The last time we profiled Jack Robinson he'd just qualified for the CT. Now, in his rookie year, he's claimed his first major contest.
From Tracks Issue 577:
When Tracks last profiled Jack Robinson, it was early in 2020 and he was still in Hawaii, coming down from his dramatic qualification for the CT. COVID was still a Wuhan whisper and Jack was looking forward to making his presence felt amongst surfing’s elite. As it was he had to wait a year, but after his maiden win in Mexico, he has most certainly 'arrived'. The profile below charts Jack’s rise from grommet prodigy to wandering tube fiend, and full-time competitor. Taj Burrow chimes in for an insightful perspective, meanwhile Jack works hard to dispel a few of the myths around his attitude towards competition. It’s an interesting look back, given where he is now.
'It’s All in the Mind I guess'
Jack Robinson’s ultimate ascension onto surfing’s main stage.
By Anthony Pancia
He looks exactly like a pro-surfer should.
Lean, neatly dressed and a tell-tale fluidity to his movements which mimic those in the water for which he is now so well known.
The hair, still wet, hints at a last-minute surf or shower (or both) while the picture is rounded out with our hero sporting the sensible coupling of shoes and socks.
Beside him stands a statuesque woman of impossible beauty and the duo take their place off to the side of the crowd who’ve gathered at an event named in his honour.
Old friends gather and dignitaries circle, but the pair seem right at ease on this fine West Australian afternoon, happy to be home after another year circling the globe.
I edge in closer for a quick chat and note a few greys sticking out from his stubble, which surprises me a little, but at 42 years of age, Taj Burrow still looks as though he hasn’t a care in the world.
Ten short years ago, Taj handed over a trophy at this same event – Taj’s Small Fries – to the blonde-haired kid with the world at his feet and it appeared Jack Robinson had arrived.
“Jeez, he was, what…this big?” chuckles Burrow, holding out a hand waist-high.
“Just all blonde hair and a cheeky grin, just your classic grom.”
Robinson, then only 12, had bowled over an equally young Noa Deane to take the win and the career path for the spindly, little home-schooled kid seemed as clearly defined as the distinctive bowl-cut fringe…Juniors, QS, CT, Crown, it would all only be a matter of time.
But, oh, how we waited.
We made do with the odd clip here and sponsor-gifted CT heat there but as the years went by it all seemed to be heading towards, well, what appeared to be a destiny unfulfilled, if not at least in the eyes of armchair critics who had prematurely bestowed greatness upon him, and thus set him up to fail.
But 2019 marked a definitive change in the mindset of then 21-year-old Jack, one he himself puts down to, “Making my own decisions,” and positive influence by new travelling partner/lover, Julia Moniz (whom the WSL itself credits as having “helped his maturity” on Jack’s bio page).
“His timing is perfect,” says Burrow of Jack’s eventual qualification to the WCT courtesy of his wonderful win at Sunset Beach.
“He’s at an age where he is just getting better and better. There are a bunch of little factors that sometimes all need to come together to move into that next level of competitive surfing-not unlike a game of chess, and he’s managed to stack them all in the right spot.”
Late January finds Jack still in Hawaii, battling phone reception and an uphill climb on his way back to his rental ‘up in the mountains’.
Betwixt the win at Sunset and now, there’ve been trips to Brazil and a strike mission to Costa Rica before landing back on The Rock to defend his Volcom Pipe Pro Title.
But if the joy of qualifying for the CT has worn off, it is certainly not yet evident in his tone.
“It’s exciting,” he says in response to, by any admission, a woefully unimaginative first question.
“It’s beyond exciting for me, I mean, at the same time, I’m so excited, I can’t believe it.”
It’s as this juncture you realise Jack Robinson is still just 22 years of age and has, for better or worse, been in surfing’s spotlight for near on a decade.
Though a constant presence for his freesurfing endeavours, Jack says competitions were always, at least partly, a driving force.
“I competed a lot when I was a kid,” he begins.
“From memory, I really started surfing when I was about seven and my first major comp was Taj’s Small Fries which I did for about six or seven years before starting on the national circuit. So I was always going back and forth across the country.”
Major results though were few and far between and when Jack momentarily removed himself from the competitive circuit, it appeared the horse had already bolted.
“Far from it,” he says, calmly.
“I had a few years where there was a bit of a transition and I wanted to focus on different parts of my surfing. I went and chased bigger waves for a while then I concentrated on chasing swells and yeah, I realise everyone thought I was going to go that way for good, but I was always going to come back and compete. I do have a lot of fun doing that.”
Thus began the obligatory grind on the qualifying circuit, zip-zapping across the globe for the better part of three years before his first near miss in 2018.
“I did take it super hard,” he says of the near-qualification (though he ultimately finished 42nd, a good showing in the Hawaiian leg could have catapulted him into contention.)
“But you just have to take yourself out of the situation and start all over again. It’s a process of reminding yourself that you have to let go of that disappointment, move on and keep on fighting, even though there will always be people talking, negative or otherwise, you just never can give up fighting. It’s all in the mind I guess.”
It’s not hard to imagine Jack would have felt the pressure of expectation as his rating hovered within reach of qualification, but if it did, turns out it didn’t.
“Yeah, everyone wanted it to happen years ago, and there was a lot of excitement from sponsors and other people, but everyone needs to take a step back sometimes and let things unravel at their own pace,”
“I honestly did feel like I was supposed to be here (on the CT) last year, but it didn’t happen. Why this year? I guess mentally I’m better prepared, I’m bigger, I’m stronger and I just feel really good.”
