The Slump, by Nick Carroll – Part Two, The Coalface

22 Jul 2019 35 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Jordy Lawler moments after winning the 2019 Vissla Sydney Surf Pro (QS 6000). Photo: WSL/Dunbar

Jordy Lawler moments after winning the 2019 Vissla Sydney Surf Pro (QS 6000). Photo: WSL/Dunbar

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

THE SLUMP 
A CW series on what’s happened to Aussie fortunes on the men’s world tour — and what might turn it around. (Read: Forget The World Title and The Legend)

Part Two: THE COALFACE
What’s it like, grinding away at the QS?

Jordy Lawler does labouring work sometimes. It’s one way to put a bit more cash in the pool. Part of the price. But he can’t stand it. “It’s the most torture thing ever,” he says, half laughing. “I just did a day. Spent the whole day carrying this super heavy shit up to the site. All day. I got to the end and said to my mate, ‘I can’t do this.’”

You can understand why. Jordy is not some big labourer guy. Like most highly skilled surfers, but unlike most builders, he is slender and moves quite easily, loose and a little bit spring-loaded. He is currently ranked ninth on the WSL Qualifying Series, second highest of the Aussies behind Matt Banting.

If Australia’s tour fortunes are to turn around in the next coupla years, Jordy will be part of it.

We sit in the front room of his family home, with a distant view of his home beach North Narra in the background, and talk about QS-World.

Here’s how you get to where Jordy is right now. You start with the 1000s, 1500s and 3000s, travelling about nine months of the year, building enough points to gain entry to the 6000s and then eventually the 10,000s – the big ones, the road to qualifying. You need about 4000 points to make the 10,000s. You’ll need about 18,000 to make the CT.

Jordy spent four years on and off doing the 1000/3000 grind, his ranking jumping around – 171st, 237th, 102nd – until his breakthrough win at the 6000 Vissla Sydney Pro back in February popped him into the top ten. This relieves some of the travelling pressure and helps him to concentrate on the bigger events. Right now, for instance, he’s able to spend a couple of weeks at home, surfing wobbly ol’ Curl Curl as a prep for the Vans US Open at Huntington.

All the same, it’s a strange world. QS events are scattered all over the planet, in no particular order. Many are listed as “tentative”, which means you can’t even enter them, much less risk an airfare. Thus Jordy and his agent/manager/mate Matt Cattle map out the year in three-month blocks, figuring out locations and costs as they go.

The practicalities of that travel can be hard. “Sometimes you end up with a crew you don’t necessarily know well, which is fine.” Jordy enjoys the travelling. It lets him spend time with his girlfriend, Leilani McGonagle, a rising QS star from Costa Rica, who he admits tells him “a few home truths” about his heats every now and then. Otherwise you bunk in with whomever.

The mix of surfers is broad and fascinating. In the QS top 10 right now with Jordy, there’s a Japanese, a Costa Rican, an American, a Frenchman, a fellow Aussie .. and four Brazilians. Party tourists still exist, but they don’t tend to get too far. There’s too many good surfers – too many people treating it like a career sport. They train, they surf, and they focus on the task, because if they don’t, they waste the money they spent to get there. “I reckon everyone on the QS is real smart,” he says. “Everyone wants to be on the CT. Everyone surfs amazing. They’re all legends, really. Some you get a bad vibe off, but that’s a competitive thing I guess.”

Weird oppositional relationships develop with people – some you often meet in heats, others you never surf against. Everyone has the calculus in their heads, the number of times you’ve beaten someone, the number of times they’ve beaten you. There are language barriers, but not as huge as you might expect. Jordy is working on learning Spanish, in which Leilani is fluent. He thinks he might be able to use it to understand some of the Brazilians’ Portuguese. “90% of the people on tour speak English, they kind of have to really.”

I’m fascinated by how the QS entry and prizemoney system works. All your entries are made through a WSL online portal, all in US dollars. This leaves any non-US surfer at the mercy of the exchange rate; for Jordy right now, entry to 10s and 6s are around A$450 a pop. Smaller ones run between A$100 and A$300. The entry fees have to be paid well in advance; the prizemoney, not so much. It’s commonplace for Jordy to wait three months after a result to see the money land in his account. He recalls one mate who won a major event and waited a year to see the cash – $20,000, not peanuts. 

In other words, the WSL is using the QS as a little bank – getting the entry cash ahead of time, paying the prizemoney behind.

Jordy’s a reflective sorta kid who is grateful for what he has: an endorsement with Vissla, a 10-board Channel Islands quiver, and a powerful support network at North Narrabeen. He loves the monthly contest days when he gets to hang out with his fellow club mates: “We’re all one big family.” NN has a deep well of experience and wisdom to draw from. Jordy recalls coming back from his first experience in a 10,000, horrified by how nervous he’d been, then having a talk with Nathan Hedge. Hog gave him the classic tip: put aside the circumstances, surf the heat like any other. It worked.

He still sounds a little in awe of the 10,000s, where the CT seeds descend into the mix and the level just explodes. The 10,000s are where it’s at. They’re also infinitely harder to win for anyone in the bottom layer – there’s many more rounds to get through, increasing the chances something will go wrong. “It’s pretty much CT. I think everyone in a 10,000 could be on the CT.”

At the same time, it feels like the whole thing is on a knife edge. Anything could flip you off track. A series of bad losses. An injury at the wrong moment. Jordy had a tough introduction to the QS. He tore the syndesmosis ligament in one ankle, had surgery, got over it, then badly sprained the other, both times doing inconsequential air moves. The second injury took a while to get over – right when he’d first made it into the 10,000 seedings. 

Only after he’d battled through it all, and began breaking through the top-100 barrier, did Surfing Australia suddenly get interested in Jordy. “They were like, want to come up and do a camp with us? I thought come on, I did years on the QS, broke both ankles, I could have done with your help then. They’ve got so much coin. I’d like to see them give the guys starting out more help, rather than waiting till when they’re in the 10,000s. They might do some good.”

Crazy skills, no fall-back position … it’s one of the strangest career paths in the world. Not like a builder, say, or any of the other thousands of jobs Aussie kids can chase these days. Where does it even go? Jordy thinks about it a lot. He hasn’t lost hope, the way some of Rabbit’s grommet mates have. “I have plans of being on the tour as long as possible,” he says carefully. “First you gotta make that happen. But I also think about what if it doesn’t happen…. But the goal is definitely to qualify, and I think I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”

What’s the best part of it? What are the highs? Jordy gives the same answer you’ll hear from any real pro surfer, the reason why they take this path. “Winning,” he says, and smiles a big broad smile. “The highs are winning. 100%. Better than anything.”

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