The Surfersvillage Interview
Surfing’s first million dollar man still feels fortunate to call this a job
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 2 August, 2015 - People who don’t know Tom Carroll approach him. He’s used to it. Sometimes it’s surf fans. Sometimes it’s people in recovery. The surf camp talks of moments like ‘the Snap’ at Pipeline in 1991 and those ’83 and ’84 world titles. The other camp often shares deeply personal insights and thoughts endemic to those immersed in the recovery process.
I asked Tom if this was akward and uncomfortable, you know, having strangers come up to him and share personal stuff. He said that instead of it being weird, that it’s often enlightening. “I’ve had people share some really beautiful messages with me” he told me matter-of-factly. This statement makes me uncomfortable.
I’ve always viewed Tom as ‘The Little Aussie Battler” - a term used by a U.S. surf mag in the ‘80s describing a competitve warrior possessed like few others in the circus of pro surfing.
One of my favorite stories about Tom isn’t one of his big-wave exploits or near-death experiences searching out giant unridden waves with tow partner Ross Clarke-Jones, but about the Allentown Pennsylvania wave pool contest. It was a low-point for surfing with a crappy, gutless chlorine venue used to bring pro surfing to the masses.
Most pros just wanted to be done with that contest as soon as possible and move on. The story goes that Tom would wait out in the pool’s deep end each morning, just sitting there in the water waiting for the operator to turn on the machine so he could get going. I believe his quote was "Somebody's got to win this bastard of a contest."
These stories didn’t jib with the Tom Carroll I met. I was expecting calls to battle against X,Y or Z and instead I spoke with a man who was open, gentle and thoughtful, a man who took the time to think over exactly he wanted to say.
Tom at Waimea this year © Quiksilver/Bosko
You had a successful career when surfing was just becoming a valid career path and signed the first million dollar surf contract, did you ever think you’d do anything other than be a pro surfer?
We really were trying to make something of nothing. The guys before us, MP, Shaun Tomson, Ian Carins, MR laid it down and were getting the idea that there might be a profession in this sport for us. The competitive tour was just forming and the idea of being a world champion was inciting.
What happened for me, well at school it was just frowned upon to be a surfer and that was instrumental in my urge to change that perception. Whereas now kids want to be counter culture, at the time we were counter culture. At times it was nice but it was really tricky to make it work. And I wanted to make it a professional, athletic pursuit. I just made the most of it and because I loved surfing so much it worked. There were some very abrasive moments for me personally where it was very conflicting. And you know, you don’t want to look at certain things that are a challenge. You just want to surf.
What were some of those abrasive moments?
I’d rather not go surfing in small waves, but a lot of competitions are held in small waves so I had to do it. I surfed small waves. I don’t think I’d be as good a surfer had I not committed to that. It actually helped my big wave surfing, and also my longevity in surfing is due to that.
Tom Carroll on his way up the California coast this year
You’ve been through a lot in the last few years with the public airing of your drug addiction. What’s it like having such a personal episode of your life aired in public? Do you have strangers saying things to you on the street?
There’s still a lot that I don’t really share with the world. What I did, well for me to get clean from that space with drugs, I needed to hear someone else’s story. And I know there are a lot of addicts out there who haven’t heard someone’s story. But I knew for me that if I took a deep breath and communicated it, that the story might save someone’s life. It’s pretty cool that that is how it works. I didn’t know that I needed to hear a story to emerge from it, but I did need to hear it, and I did.
That same drive I had for surfing was directed onto this bad road. I couldn’t get clean without hearing that story, that message, so putting my own story out there was easy. So if I had something to put out there to the world that would be it. I do get people coming up to me. People I don’t know. I’ve had people share some really beautiful messages with me. I needed a lot of time and a lot of healing. But you need good people around you. I’m eight years clean.
What is it that you do professionally that you are most proud of?
I think I communicate quite well when I’m with people one-on-one and also with a crowd and today I feel very proud of that. Giving advice on how to take care of yourself and to give people information to help make healthier choices, I feel good about that stuff.
Movember ready for the Eddie Aikau
How would you describe what you do for work to a very small, inattentive child?
My daughter has asked me that: ‘what you do dad’? I tell her I’m lucky. I’m in the top .0001% of people who can do what they love. I don’t know how long it will last. I could lose it tomorrow. From a very young age I’ve been paid to be an ambassador and in that it’s a great gift but also a great responsibility. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to me a lot. I’m one of those guys who like simple things like woodworking, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense what I do for work.
'The Snap' at Pipeline © Joli Photos
OK, you get to drop into five heavy moments from your history. Please name them and why.
Losing my mother when I was 7
Losing my sister when I was 28
Watching the moon landing on a scratchy old TV in the classroom when I was a child
When I made the decision not to go to South Africa to compete and then meeting Nelson Mandela in 1995. The way that influenced my story is more in line with anything else I did. The ex Prime Minister told Mandela the story then Mandela said to me ‘Thanks.’ But I did it for a human point of view not for Mandela. And then when I met him it all really sunk in.
My third daughter being born. She came along and forced some issues and some deeper movement in my life. Her coming into my life woke up some things in me that needed changing. She was like a baseball bat to the head. Looking back I was directed toward something bigger. If it was my choice I would have run for the hills. It became obvious that it was impractical to surf all the time. But it’s hard. Surfers just want to go surfing all the time.