And, holy smokes, what a time to hitch a ride with pro-surfing’s main act.
Irrespective of the direction the World Surf League hopes to take the sport in its quest to crack the mainstream, 2020 will get underway with a field that promises fireworks.
With the return of John John Florence, Italo Ferreira coming in hot, Gabriel Medina undoubtedly looking to exact vengeance and Filipe Toledo with a point to prove, one wonders what that pressure cooker is like from the outside looking in.
“It’s a pretty intimidating arena when the field is stacked like that,” says Burrow who surveyed the Irons v Slater war for years, from inside the ring.
“You walk in to an event looking at all the good guys you’re surrounded by and you’re just like, ‘There’s no way I can win this,’ but, when it all boils down, you really only need to beat five guys to win a competition and it’s not as hard as you conjure up in your head. It’s more just a matter of being on your game and you can get it done.”
Former pro, Mitch Thorson, pegged Jack as one to watch just prior to Boy Wonder entering his teens, and has tracked his progress as a professional surfer, social being and outright proud West Aussie.
As a dedicated student of the game, Mitch is also quick to point out that in qualifying for the CT, Jack breaks a double decade drought of West Australian men to do so.
“That in itself is both cause for concern and celebration, but mostly it speaks volumes for what he’s achieved,” says Mitch.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how he handles his first year but I have no doubt guys are going to really focus when they get him in a heat. The tour is hankering for new blood and Jack is a genuine talent.”
To that end, Jack’s utter dispensing of Filipe Toledo in their heat at The Box, at the 2019 Margaret River Pro, could be viewed as evidence he indeed has the know-how to ‘get it done,’ but in truth, it was one heat at one comp at one break he’s intimately familiar with.
While it’s tempting to peg Jack as one to cause trouble exclusively in waves of consequence, a childhood reared in some of Margaret River’s funkier waves and plenty of reps in sloppy beach breaks around the world would suggest he is a lot more rounded than he’s often given credit for.
“It’s sort of funny that I get a lot of that, that I’m a big wave guy or something like that,” says Jack.
“To be honest, I was scared of big waves as a kid and I didn’t really like them so I grew up on beach breaks and graduated back up to that. I’m not this or that really, I’m more well rounded than people think. I’m probably at a point with my surfing where I’m as well rounded as I’ve ever been. Certainly, to get through this year (2019), it wasn’t all just big waves on the qualifying series, there was a lot of trying to get results in average beach break waves. ”
He adds that growing up in regional Western Australia helped foster an understanding that each impression throughout the Junior series had to count.
“It’s definitely part of the makeup coming from there,” he says.
“You have to blow guys out of the water just to make sure you get noticed. I think that’s how it was for Taj and a few other guys. If you want to go out and make a statement, you have to really perform. But it’s part of what makes you stronger too.”
Until recently, Jack has travelled the world accompanied by father, Trev, who acted as coach, confidant and chief strategist.
Trev’s blustery nature has attracted a few sideways jabs from surfing reporters over the years who drew comparisons to a slew of similar ‘soccer dad’ type couplings doing the rounds on tour.
What ultimately helps Trev’s cause though, is the stark fact the child prodigy has (eventually) attained manifest destiny without a skerrick of outside coaching.
The narrative would suggest however, Jack’s breakthrough year came at a time when he was free to roam unshackled from Trevor’s ‘guiding’ hand, with Jack travelling the world instead with girlfriend, Julia.
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Jack though, was quick to hose down any such speculation that there had been a severing of the ties that bind.
“He’ll come along for some events this year but he’s had a few things of his own going on last year,” says Jack.
“We still talk in the lead up to each event, but things grow and everyone gets older.”
Prodded, Jack acknowledges having “my own space” and “making more of my own decisions” at least helped reach the mental space required to finally break on through.
“A lot of people are saying I was different this year (2019), and while I feel I was doing well last year, this year for sure mentally I was in a better place,’’ he says.
“I did it with a lot of my own decisions and having a lot more of my space, but my parents are who made me the strong person I am so I’ll always back them.”
On the topic of girlfriend Julia having ‘helped his maturity’ Jack delivers a wonderfully uninhibited response.
“She will go all out for me and I’d do the same for her,” he says.
“There’s all the crap out there, all the hype but we’ve stuck together through all the ups and downs, but she’s behind me all the way. It helps so much and has been one of the biggest parts of this whole thing.”
Half a world away, near on 150 kids waddle around the beer garden at Caves House in Yallingup, decked out in bright yellow promotional shirts, which accompanied entry to Taj’s Small Fries.
The opening ceremony is wrapped up and the kids are making haste for the large stack of freshly delivered pizza boxes while parents mingle and the sun begins its slow descent into a horizon just obscured by a line of Melaluca trees.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the event, now in its 15th year, is older than 90 per cent of the kids in the field.
I relay a summary of this and an update on a recent national title held at Surfers Point to Jack and he takes genuine interest in the comings and goings around his hometown.
It seems like just yesterday that a 12-year-old Jack Robinson was hoisting that Small Fries trophy above his head with the seemingly then senior statesman of Taj Burrow proudly looking on.
The roles have changed slightly since, Taj now firmly ensconced in life after pro-surfing and Jack at the beginning of a long road ahead.
Which begs the question – what does he want out of it all?
“I guess I got into surfing for the fun of it and this is where it’s taken me,” he begins.
“Of course you want to win a World Title, I want to do that one day, but I’m going into it to stay there. A lot of guys get on there and they’re coming in hot with a focus on winning and being number one. For now though, I’m going in to stay. This is where I feel I need to be right now.”