Note: This article, written by surfing correspondent Craig Jarvis, originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of Men’s Health South Africa.
We liked it so much, we’re reproducing it here as part of a series of long-form articles taken from our magazine archive.
We’re calling them #MHReads. We hope you like them. Again.

By Craig Jarvis
Photographs courtesy of Red Bull

The Indonesian sun is beating down. The waves around the Mentawai Islands are pumping. The surfer paddles hard, coral staring up at him through the gin-clear water. He catches the wave and drops down, adjusting his stance before heading straight up the face. Then he makes his move: projecting up over the top of the wave, continuing high into the air and grabbing his board. He rotates, and gravity completes the flip. The surfer is Jordy Smith. The date is June 2009. The move is the Rodeo Clown.

With that flip, Smith changed the face of surfing forever. Question is, what’s next?

Fast-forward to Australia, February 2010. Smith stands atop a giant wooden ramp, this time with a skateboard at his feet. He’s experimenting; exploring what lies beyond the Rodeo Clown; trying to find something bigger, better, more radical. He drops in on the wooden ramp, streaking towards the opposite side. He hits it, projects it, goes into a fully standing forward roll… and doesn’t make it. He lands in the pile of foam cubes on the far side.

He shakes his head, gets to his feet and heads up the ramp to try again. And again.

Surfing – like skateboarding and snowboarding – measures progress not by speed or distance, but by the invention and successful implementation of new moves. Some of these have been serendipitous, but some have been planned: like the Sushi Roll, successfully pulled off by Julian Wilson in Japan; the Passion Pop, invented by Australian Wade Goodall, who’d just finished eating a lolly; the Kerrupt Flip, invented by Josh Kerr; and the new Hail Mary move, pulled off once so far by American Tim Curran.

Jordy Smith added the audacious Rodeo Clown to that list, and while he may not have been the first surfer to execute the move, he certainly picked the biggest stage. Smith’s Rodeo Clown came on the largest and most hollow wave, above barely concealed coral, and was performed with such incredible grace, skill and height that it was quickly dubbed “The Greatest Surfing Move Ever”. The video clip was downloaded over three million times, and Surfer magazine named it Best Web Clip of the Year in 2009.

 

What these ground-breaking moves have in common is that they were all performed in the air. Air moves, or “aerials” – when a surfer hits the top of the wave at speed and continues into the air before gravity takes over and they head back down to the wave, reconnect and continue riding – are the greatest area for growth in surfing. The sky, literally, is the limit.

But air moves are also notoriously difficult. Most surfers can’t get above the lip of the wave – and when they do, they tend to come a cropper on the way down and get a board smacking them in the face. Muscle memory doesn’t get a chance to kick in, as it might on a skateboard ramp or a ski slope.

Inspired by Smith’s aerial breakthrough, Red Bull assembled a wave-sized skateboard ramp, and enlisted an elite group of top surfers to test out some new aerial surfing moves. The team included world champion Mick Fanning, Aussie upstarts Julian Wilson and Sally Fitzgibbons, Tahitian strongman Michel Bourez, Latin American Hall of Famer Sofia Mulanovich and (of course) Smith himself. The operation was called Project Air.

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The thinking was that a ramp would allow surfers to experiment and innovate by thinking up aerial moves, testing them out with a couple of (forgive the pun) dry runs on the ramp and then practising those moves over and over again until they were confident to try them in the water. Nice idea… except for one major flaw: for the most part, surfers are poep-scared of skateboards and ramps.  Slam hard on a skate ramp and it is a whole lot more real than splashing into some water.

“I was a skateboarder just as much as a surfer up until the age of 16,” says Julian Wilson (the Sushi Roll guy). “But then I realised that I needed to settle down on the skating because I was hurting myself too much.”

To make things even more complicated, the start of pro surfing’s ASP World Tour was just a few weeks away – so safety was a huge concern, especially when the whole point of the project was to get the world’s top surfers to push themselves and take risks. To solve these problems, the skate ramp was designed to lead off into a foam-filled landing area, where the surfers could land without risk of injury. Take away the drama of possible injuries, and – so the theory went – the surfers would have the freedom to go big on the ramps. But the ramp was only part of it: the team would be pushed to their limits mentally, physically and creatively.

Fanning, who admits that he’s “less than expert” on a skateboard, could see the benefits of the project – and of the ramp. “Doing more airs in heats is something I’ve been working on for a while,” he says. “Successfully pulling off airs in competition is going to become more crucial when you come up against the next generation of young surfers. An aerial is a difficult move to execute, possibly the hardest. And the judges reward them accordingly, so it’s important to have them in your repertoire. The ramp has made me feel comfortable with them, which is just what I need at this stage.

