Shaun Tomson, former world surfing champion, on the life lessons his sport taught him


Shaun Tomson has had incredible heights. He also experienced devastating depressions.

He was a world champion surfer, widely regarded as one of the greatest tubing riders of all time. He is an actor, author, environmentalist and businessman.

Everything he knew changed dramatically when in 2008 he received a call telling him his teenage son had died after playing the “choking game”.

“I lost my beautiful son, Matthew, 15 and a half, I lost him because of a bad decision,” Tomson told The Ticket.

“He heard about this game at school called the Choking Game where the kids at school all wore ties…he played the game and it killed him.

“My life and that of my wife have come to a complete stop.

Shaun Tomson (centre) was at the forefront of the professional surfing scene, winning the world title in 1977.(Provided: Shaun Tomson)

“And for many months I wondered who I was. What is my fundamental purpose? Where am I going? What am I doing? And I came back to that code… I will always go back.”

The code he refers to is his surfer code, his mantra, which is permanently hidden in his back pocket as he travels the world.

It’s a code he shares with others who might need some balance after life has thrown their way.

“Padling backwards” is what surfers do no matter what – it doesn’t matter if they’ve been thrown to the bottom of a Hawaiian reef by a monster wave, it doesn’t matter if a shark comes after you, like this. happened to fellow world champion surfer Mick Fanning in South Africa in 2015.

It was in South Africa that Tomson learned to surf at Durban’s South Beach in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was the beach where his father Ernie had been attacked by a shark decades earlierending his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer.

“He had a good chance of winning gold at the 1948 Olympics and he was attacked while riding his little wooden surfboard, but I think it was one of the first attacks on record against a surfer at South Beach in Durban,” Tomson said.

“My father, he taught me to swim and surf 100 meters from where he was attacked. So, in one of the lines of the Surfer’s Code, I write I will never turn my back on the ocean, which is actually a Hawaiian term.

“He showed me through his example that even though his career and his life had been changed by this shark attack, he still had this great love for water.

“Surfing teaches you never to turn your back on the ocean, it teaches you humility, it teaches you perseverance and resilience. It teaches you hope.

“I write, I know there will always be another wave, this concept of hope and this concept of optimism. It teaches you honor.”

A man and young boy smile for the camera as they stand on a beach in this black and white photo.
Shaun’s father, Ernie, taught him a love of water even after a shark attack.(Provided: Shaun Tomson)

A friend contacted him in the early 2000s about a serious environmental challenge at the California surf spot Tomson now calls home, Rincon.

Her partner asked her to think of something that would allow a group of children to be invited to the beach for a media day highlighting the impact of environmental degradation on future generations.

“I went home and wrote 12 lines, each line beginning with ‘I will’. I wrote the fundamental lessons surfing had taught me about life, not how to be the number one surfer. in the world, but on courage, on camaraderie, integrity, honor, bravery, perseverance, resilience,” Tomson said.

“And I printed them on little plastic cards, and handed them out to the kids…eventually we solved the environmental problem…but the cards and the code took on a life of their own.”

Tomson took the words he wrote on the cards and turned them into a book, Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.

Shaun Tomson smiles for the camera.
Shaun Tomson turned 12 flashcards into a book of lessons to live by.(Provided: Shaun Tomson)

During two years of COVID, Tomson spoke to approximately 150,000 people from all walks of life: from PTSD survivors, others in rehab and prison, to CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies.

He asked each of them to record four words that described how they felt; those that stood out as the most repeated were stress, anxiety, depression and disconnection.

To help people deal with the despair caused by COVID, Tomson has teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet-philosopher Noah benShea to publish The Surfer and the Sage: A Guide to Survive and Ride Life’s Waves.

“I don’t have the answers, but I’ll tell you what, I have some really interesting insights…all my books are just guides, I don’t believe in prescriptions,” Tomson said.

“It was wonderful to do this collaboration together to bring together a kind of metaphorical spirituality of surfing with his spirituality and create the kind of book that is there to help people through this disruption.”

With a group of like-minded Australians and Hawaiians, Tomson was at the forefront of professional surfing in the early 1970s.

“There was no such thing as being a professional surfer, but I had this incredible love and passion for surfing,” he said.

“And then I joined this group of crazy guys from Australia – Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Simon Anderson, Peter Townsend and a few guys from Hawaii.

Shaun Tomson with his wife and son, Matthew.
Shaun Tomson with his family.(Provided: Shaun Tomson)

“Together we created this dream…we were making a few hundred dollars a month…but we had a vision,” he said.

All of them became world champions. They turned a lifestyle into an industry that is now worth over $100 billion ($158 billion).

“Together we created this, and we created this opportunity today for young men and young girls to earn millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

“We have Stephanie Gilmore from Australia who just won a world title, she’s an eight-time world champion…and it’s been so wonderful to see these young athletes surfing and inspiring people and getting paid for it.

“It was an incredible, incredible race…the fundamental role, I think, for an athlete is to inspire…athletes in their own way are leaders… [they] make us see life differently.

“The meaning of life can be summed up in two sentences, one is ‘I will be better’. We have this genetic compulsion that we want to be better.

“And the second is, ‘I’ll help others be better.’

“That’s it. That’s life, in many different words and in different ways, but that’s who we are as humans. The biggest word is hope.”

While he loved traveling the world in his 16 years as a professional athlete, it’s what Tomson does today that he enjoys the most – speaking to schools, universities, health groups business and his surf buddies as they watch old surf movies together. .

“I love doing that. I love that because I lost my son. I lost my hope. When I do that, I get him back,” he said.

There is a saying: only a surfer knows the feeling. Australia’s oldest living world champion, Nat Young, coined the phrase, all surfers are a tribe.

“In a way, I agree with him. There’s this wonderful tribal element, almost like an ancient acquaintance,” Tomson said.

“In the area where I now live in Santa Barbara, the native tribe was called the Chumash who lived there.

“The oldest human remains were found in my area 13,500 years ago and right on the beach there is this wonderful memorial.

“My late son Matthew and I would often go to the memorial and you would leave an offering…it’s my favorite place.

“It’s called Shalawa Meadow and it contains these words: ‘The sanctity of the land lies in the spirit of its people. This land is dedicated to the spirit and memory of the ancestors and their children.’

“These are incredible words, and it connects us to this connectedness to the earth, to the past, to the present and to the place.

“My place has been in the sea and every time I go up and look at the memorial – and it’s very close to the water, it’s only 50 meters away – I know I’m in that place where I should be.”


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