger Series,” said Willcox. “Look, surfing Cloudbreak and Teahupo’o would suit my surfing, and getting barreled is when I feel comfortable, but I gotta get there first.”
To get to those left slabs, he will of course need to make the cut. The schedule of Pipe, Sunset, Supertubes, Bells and Margaret River however does look like a good fit for the rookie.
“I’d like to think I have a relationship with all those waves,” he said. “It was in Peniche where I started my pro career, and I’ve done a bit of backside surfing at Margaret River. I’ll make a plan and not get ahead of myself. This year was the best competitive year of my life. I’m aware next year might be the worst.”
It’s a typically level-headed approach from a guy who prefers to let his surfing do most of the talking. On tour he doesn’t travel with a coach, believing that by his age, he really should be able to make, and back, his own decisions. Walking quietly and carrying a big stick hasn’t always worked competitively, but something has clicked now.
“As pro surfers, we like to make it complicated, but the simple plans are the easiest to execute,’’ he says. “I’ll be prepped, focused and excited for the CT. I’ve waited a long time for this. If I ain’t ready now, I never will be.”