Former Professional Surfer
Taj Burrow just surfed his last World Tour heat after narrowly losing to John John Florence at the Fiji Pro. It may not have been the storybook ending to his professional surfing career, but he, as usual, was grinning ear to ear. Photo: WSL / Kelly Cestari

Taj Burrow just surfed his last World Tour heat after narrowly losing to John John Florence at the Fiji Pro. It may not have been the storybook ending to his professional surfing career, but he, as usual, was grinning ear to ear. Photo: WSL / Kelly Cestari

The Inertia

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” – Pericles, first century Greek statesman.

There are a few WSL competitors who may be thinking about retirement this year. Maybe they’re not thinking about the legacy just yet, but as they step away from something that has essentially occupied the greater part of their lives, the inevitable questions will start to simmer, then boil.

“Who I am I outside of the tour? What legacy am I leaving behind?”

The change in shape on the World Championship Tour ratings is not just a seasonal quirk, it’s a real shift. We’ve all read about them—our heroes exiting stage left, and if not right now, they are starting to think about it. This time last year, CJ Hobgood threw in the towel. Today, Taj Burrow surfed his last WCT heat at the Fiji Pro. One has to wonder how much gas is left in the tank for guys like Parko, Mick, Kerr, and Kelly (the champ still has plenty of energy, it just depends where he chooses to expend it).


Kelly Slater Height

Will Kelly call it quits this year? Photo: WSL/Kristin Scholtz

Regardless of whether our heroes stay on tour another year or a few more seasons, the same questions will burn. What happens next? Many of the elite tier of pro surfers have some great financial nest eggs and continuity plans—some inside the industry and some outside. The fallbacks include investment properties, craft breweries, surf shops, and surf brands, to name a few. But financial astuteness is very different from identity. Having a healthy bank balance is one thing, but mental health is worth a truckload more.

For many elite athletes (not just in pro surfing), their identity is wrapped up in what they do, and not necessarily who they are. They become known for their achievements more so than for their character traits. And for many, it is very difficult to separate their identity from the champion athlete to the everyday civilian.

For some athletes, their world becomes a bubble, one that they actually start to believe defines who they are as people. The magazine covers, the movie parts, the titles, the endorsements, the autographs, and all the adulation in the world helps create the house of cards persona that we’ve seen come crashing down on too many occasions. Depression, self-doubt, and insecurity can all start to raise their devilish heads and wreak havoc with an athlete’s retirement plans if they are unable to detach themselves from an identity built on fame and achievements.

It’s a long way down from the podium to the pavement, and not everyone has the luxury of a ‘chute to slow the potential impact. Season-ending injuries like what happened to Bede Durbidge and Owen Wright can bring this reality to the forefront pretty quickly, even brutally. It certainly would make one sit up and take stock on what is important in life. You’d suddenly start thinking about things like identity and legacy.

Many of the surfers I’ve mentioned either have good business heads on their shoulders, have received some good advice, and have incredible character traits. Mick Fanning’s time away from the Tour surely gave him some time to reflect. And from the outside looking in, Mick has it together. (See 7 things your business can learn from Mick Fanning). But rather than (only) share what they’ve learned about transitioning from Tour life to the business world, we need to be building into the next generation with a focus on character, because ultimately, that is truly what will get them through when the shine of their trophies starts to wear off.

Dual affirmation is a great way to build or highlight character in athletes. All day, every day, they are hearing how well they surf, how they perform, how they’ve trained, and how they won or lost a heat. But what does it reveal about who they really are? Affirming the character of the athlete rather than the result of the action or activity is key.

The Tour is inevitably changing. In many ways, it’s a generational thing. And now a new wave of aspiring world champions is finding themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar territory as the shift becomes real. They’ve looked up to the journeymen since they were kids and now they are rubbing shoulders with them. This will start to feed the monster, and it will grow and grow and grow. But without some solid grounding in identity, one will never leave a true legacy, at least not the type that our man Pericles spoke of.

CJ Hobgood left a legacy, but not by titles, accolades, or movie parts. You just have to listen to how his peers described how he impacted their lives to understand that it came down to character, friendship, imparting wisdom, and showing brotherly love. The next generation, and indeed those pondering retirement, would do well to have CJ on speed dial. He seemed to know a thing or two about identity and leaving a true legacy, not a legacy engraved on the base of shining trophies. Rather, it’s one that is very much woven into the lives of others.


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