“To be honest, it was a little harder than I thought. I don’t know if I’ll be the one to get a new move down. I loved the idea of using the ramp for new possibilities though, and it was a unique concept. It’s ideas like this that will take performance surfing to new places.” While Fanning wasn’t quite up to the task, Smith took to the ramp like a natural, swooping and flying all over the place, diving through the air and taking a few spills, with his long dark hair flapping out the sides of his Red Bull cap.

“The ramp definitely helped in a sense that it allowed freedom in exploring new moves,” Smith says. “When you’re out surfing you never get the same wave section twice, because no two waves are ever the same. The ramp helped me gain confidence in the air. I could rotate, flip and grab, and in the process I started envisioning new moves.”
“It was great watching Jordy,” explains Fanning. “I could see how he positioned his body in order to achieve greater rotation and height. It lead me to some crazy ideas as well.”

So we have the resources, and we have the personnel. What more do we need? As anybody who’s tried to come up with a new way of doing something can tell you, whether you’re on the wave or in the boardroom, you need more than a sharp mind and sharp tools to come up with a creative idea.

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“It’s kind of like an artist when he or she gets a fresh piece of canvas,” says Smith. “You have to have some sort of idea, some sort of visualisation. It’s the same on a wave. You need to be thinking along similar lines. Then there’s also the physical side. To succeed with new moves you have to be the one prepared to try it over and over – even if you’re falling, even expecting to be injured – and then be able to recover fast, to try again.”

Wilson, who at 21 is the youngest surfer present, agrees. “My imagination is never lacking, but I could definitely get off my arse and do some more physical training to keep up with my imagination.”

Of the group, Fanning is the fitness freak. He’s been training like a monster ever since 2007, when a bizarre surfing accident literally tore the muscle off his buttocks and he had to have his leg hooked back onto his bone. “Everyone on the ASP Tour is definitely into training these days, so I make sure I train harder so I don’t fall behind the pack,” he says. “In saying that, I’m also careful not to put all my time into fitness training. You need to be fit, prepared mentally and have the right equipment. Without all three I don’t think it’s possible to succeed or progress.”

With high performance psychologist Michael Gervais in attendance, Project Air could unleash the power of the surfers’ imaginations. Gervais put the team through several mental tests – and it wasn’t all fun and games, especially not with legendary Australian surfer Andy King at Gervais’s side. “Kingy” was a promising young surfer until he lost his hearing in a fight (he stepped in to stop a guy beating up his girl). Two cochlear implants later, Kingy came back, working tirelessly on physical fitness training. He now helps athletes with their fitness programmes, and his hearing problem means that he shouts a lot, making him a particularly effective fitness instructor. The Project Air surfers were put through dozens of push-ups, sit-ups, sprints, swims and crawls – all with Kingy screaming in the background – before Gervais stepped in and subjected them to a series of complex problem-solving tests and memory assessments.

“The plan is to help the team riders explore a second and possibly third gear they’ve always had, but haven’t really known about,” Gervais explains. “We examined their body language, tried to help them understand and recognise their own internal dialogue and how they speak to themselves in pressure moments.”

Gervais describes the surfers as “self-starters” in an individual sport where they are regularly required to make decisions with high danger involved. As a result, they were well prepared, knew how to dig deep and were committed to the process of growing and challenging themselves. “There is danger involved in surfing,” says Gervais. “There are choices to be made around commitment. I can say that these surfers have a similar capacity to face intense situations that I have found working with Ultimate Fighters.”

That, then, was the final piece in the project’s puzzle. Consider your own working environment: you can have the best people, the best equipment and the best training, but without those extra ingredients – the willingness to work hard and the freedom to take risks – your team will struggle to come up with creative concepts… and you’ll never see any real momentum or change in your organisation.

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Red Bull had hoped that between the ramp, the “Air Conditioning” and the mental coaching, something big would happen. But real progress doesn’t happen overnight. When it comes to creative thinking, sometimes – in the short term at least – the process can be more important than the result. During their two-week boot camp, the surfers pulled off some big airs and attempted some outrageous moves. Everybody could sense they were on the cusp of something new.

“We did some wild tweaks and inverts on the ramp and took them out into the surf,” says Smith. “But none of us came out with the new move. I think this camp will lead on to the next big thing. It’s a work in progress, and it’s a matter of time before one of us are busting the new move and taking the sport up a notch.”

But when it happens, when it’s revealed, what will that new move be called? Smith has some ideas. “The names normally come from what the move looks like,” he says. “In motocross they have a move called The Superman, and we just took the same name. Having said that, I have been working on a new move and I gave it a few shots on the ramp and in the surf, but it hasn’t been perfected yet. I am going to pull it off at home for the first time, give it good South African roots, and call it…”

Yes, you guessed it.

“… the Boerie Roll.”