Profile by Jed Smith. Photos: Tom Carey
Ezekiel Lau ain’t no meathead moke. He’s the most dedicated competitive surfer since, well, maybe ever. And nobody’s gonna tell him he can’t win a world title.
Ezekiel Lau is poolside at his villa in Bali as he acts out the greatest win of his career for me. “I could here them counting down – ten, nine – and I’m like, ‘RAAAAAH!” he yells. Tomorrow is the final of the World Junior Championships, which he will contest against Australian Jack Freestone. If all goes to plan it will be the next biggest win of his career but first it’s time relive an old favourite. “I’m paddling, my back is hurting and in my head I’m like ‘RAAAAAAH!’ Just screaming,” he says. He’s talking about an American National Titles a few years back in which he’d surfed all the way to the quarterfinals with a broken back. The injury was still a couple of weeks off being diagnosed and although he was in agony, there was too much at stake to give up. For one, if Zeke won the event he’d been told by his dad that he’d be allowed to grow his hair out for the first time in 15 years. Every Sunday for as long as Zeke could remember his pops sat him down right after he’d finished washing the car and shaved his head to sheen with a razor blade. The reasons for which were never properly explained. “He has a lot of things that he don’t really explain to me. ‘That’s how it is, you’re just gonna do it’,” he laughs, today. With ten seconds left on the clock and Zeke requiring only a three to progress the ocean had refused to come to the party. “I’m like is this really gonna happen? I can’t believe I’m gonna lose. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. That was when I was like: ‘No, I’m not accepting this. This is not happening.’ My back is sore, I got this far, there’s no way I’m not getting what I want,” he recalls. Zeke scratches into a piddly inside lump, taking off as the siren goes. There was more than a little pressure on him but choking is the furthest thing from his mind. “I got the wave and I was like, ‘UNLEASH!” He decimates the little burger, putting up five turns and stepping off onto the sand. There, he open his arms at the judges tower and screams, “GIMME THE SCORE!” For this, Zeke has climbs out of sundeck chair and stands in front of me with his giant wingspan opened at an imaginary judging tower. Skin ripples across his abs, contours of muscle push up through the tribal tattoo on his shoulder and, for a moment, I reflect that could indeed be a young Sunny Garcia reenacting the time he famously tried to rip down the judging scaffolding with ASP Men’s Tour manager, Renato Hickel in it. But on this occasion, Zeke gets the score, and he wins the contest. The young Hawaiian catches himself standing there. Cicadas beat in the dusk, a pool pump whirs in the background. He smiles sheepishly at me and returns to his seat, where he once again folds his arms in feeble attempt to conceal that gargantuan frame of his.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea about Ezekiel Lau, what with the American Footballer’s physique, angular features and stripes of tattoos. Watching the guy compete does little to dispel the myth, either. “When I have you in a heat, I will definitely make you feel like we’re having a heat together. You’re gonna feel it. You’re not gonna be comfortable,” he says. It’s a stereotype that’s proving a bit of a handicap at the moment, however, and one he and coach Jason Shibata are trying hard to dispel. “People stereotype him a lot because he’s big and he’s intense in comps and it’s a concern of both of ours because that stuff matters in his career,” says Jason.
Born into a family of athletes – his father played college level football and basketball, his mother did the same in volleyball and softball – the tenants of discipline and professionalism were drummed into Zeke early. Dawn dune runs, weight sessions and the uncomprising househould rules of his father characterized Zeke’s adolescence. But he’s thankful for all of it. “A lot of things we went through together were pretty gnarly but now I look back on it, it made me who I am and the competitor I am,” he says. Zeke also stands out for the fact he was never allowed to be homeschooled. He remembers with a grimace watching his friends like John John and Koa Smith heading down to Rockpiles for the day while he boarded the bus to Kamehameha High, one of the strictest private schools in Hawaii. So heavy was his academic workload, photo trips and a pro junior career were pretty much out of the question. Though it did little to blunt his surfing. “Zeke’s no nonsense approach was apparent early,” recalls Dave Riddle, Hawaiian coach to the stars, including Bruce and Andy Irons. He first discovered Zeke as a nine year old at an NSSA contest and says even then his competitive streak was evident. Dave remembers finding Zeke in tears after an interference call cost him a heat against a young Kolohe Andino. “We had a conversation afterwards and I realized then he had such a strong will to win. He was just so passionate about the sport,” says Dave. Zeke fell under Dave’s tutelage at a time when he was working with both Andy and Bruce, and if you think you can see a bit of Andy in Zeke’s surfing – big smooth arcs, stored up speed unleashed in furious gaffs, and a lofty punt game – you’re not mistaken. “Everything I was taught was based on what Andy did,” says Zeke. “Andy’s whole highline floater deal was pretty much the base.”
