Professional Surfer

Editor’s Note: We asked The Inertia’s most talented contributors to share moments that caused significant personal growth and transformation in their lives – ideally with some relation to surfing, but also to life in general. Rob Machado shared the following story about his abrupt transition from the World Tour with us in a conversation one March afternoon. 

Rob Machado. Photo: Ghiglia

“It wasn’t necessarily that everything was stripped from me,” said Rob Machado. “Not being on Tour anymore. It’s more that a room full of people blatantly voted me off Tour. That’s what I felt like.” Photo: Anthony Ghiglia

I don’t think a lot of people know how that whole system used to work. It’s pretty interesting. And it was pretty defining for me. You’ve gotta remember that when I started competing on the World Tour, that’s all there was. There wasn’t a freesurfer. You’re basically groomed through the NSSA and then you come out of that and go on Tour. And if you didn’t make it, you’re pretty much toast.

So after doing that for ten years, to all of a sudden have it stripped from me – and it wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t get the wildcard – it was more how I didn’t get the wildcard, which I thought was kind of interesting.

I don’t know how they do it now, but back then, they had two wildcard spots to give away every year, and they weren’t even deemed injury wildcards necessarily.

That was the year that Kelly decided to make his comeback to the Tour, so they gave Kelly one of the wildcards right off the top. So then there was only one, and it was after a shortened year. It was the year that CJ won the world title. 9/11 happened. There were a lot of circumstances that went down that made the year pretty awkward. Especially for me.

But the way they vote works is that they basically have a surfer’s meeting, and I’d say maybe three quarters of them show up. Maybe. Everyone went to the Haleiwa Rec Center and basically you had to go in there and plead your case. You’d walk in on crutches, in wheelchairs, explain that your back’s messed up. Blah blah blah. Then all the surfers vote on it. They listen to everyone’s case, and then the surfers decide. There weren’t any doctors involved, or medical folks. No need for proof of your injury or anything. Not at that time. I think it’s evolved now, but at that time it was just a room full of dudes going, “Alright, cool.”

I actually couldn’t attend the meeting because my wife had just given birth to my daughter. My daughter was born November 14th, and that meeting went down right around Haleiwa or Sunset, and my daughter was about two weeks old. I wasn’t really in the state of mind to leave, so I wrote a letter. I wrote my whole plea out in a letter saying, “Okay, this is what happened to me.” I broke my hand. We had complications with the pregnancy, because we had to do all these tests, and it was a pretty heavy moment. I think I ended up surfing two contests out of five that they had that year. I just wrote everything out, and supposedly somebody got up and read it, and that was kind of it.

“Alright. That’s Rob. Put him on the board.”

You can just imagine some old shitty chalkboard. And it’s like, “Alright, Rob pleaded his case. Broken hand. Pregnancy. Blah blah blah.”  (Laughs)

And then all these guys vote on it. Well, I find it interesting that it’s all the guys you compete against that vote on whether or not you get to stay on Tour. So then it becomes kind of a popularity contest, you know? If guys want you to be there and they’re stoked and they like you, then rad, but if you’re the guy that maybe doesn’t get along with all the guys there… from what I heard, guys started asking questions like, “Well how come he didn’t go on the QS?” And if you’re not there to answer for yourself, then it almost becomes like a lynch mob, you know? Everyone kind of gangs up on you. “How come you didn’t do that? What’s up with that?” Then guys start making stuff up, like, “He doesn’t care…”

And it’s like, “No. You’ve got it all wrong.”

I interject. “Well, do you think there might be an element of self interest there? If you’re beating your competition, they might not want you back on Tour.

Exactly. That’s what I mean. I totally agree. I think that’s totally the case. It’s like, dude, “That guy beat me a bunch of times last year.” I can totally see that.

So I wasn’t there. I didn’t get the wildcard, and that was kind of that. It was pretty weird.

If I'm not shooting surf, I'm shooting rock stars and actors, and I truly believe that there is something interesting in everything… you just have to be open to it. Lessons from the road: Photography is expensive
 and surf photographers are broke-ass motherf*ckers.

Luckily, Rob was able to find a handful of things to do after the World Tour. Photo: Jason Reposar

It was all of a sudden. It wasn’t necessarily that everything was stripped from me. Not being on Tour anymore.

It’s more that a room full of people blatantly voted me off Tour. That’s what I felt like. Here’s all these guys you think are going to make an educated decision in the best interest [of surfing] and be fair, and realistically, in the end, you don’t feel like the outcome was fair. And that’s it. It’s over. There’s no, “Wait, can we do that again?” (Laughs) You know?

A room full of surfers determined my fate on whether or not I was going to be on Tour or not, which was pretty strange. It’d be interesting to see how they do it now. I think they’re a little more professional.

