Pablo Gutierrez knows a good thing when he sees one, like getting paid to chase perfect waves on The Search, and doing contests when he feels like it. Yep, you’d be grinning too. Interview by Archi.
At 26, there’s still everything to play for and Pablo knows it. The new contract he’s penned with his sponsor of 15 years, Rip Curl Europe, is set to offer this pro circuit veteran a second lease of life – not to be confused with a second chance. Pablo has no failings and no regrets, especially when he looks at the new opportunity he’s been handed: to become Rip Curl’s number one European Searcher. “Just show me where to sign!” repeats the Spaniard who has every other European free surfer drooling over his new role.
Pablo Gutierrez was born near Santander and continues to live in the area he loves and where his family, friends and waves he’s most familiar with reside. There are no other surfers in the Gutierrez family. Like the majority of homes on the Iberian Peninsula, football was always the sport of choice and main talking point at meals although his family did show a preference for the surrounding beaches over the footy stadiums. It was just a desire to join the other kids his age out on boogies that marked Pablo’s first watery strides. Developing his love for the sport on his own, motivation is something he’s never had to go searching for during his career, “I never give up on anything, whether I’m in the water or just in life in general,” he emphasises on several occasions. In this respect, Pablo stands out from many of his fellow competitors for his ability to steer his own ship and stay focused without the help of trainers or managers, one of his strong points. For him, surfing has mainly been a solitary affair, shaping one of his main character traits, his funny side, “It helps me, I need it. When I’m on my own, far from home, it makes time go faster if I’m clowning around.” Pablo’s wit shows he doesn’t like to take himself too seriously. But something that perhaps started as a self-defence mechanism against the outside world has developed into a real attribute as his career’s progressed.
With drive and determination present at a young age, coupled with natural talent, things moved forward quickly. Pablo started to take part in a few local contests and moved up the ranks until the age of 12 when one of the best talent-spotters in Europe, Gilles Darqué, sniffed him out. Rip Curl welcomed him with open arms, and from this moment on he enjoyed the full support of his family who had taken a liking for the healthy-living sport. But when time came to get serious, for Pablo to choose between completing his studies and chasing a pro surf career, his father’s ultimatum put the pressure on, “You have one year to prove to us you can make a good living from it.” Which he did. With a solid sponsorship contract and contest winnings, it was only a few years before Pablo established himself as one of the top European performers in Hawaii. His dad could sit back and relax.
“There were just a few us representing the elite of European surfing, today there are a lot more of us and it’s great for the future of the sport here.” Pablo is one of the privileged few to witness this development. The secret to this longevity has been his consistency in the surf as well as his ability to stay focused and motivated at all contests, even if he admits to often having been unlucky on the WQS, a tour on which he never claimed any podium finishes or really stood out. Nevertheless he still had his faire share of glory moments competitively: A European Junior Championship title, a third place on the EPSA and most noteworthy a 5th finish at the World Junior Championships behind Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Adrian Buchan and Kirk Flintoff. Alongside these results, there’s something else he forgot to mention to his credit, his performances at the Pipeline trials. “Yeah, I did win the trials at the Rip Curl Pro Search at St Leu in Reunion Island but my heats at Pipe presented much more of a challenge and were also more valuable…” Beyond his track record, Pablo was one of the first European surfers to return from Hawaii with photos he could be proud of. The American and Australian photogs, maybe attracted by Pablo’s physical resemblance to a famous Floridian often fired off a few at Backdoor, Pipe or OTW. People will also remember the time his contest jersey got ripped off during the trials at Pipe, which was breaking out at Second Reef. After surviving the heavy wipe-out Pablo clenched his fist in the air and paddled straight back out for more. Looking back on his last 10 years, this is why Pablo has no regrets, is happy with the path he’s chosen and is looking forward to a change.
MATA, MATA! (KILL! KILL!)
He repeats these words to himself a billion times. Because contest surfing means war. There’s no time for pleasantries on the WQS and Pablo loves the banter. But when he pulls on his contest jersey, the Cantabrian’s smile vanishes. 20,000 kilometres, one heat and no second chances. If you lose, you’re on the next flight home with your tail between your legs. Even for El Matador, the season is a long one and the downtime between contests often too short. The nickname Matador was given to him by the French press when he clinched a final against three French surfers in France. To please journalists, he’s happy to play along with the nickname even if bull fighting isn’t something he agrees with. In contest surfing, he put on his best performances between the age of 19 and 20. Understandably he’s grown tired of trying to reach the top 16 on the WQS contest grind. So at 26, he’s decided to leave the WQS to one side for now and look to new horizons, which is why his sponsor’s proposal looked so attractive. “I took the decision one weekend”, confides Pablo and today his number one priority will be to travel. “If they had offered me a team manager position then I would definitely have refused,” he adds to demonstrate this isn’t a retirement. When I ask him how he feels towards his generation of surfers, guys like Miky Picon and Tiago Pires who’ve made the WCT, Pablo says he’s in no way envious, “I’m really pleased for those guys. I don’t look at it as if I’ve failed, but more that they’ve succeeded. Tiago qualified due to his relentless perseverance. Miky surrounded himself with the right people and received all the support he needed which really helped.”
Today under the guidance of RC Europe’s Arnaud Decarne, the Search is going to start taking a real European dimension and Pablo will be spearheading the campaign. When it came to finding someone for this dream job, Arnaud admits it would have been hard to find a better ambassador. “Pablo is highly experienced, speaks several languages, keeps a good head on his shoulders and his funny side makes him someone easy to get along with. And as someone who’s done a whole lot of contest surfing, is also someone who knows how to appreciate the life of a pro free surfer.”
“I’m going to be able to do trips to Central America, Northern Europe, Indo, everywhere where it was practically impossible for me to go before,” Pablo enthuses. His eyes light up like a little kid’s who’s just received a long-awaited Christmas present. Indeed, Christmas came super early for Pablo this year. “If there’s no fun in surfing then there’s no fun to life,” he declares. For him surfing outside of contests is as much a kind of quest for happiness as a search for the perfect wave. He stresses that surfing has brought him a lot in this respect and today it’s the perfect opportunity for him to pass this message onto younger generations. “Surfing has showed me all the poverty and wealth there is in the world thanks to my travels. I’ve always tried to keep things in perspective throughout my career and learnt the importance of being enthusiastic, of seeing life and the future in a positive light. And my new role is really going to allow me to pass this message onto the kids.”
You can tell Pablo struggles to disguise his desire and hope of still one day making it into the Top 45, and it isn’t out of the question. Behind all the banter Pablo is as determined as ever. “To be able to go surf the four corners of the world with members of the Rip Curl team is definitely going to improve my technique. I’m going to have time to break everything down, work hard at certain aspects while having lots of fun, which is always the fastest way to learn.” One team-mate gives him particular hope, Hawaii’s Pancho Sullivan, the former full-time Searcher who first qualified onto the WCT at 32. So while enjoying a couple of years to develop his surfing away from the QS circuit, Pablo will continue to compete in the big European comps just to stay in the mix, and from there who knows? Either way, something tells us El Matador will be having the last laugh.
Photos: Alex Laurel, Pablo Martinez