In surfing, a “slob air grab” is one of the most difficult and spectacular moves to pull off.
Taking its cue from skateboarding, the rider cuts back into the lip of the wave, using its force to launch skyward as he pirouettes almost 360 degrees in the air, then drops back into the crest of the wave and powers on.
It requires explosive power, tremendous strength and phenomenal balance. Owen Wright executed two of them in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the New York Quiksilver Pro in 2011 to beat 11- time world champion Kelly Slater.
Even more impressive than besting the legendary American was that Wright was only 20 at the time and in just his second year on the tour.
But it came as no surprise to those who know the laid-back goofy-footer well: Wright, now 22, is super-fit. He has a dedicated work ethic and comprehensive understanding of how his body works and what it can do. He also wants to win a world title. Badly.
In 2010, he was the tour’s Rookie of the Year, and in 2011, his breakout year, he finished third, trumping experienced riders with his smooth, aerial-based brand of surfing. Last year, he ended the season in 10th position.
“It’s about gaining experience,” he says. “In 2011 I had a great year and it showed me that winning the big one is possible. I would really love to win a title.”
Wright lives with his girlfriend Sam in Thirroul – about an hour’s drive from Culburra, the seaside town on the NSW south coast where he grew up.
He and trainer Blake Thomas from Pulse Fitness in Wollongong have devised a fitness and nutrition program that enables him to surf massive barrels and perform the cutting-edge aerial moves that the judges love. He starts every morning with a surf, then runs for 15 minutes at 75per cent full pace.
“I’m puffing by the end of it – it’s basically a warm-up,” he says. Two days a week it leads into hardcore paddle- and stability-training sessions.
TAKE US THROUGH YOUR PADDLING WORKOUT.
I paddle twice a week on a regular surfboard. I do 60 seconds flat out, then 90 seconds at 80per cent effort. I’ll do this eight times with a 30-second break, keeping my heart rate at 150bpm. If I’m doing it on a lake, I’ll do non-stop squats during the 30-second breaks. It simulates the intensity needed to paddle out the back, then catch the wave. I’ll then practise getting my heart rate down to 120 so I’m calm and relaxed.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO IMPROVE BALANCE ON THE BOARD?
Before the gym I do half an hour with the fit [Swiss] ball. I stand on it and Blake throws a medicine ball over my head and side to side. It switches on your whole body. It’s great for balance and it replicates the kind of moves you have to make in the surf. To strengthen my core, I do cable-pull sit-ups holding onto a cable behind my head, and jack-knife sit-ups.
THE AERIAL MOVES YOU DO REQUIRE A LOT OF EXPLOSIVE POWER.
I do two explosive gym sessions with low reps and heavy weights. I don’t have to lift much – it’s about generating power out of nothing so that I can do airs [aerial manoeuvres] and turns without problems. I’ll do cleans and clean and presses with 60-80kg. Being 191cm tall, I don’t have to stretch as much, but I have to work on my strength to be able to control my limbs.
GIVE US YOUR TOP TIP FOR PULLING OFF THAT SLOB AIR GRAB THAT YOU BEAT KELLY SLATER WITH.
Gather a lot of speed, which will allow you to stay over the top of the board. Then, when you’re in the air, don’t push the board away, as you want to have a platform to land on.
HOW MUCH OF AN EDGE DOES BEING SUPER-FIT GIVE YOU?
For me, fitness really pumps up the mental side. At Teahupoo [in Tahiti], you can have these long, challenging waves and I know I can get through them because I’m fit – it gives me confidence. I know I can catch non-stop waves if I have to, or handle a wipe-out. And paddling fitness means I can get into the wave quicker. I’d say fitness adds a 20per cent benefit to my performance.
LAST YEAR YOU SWITCHED TO ORGANIC FOOD. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BENEFITS?
I feel much more energised, but I really had to sort out my cooking, which is pretty hard for a 22-year-old guy. Now I find it fun. My best dish is chicken pesto pasta with avocados and olives.