Well, things are totally different this year. So how did that moment change you? Clearly, you were resilient and resourceful after that blow, and you could make the case that it might have been the best thing to happen to you. That it allowed you to create a profession as a free surfer, which didn’t exactly exist before and you made a viable option.

At the time, it was a pretty harsh blow, because like I said, I was brought up in the surf world and that’s what you did: you go on Tour. When you finished the Tour, you disappeared. You’re done. You maybe got a job in the industry, but for the most part, if you weren’t on Tour, you were gone. So that was the mindset at the time. It was like, “Gosh, you fell off Tour. End of the world.”

So at that time it was a pretty harsh blow, like, “Holy crap, what am I going to do?” What’s interesting, too, is there was a kind of a chain of events, that happened. Gotcha basically filed bankruptcy and ceased to exist anymore around the same time. So I went from being on Tour and having a major sponsor, to not having a sponsor and not being on Tour. I had a brand new family, and I was kinda scratching my head, like, “Okay. What am I going to do now?”

I remember I was with my dad. He was in Hawaii with me, and he said something to me that resonated, and it still does. He said, “You know what? Right now, you think this is the worst thing that has ever happened to you.”

And I was like, “Yep.”

He was like, “You’re going to look back at this moment some day and you’re going to see something positive in it. Something good is going to happen out of this.”

I was like, “There’s no fucking way. You’re tripping.” At that moment, I just didn’t see it. But I was listening to him, and I was like, “Shit, I hope so. That’s all I can do, right?”

There was definitely a shift in surfing at that time. I remember when I first stopped doing the Tour, I didn’t ride a normal thruster for almost two years. I would rarely ride one. It was really fun. There was a lot going on. That was the beginning of the retro movement, if you want to call it that. I started hanging out with Thomas Campbell and doing some trips with him. Then Hurley came along and basically said, “Hey, we just want you to go surfing. Just go. Get out there and surf and be you and that’s all we want.” And I was like, “Woah. This is weird. You’ve gotta remember that I came from riding for Gotcha, and you walk in the office at Gotcha and all they had is the ratings. They had the ASP Ratings posted up on the wall, and that’s all that matters. So to hear that from a sponsor you’re like, “Really? Are you kidding?” So it was kind of crazy shift.

It took me a little bit. It wasn’t an easy transition. When you’re on Tour, it’s pretty simple. You get a schedule at the beginning of the year. Here’s the contest that you’re going to be at. It’s ready to go. When you’re a free surfer doing your own thing, you’ve gotta make things happen yourself. You’ve gotta get creative. You’ve gotta plan trips. You’ve gotta figure out what you’re going to do, when, and how. That’s the side of it that I had to learn. I got to places I wanted to go with people I wanted to go with and work on projects that I wanted to be a part of. And that to me has way more meaning, and way more impact, and it’s pretty exciting in the end.

In the end, my dad was totally right. He said everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. And he was right. I went on to basically dictate what I want to do and be able to do what I want to do when and create my own life as a pro surfer.

You might say that you paved the way for others to have that as an option. It’s a select few, and it’s not an easy place to get to. But it exists.

It’s a viable option now.

And I think at the time what was happening is that people started realizing, “Hey, surfing’s not just a sport.” It’s not all about the ASP, and it’s not all about contests. Basically, the real reason why everybody started surfing is because it’s fun. You go out and enjoy yourself. It’s peaceful and relaxing and refreshing. It’s all these things. Professional surfing doesn’t really provide that. It doesn’t give you those same feelings.

Whereas, I think Thomas Campbell’s movies are genius in that sense. I think the Malloy movies. The Woodshed movies were genius. It was more about, “Hey, here’s a group of guys who go out and ride anything and everything, have fun, travel, and enjoy what it’s like to be a surfer,” you know? And give you visuals of what stokes you out in the first place. Why you really started surfing. I can’t imagine too many people watch the contests and think, “Wow, that’s what I wanna do.” Unless it’s the best day ever at a place and there’s only two guys out, and you want to surf that wave with only two guys out. When you see a session go down at an empty beach with four or five guys out and they’re all on different gear and they’re having fun and they’re just getting some great rides – that’s the kind of shit that you look at and you’re like, “Right on. That’s why I surf. That stokes me out. Those guys are having a blast.”

I’m in no way bagging on the contest thing. It has its place. It provides something that’s exciting. That part of surfing will probably never go away. It will always be there, and that’s cool. But I think deep, deep down inside ingrained in everyone, the real reason we started surfing is the fun, the stoke of walking down the beach with your three bros and you come down the stairs and there’s a killer little peak down the beach and there’s no one out and you’re coming down the beach like, “Dude we’re going to score!” You surf for two hours, getting little tubes and having the best session ever and come home all sunburned and don’t have a care in the world. That’s what it’s about. That stoke.


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