Why Julian Wilson might be the Greatest Athlete in the World

August 23, 2010
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1. Have you ever been surfing? It’s a very, very difficult thing to learn to do; it’s a very, very difficult thing to do moderately well; it’s a very, very difficult thing to get better at doing. I started surfing when I was 14 years old. In regards to the regularity, I have surfed several times a day (during the summer, when I was in my mid-teens, and when I went to Costa Rica for two and a half weeks a couple of years ago); once or twice a week (three years ago, when I was last living in New Zealand); once every couple of months (now that I live in swampy, flat, hot Florida). That said, I am a resolutely average surfer. I can surf with confidence, sure, and on some days I can surf moderately well. But it’s hard, really hard, at least for me.

2. I remember when I started surfing. The physics blew my mind, warped my consciousness, and made me, like some sort of Jeff Spicoli wannabe, draw waves in the back on my math textbook. Here’s surfing: a surfer paddles a large piece of polyurethane foam covered in fibreglass cloth and resin out into a turbulent body of water. All going well, swells from the greater ocean will pulse through this body of water (perhaps a beach or a bay or a man-made harbor) and meet the shallows (most often a sandbank or a reef), breaking in a way that allows the surfer–who is paddling to gain the position and enough speed to catch this newly formed wave– to garner the velocity needed to not only be propelled by said breaking wave, but shift from a prone position to standing upright on this fiberglass coated foam (or board).

3. Doing the fore-mentioned will, hopefully, allow the surfer the opportunity to glide across the unbroken face of the wave, controlling the movement of the board with both subtle and not so subtle shifts in weight–distributed from the back foot to the front foot–while the face of the wave changes due to the contours of what the wave is breaking over (sand/rocks/coral), or because of the (often strong) wind, or perhaps another surfer paddling out trying to reach a wave coming in from further out, or just because sometimes the wave crumbles because it’s the natural world and not everything is explicable.

Sea Urchin4. Here’s surfing: it’s about waiting–for waves, for the tide to turn, for the swell to come, for the tide to come in, for the tide to go out, for the wind to switch offshore, for a car to take you to the beach, for a plane to take you to the best waves (non-surfers: the best waves are in Indonesia). Here’s surfing: it’s discomfort, being held down on a big set of waves, losing your breath, silly thoughts of losing your life; it’s cutting your foot on the side fin of your board; it’s losing your footing while walking across a reef, your foot sliding down into a hole in the reef, standing on a sea urchin and (this happened to me) having poisonous spikes from the bastard blow your foot up like a fiendish, fleshy balloon;it’s westerly winds chilling you to the bone as the dawn light ebbs weakly over the horizon; it’s your arms being so tired from paddling that the thought of lifting anything–a damp wetsuit, a sandwich–just seems like too much work, which, after going surfing, it all is, all of it (I call this the early evening, strong gin and tonic effect).

5. Here’s surfing: it’s fear (sometimes, at least for me); of sharks; of big waves; of hurting myself with my board (though I did put put my elbow through the rail/side of a board and smash the tail of the board on a single, very good, and very fast wave in Costa Rica. . . And I didn’t hurt myself at all).

6. Here’s surfing: feeling small in the natural world, which is always healthy for the individualistic humanoid; feeling awe, which is tied into feeling small but with the kind of reverence that the atheist can’t find in churches and shouldn’t find in vague notions of “Eastern mysticism”; or it’s a reaffirmation for the believer, in the majesty of an omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent Creator, in the design of this world; it pulls one away from the idea of competition, a hard thing to do when one has been raised in a particular way in a particular place, and makes you truly appreciate a truly alternative sport.

7. On good writing, tennis, and surfing: I recently re-read the late David Foster Wallace’s essay on Roger Federer. Evidenced by his gigantic novel, Infinite Jest, Mr. Wallace understood the value of detailed description. In addressing the beauty of Federer’s game, however, I feel he may have underplayed one thing: just how difficult it is to play against a very good tennis player. DFW probably grasped this all too well, because he himself was a very good tennis player, and therefore had played other great players, tennis players who could whip their rackets into serves with the aggression and accuracy of a medieval torturer. And he certainly conveys Federer’s breathtaking artistry, style, panache. But does he explain how hard it is for us mere mortals to serve a tennis ball with speed, and how the connection between the average weekend tennis warrior and Roger Federer is, well, very little. They are both human, I guess.

8 (a). This brings me to Julian Wilson, a 22 year-old Australian who surfs in the Quicksilver and Red Bull teams. After explaining just how difficult it is to fathom conceptually the idea of riding a wave (let alone catch a breaking wave in the material world), then get the right balance and actually stand up on that blasted piece of foam and ride across the face of the wave, I will try and give an idea of what Julian Wilson can do. Of course, the best thing you could do know is watch Julian Wilson on YouTube. There you will see that he treats a wave in the way that a snowboarder treats a half-pipe or a skateboarder treats a ramp: at times, even though I know this is not true (can’t be true), he makes you think that his imagination is the only limit.

8 (b). Dropping in, Wilson will speed down and then drive off the bottom of the wave, somehow generating speed at a time where you might think he might slow down, pushing the board as if it’s a skateboard on concrete. Except for it’s not: it’s water, and it’s moving, unpredictable, and Wilson is playing with it, trying acute angles, driving his bottom turn tight, and in a second he flies up the face of the wave, flicking his board across the feathering lip of the breaking wave, sending a shock of spray skywards, sliding the board, fins out, and dropping back into the wave, only to be faced with a wall of foam because the wave is starting to break towards him, so Wilson pumps the board to gain speed, hits the whitewash, and takes to the air, easily, as if the board is attached to his feet, sometimes he will spin in the air, taking the board with him, or he’ll grab the board, push it out from him in a superman stretch (this is a move he invented at crumbly beach in Japan). . . I watch this and I think of all the sports I love dearly–and the ones I don’t, like baseball–and I ask myself this: is there anything more difficult than this? Is there anything more impossible? Is there anything more impressive?

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2 Responses to “ Why Julian Wilson might be the Greatest Athlete in the World ”

  1. melissa on August 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I can’t even imagine getting up on a board. I tried snowboarding once and my butt hurt for a week.

    Julian Wilson gets my vote.

  2. Dan on August 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    I’ve heard similarly awed accounts of things like hitting a baseball and making a perfect chip. I think we’re often overcome by the disparity in skill that many top-level athletes display in their various sports. Maybe Julian can be American Express’ next spokesperson. Laird sucks.

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