My breakfasts tend to be light – oats and fruit – and I’ll have meat every lunch and dinner, which I balance with lots of carbs and vegies. My trainer constantly monitors what I eat and helps me organise my diet.
WHAT’S YOUR ROUTINE BEFORE HITTING THE WATER TO COMPETE?
“I’ll get warm with five minutes on a bike – 30 seconds fast, 30 seconds relaxed – and follow that with explosive jumps and continuous low squat jumps. On the bike I’ll have my iPod on and listen to anything from Florence and the Machine to Grinspoon – that helps block out the sound of the competition. Then I’ll do a lot of deep breathing to bring down my heart rate. I follow that with positive self-talk: going over my strong points and how I’m going to attack the waves.
WHO DO YOU HANG WITH ON TOUR?
Mainly the guys in the Rip Curl team, such as Kai Otton, who’s also from the South Coast.
I’ve known Matt Wilkinson since I was 10 - we travel together - and then there’s Brazilian Gabriel Medina. Everyone’s very professional these days, but whatever city we’re in we’ll make sure we sightsee and do fun stuff such as bungee jumping.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST DRAG ABOUT BEING ON THE ROAD?
Checking in your luggage. Seriously. You have so much gear to take and you’e always worried about how much the airline is going to charge for going over the weight limit.
IN 2010, YOU CAME EIGHTH, IN 2011 THIRD AND IN 2012 10TH. HOW DO YOU RATE YOUR PROGRESS?
It’s all about getting experience and ironing out little mistakes. In the first year I was trying not to drop off the tour, and finishing third in my second year was great. In 2012 it came down to injuries and Mother Nature not being on my side – sometimes the waves you want aren’t there.
At somewhere like Santa Cruz, it was hard to work out how and where the waves were forming. What I have to do is go bigger and harder in the first wave, and not let guys have the waves I don’t believe have potential.
With the air manoeuvres we can do now, every wave has potential.
KELLY SLATER WAS ONE OF YOUR HEROES AS A KID. WHAT’S IT BEEN LIKE MEETING AND BEATING HIM?
He’s dominated for so long, but he is a great guy and very friendly. I have to say he’s really lived up to everything I thought he would be.
WHAT OTHER SPORTS DO YOU PLAY?
Touch footy, tennis and beach cricket. I like [Aussie Test captain] Michael Clarke – he carries himself well and is very professional.
When I was younger I was into ironman racing – I used to compete with Ali Day [2012 Coolangatta Gold winner]. It was something I could have gone on with – but not to the same level.
In 2011 at Desert Point, on Lombok in Indonesia, I stayed on a barrel too long and went head-first into the rocks.
There was blood all over my board and I could stick my fingers inside my head. When I looked in the mirror it was, like, “Holy shit!” I went to a hospital to get it stitched up – I wanted to surf the next day – but the needles were rusty and dripping with blood and there was a risk of getting staph [staphylococcal infection].
I eventually got it done, but it started to swell and had to be drained. Now I’ve got a good Harry Potter scar.
WHAT’S BEEN YOUR WORST WIPEOUT?
I’ve been scorpioned twice in 6-8ft surf. It’s when you dive under a big wave and the lip lands in the middle of your back and whips your legs over your head.
You get stuck in it and there’s nothing you can do.
I got micro-tears through my abdominals and an inflamed disc in my back. It took three weeks to recover.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE BREAK?
Aussie Pipe on the South Coast. I have a lot of good memories of surfing with mates, and it breaks left and right – a goofy footer’s dream.
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
My former team manager, Gary Dunne, said to listen to your body. If I’m tired or injured, I won’t surf – I never come back too early.
WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO DO WHEN YOU RETIRE FROM THE TOUR?
I’d like to coach – and I’d like to help my brother, Mikey, who is 16, and share my knowledge with him. I’d like to give back to the grommets.
This is an edited article featuring Wollongong surfer Owen Wright that appears in the current edition of Australian Men’s Fitness Magazine.