Will a British surfer ever win Olympic gold? – Wavelength Surf magazine


Surfing coach Joel Grey, once an outspoken critic of British surfing, has been appointed by the government body to ensure the success of British surfing. Is it possible? And how will he do it? We talk to him to find out.

In 2013, in an introduction to a profile of Reubyn Ash for a rival magazine, now defunct, I wrote: “The state of English surfing, from a high performance perspective, is atrocious”. I also called most UK ex-pros a bunch of c*nts. I thought it was funny. This was not the case. Most British surfers simply found it offensive. It was. Skindog threatened to take out my tonsils, buttocks. I was forced to surf Milook, in the summer, in a balaclava, and in a protective two-step move, muffle my Aussie accent with a mouth guard.

It’s been almost a decade since, and while it’s still safer for me to surf Teahupo’o than Porthleven, my main point still stands. The UK has long been deprived of any real consistent surfing success. Russ Winter remains the only CT surfer, and he fell from the elite circuit in 2002. No British surfer has won a significant event since Winter’s victory at Thurso in 2006. There are currently no British surfers in Challenger Series events. At the ISA World Surfing Games in 2021, Team GB finished 14th, behind Canada and Mexico. Overall not great.

In 2018 the IOC announced that surfing would be included in the 2020 Olympics. With surfing previously run by the Home Counties, British Surfing was inaugurated and funded by UK Sport in 2019. It was announced that an investment initial £192,500 would be followed by a much more substantial investment of £1.35million.

Grey, right, Huntington Beach.

Last month Joel Grey, a former professional surfer and now surf coach, was appointed to a new role at British Surf. His first gig was taking the UK team to the ISA World Games in Huntington in September. We caught up with Mole to see what his role is, the plan for the future and if there will ever be a British surfer in the Olympics.

Hi Joel, congratulations on the new gig! Can you tell me what your official role is?

I am Performance Pathway Manager. The aim is to set up a pathway that covers talent identification, supports and helps coordinate host nation youth programs, implements diverse teams with the ultimate goal of Olympic success. So the mission ranges from what’s happening with a talented 10-year-old to professional surfers competing on the WSL. The focus is on the ISA Games, which are our best shot at Olympic qualification, as well as success in WSL competition. I want to see a steady stream of Brits on the Challenger Series and for us to be there to challenge each other on Finals Day in the ISAs.

And who employs you?

United Kingdom Sports provides the funding, but it is allocated by British Surfing. So that’s actually who I work for.

Previously working as a surf coach for some of the UK’s top surfers, you spoke of the work, or lack of work, that British Surfing has done. Is it then a question of transforming the poacher into a game warden?

Yes, I was frustrated with the inaction in British surfing. It was first communicated that there was money coming from British sport, but then it fell silent, which was frustrating for everyone involved in the scene. I was one of those knocking on the door and screaming for answers. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t.

What changed?

My brief interpretation is that things changed when the new president, Vicky Gosling, arrived and with the board that helped unlock the funding. They advertised full-time jobs, including mine, as well as support staff. We have also asked Dan Hunt, former Team GB cycling coach and Sporting Director of Team Sky, to come on board as a consultant to help implement a long-term strategy. It is therefore the first time that there are paid jobs, with a mandate, responsibilities and communication channels. I even have an official email. It’s a huge step.

New coolers don’t come cheap. Logan Nicol at the ISA World Surfing Games. Lots of isotonic drinks, of course.

And what changes have you been able to implement?

Well we just got back from ISA World Games. This was put together in a hurry and has pretty much absorbed all the energies so far. Although in California we did not achieve a breakthrough result, I am convinced that we created a great professional environment and the surfers received top level support. It was a good start. And, for next year’s event in El Salvador, we are already planning the logistics. There will be a camp in Portugal in November, plus a training slot at the competition site in El Salvador in April and an overseas training camp in January. We will look to bring a centralized online strength and conditioning program, regular training and support to QS athletes. All of this has never happened before.

Looks like there’s money going into it?

Look, the money faucet isn’t huge, but I can say now that it’s working and we have people in positions to spend it wisely, and for us to invest in the coming. We want to build an ambitious route and program that the best surfers in the UK want to be involved in.

But in the short term, can’t you poach foreign surfers of British origin? There must be loads if you searched for it.

Yes, every Olympic cycle I expect to find a few surfers from around the world to find British passports at the back of some sofas. This is an unavoidable problem that we will have to tackle with a clear and open strategy. If eligible overseas based surfers are interested in joining our program, it could be beneficial.

Team GB captain Luke Dillon has been Britain’s top surfer in the qualifying series for the past five years. Here blazing in 2018.

Many of Britain’s top surfers were unhappy with the selection process for the various British teams. Will this change?

I think in recent years teams have been based on UK National Championship results, but I think that will change dramatically. There will be a new selection policy for the various development teams. Again, the key will be to make this process functional and transparent. This will be clearly communicated and implemented by the end of November.

Where do you think surfing is in the UK?

We are not where we need to be. This is not a situation where we have an Emma Radacanu or an elite surfer ready to go, so we need to improve the overall skill level and increase their exposure to competition and high profile venues. Look, we have a strong history of success in Europe and a lot of European titles. However, over the last decade I think we have fallen behind on the continent – France, Spain and Portugal have all progressed.

What are the reasons ?

There are many reasons. We have only one one-star QS on our shores, and there is no National Pro Tour. So issues like that are an inconvenience. But there is so much potential. At the last EuroSurf Junior Championships, Lukas Skinner won the Under 16s, Alys Barton won the Under 18s and Arthur Randle won a longboard title. So I feel the push is there, just waiting. We have some of the best juniors in Europe and I feel the pressure to fill them. Likewise, when we provide quality support and input to the current adult surfers we have, I know we will see results.

So we’ll soon have a British surfer at the Olympics, right?

Ha, that’s the end goal. It’s a process. I was delighted to connect to the UK Sport network. Elite coaches and some key players in skateboarding and snowboarding have reached out, along with other Olympic sports. It’s energizing and encouraging to meet other experienced experts from other fields – they all want to help. Our UK sports resource base is extensive. We have so much to learn and implement. It’s just the beginning, but I believe in the potential of British surfing and we’re building a plan to realize it.


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