Growing up surfing Oahu’s south shore, however, Zeke was far from a natural in big waves. Even as young as ten he was already showing the rare mental fortitude to put himself in entirely unpleasant situations to satisfy the demands of progression. “I still remember the butterflies as we came over the hill through the pineapple fields,” recalls Zeke of a particularly horrifying session at eight foot Laniakea as a child. In it he threw himself and his 4’10” over the ledge of a bomb just because, “I didn’t wanna be that guy who didn’t catch a wave.” He got destroyed, snapping his board and spending the next half an hour battling for survival with the Pacific. He says today: “You don’t wanna be that guy who can’t surf big waves or can’t do this or do that. You wanna be there and do it all.” It’s this kind of determination that has many touting Zeke as a future Hawaiian great. And considering what he’s already been through, making the tour top ten would seem a piece of cake.
Haleiwa can be a notoriously warpy wave. During a contest in 2008 Zeke attempted an end section floater for a few extra points only for the wave to explode with backwash. He landed awkwardly with his legs straight like stilts and the force going straight into his lower black blowing out one of his vertebrae. “I lost all the wind. I thought I was going to drown,” he recalls. But this too was an important heat and so he fought through the pain and paddled back out. “I was just like, ‘Ah, it happens,’” he says. Unsurprisingly, Zeke lost the heat and spent the next couple of weeks incapacitated. But with the national titles looming, he simply treated it with ice and kept on preparing. “I couldn’t even get out of my seat and getting out of bed was just retarded,” he says. It wasn’t until a few weeks after the all important NSSAs that he had the injury correctly diagnosed. He would spend the next four months in a back brace, in which time his weight ballooned and he was forced to watch his contemporaries John John, Kolohe and Koa’s careers take off. Zeke began to freak. When he returned, he trained harder than ever but he pushed it too hard and soon the pain was back. Zeke was no stranger to serious injury. As 13 year old he’d almost lost his leg to a staph infection, but this was different. There was more at stake and besides, he’d done everything that was asked of him.
“I was thinking, is this going to keep happening? My career, I haven’t even really started yet and I’m having all these problems… I broke down. I didn’t know what to do,” he says. Eventually it was revealed that all the running he was doing was pulling his vertebrae out of alignment. He needed better core strength, and so Zeke went and got better core strength.
“It was the hardest training of my life. They were not muscles I was used to using. It was really different and took a lot of concentration but it was some of the best work I’ve ever done,” he says.
Having come out the other side of that, you can see why a little racial stereotyping is never going to be enough to derail Zeke’s career. Take for example an incident that occurred while warming up for the NSSA Titles recently at Salt Creek, California, recently. While you might be forgiven for thinking the large Hawaiian would react furiously to racial taunting, in the case of the Californian man who proceeded to unload some 20 years of hard boiled anti-Hawaiian sentiment on Zeke, he was met with stoic ignorance. “You’re going to have those types of situations and those are the times that make or break you. If you can control that anger and all that you’ll break the stereotype. We’re not uncivilized and not just crazy and out there to smash people,” he says.
In a few minutes Zeke will surf the biggest heat of his career. It’s the final of the World Junior Championships and he’s up against former winner, Australian Jack Freestone. Zeke is going through his famous pre-heat routine – hitting his thighs, doing stationary leaps and limbering up, all with a thousand yard stare Floyd Mayweather would be proud of. “I don’t just wanna be one of those guys who makes it on tour,” Zeke tells me, “I wanna win a world title and that’s something that I won’t even take anyone telling my I can’t do it… it’s gonna happen it’s just a matter of when.” He’s going to have to wait, at least for a World Junior title. Despite dominating the event he loses in a wave-starved final though not for any lack of trying. He is visibly distraught when the siren sounds, running from the water to be consoled by Jason. A few minutes later he’s shaken it off and fronts the waiting media. “I came here to win not to get second. It’s hard to take, but the Triple Crown’s coming up. I’ll be back.”