They All Retire In The End – Nick Carroll On Joel Parkinson

9 Jul 2018 12

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Parko leaving the water victorious at Bells 2009. Photo: WSL/Cestari

Parko leaving the water victorious at Bells 2009. Photo: WSL/Cestari

COASTALWATCH | Nick Carroll

Let’s just think about Parko for a moment.

So the men are done with J-Bay. Filipe Toledo is going to be world champion this year. The Facebook Transition sent the fanbase into hysterics, loud enough to almost trump Filipe’s win. I kinda feel like it means some things, but I’m not sure what.

But underneath the hysterics, something real happened. Joel and Kelly are retiring, and it can’t just pass, this moment.

Kelly, hell, let’s not worry about Kelly. There’s plenty of time for him. The whole of the 2019 CT is going to be one long Kelly Slater Testimonial Year. By the end of it, you’ll know things about KS even he didn’t know or doesn’t wanna remember.

Joel, though.

I read a cheesy piece elsewhere online, just after the PR about his stepping down, to the effect of “Parko retiring? Didn’t he retire years ago?” Oh ha ha ha.

Why would I feel a twinge of offence about such a piece? Like, I’m not Joel. I wonder if it’s as simple as having regard for the guy’s achievement.

In 2000 or whenever, when Parko, Mick Fanning and Dean Morrison began to be tied together in the surfing world’s collective mind as the Coolie Three, and the Australian surf community’s energies began to coalesce around them, you looked at ’em and wondered, who of these three will get a world title?

You knew Mick would win one because he so clearly wanted to. Mick was the kind of surfer and the kind of person who would have done whatever it took, and he did, three times. And you knew Dingo wouldn’t, because he wasn’t that kind of person, he was funny and sly and basically pretty happy with how things went for him, world title or not.

But Joel was different again. Joel had the bloodline. Nothing about his surfing was an accident. His dad Brian had been a keen surfer, his uncle Darryl was an exceptionally good surfer, and he was raised with all the semi-magical atmospheric power of post-1960s Australian surfing swirling around him. Spoken or unspoken. It was there in the warm water, the pointbreaks, the six-channels, the barrels and long, lean turns. It leaked into him, that bloodline. I’ve never seen him be anything but respectful toward his elders.

Parko physically outgrew his mates, though they caught him up later. At 17 he was pretty much his full height and already strong enough to swing a fair bit of that famous cutback arc. He had a sharp, sometimes cruel edge, like a lot of kids his age; some of those Coolie kids would bait seagulls with a string just to watch them fly in increasingly desperate circles, till something (usually pretty bad) happened. Yet he did a lot of smiling. He could win contests, but he wasn’t tense or weird about it. He told Australia’s Surfing Life, “I wanna be the funnest surfer ever!” And they put it on the cover along with a shot of him riding a fish.

Most of all was that striking style. If Joel can sometimes be a bit awkward on land, he is unparalleledly graceful on waves. Watching him develop and refine that style over time has been a real highlight of my own time as a surfer, and I imagine the same holds true for many of us. Rarely is anything rushed, always there is the angled stance and the rail held coolly down into the wave face, and the relaxed instinct for the wave’s natural line. I’m always reminded of that line from Tim Winton, about seeing men do something beautiful and pointless, though I differ from Winton in a sense, to me nothing beautiful is pointless.

But a World Title is not beautiful, it’s just not, and beautiful surfing doesn’t win one. The bloodline demanded one of Joel, in a way, and he endeavoured to respond and it broke his heart. To lose to your best mate in front of the world at Pipe, the way he did in 2009, well, sport doesn’t really get any more complex and bittersweet.

So to me anyway, three years later, when Joel turned everything around and took one for himself, it seemed like an extraordinary act of will and patience and understanding. It wasn’t bloody beautiful, that’s for sure, not those last few heats at Pipe. It was sixes and sevens and winning ugly, or however it came, while Fanning scampered nervously around in the bushes behind the break, alternately watching and covering his face. And when Joel, having done it, came back up to the house and into the front yard, it felt like a strangely private moment. I never asked him, but I sometimes wonder if the death of his other great mate AI might have helped focus his mind on those shitty sixes-and-sevens heats. The death of friends reminds you of nothing more than time is short.

Maybe part of Joel did retire then, actually, though he kept winning heats. He had kids, and a home to go to — good things to have. He put on a good heat or two at J-Bay, but as the event built, it was buried under the vision of Filipe’s impossible brilliance and energy, the product of another bloodline altogether.

One day Filipe will retire, too. They all do, World Titles, bloodlines, or not.


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