The Russell Winter Interview
Photos: Alex Laurel & Alex Omerod
I come from London originally, Hounslow, where Heathrow Airport is. My dad got made redundant and we moved to Cornwall when I was nine years old. I’ve got two older brothers who started surfing, and I just followed. We lived at South Fistral and would run every day down to the surf. After living in the city it was something completely new and amazing being at the beach, and we all took to it straight away.
In the early days when you were still a kid and started competing, what was the scene like then, who were the top guys?
In the mid 80’s it was a tiny surf scene here, but a cool scene, a bit more hardcore than today. The guys were Spencer, Grishka and Carwyn who were winning everything, but I was closest in age to Spencer, and I was just completely in awe of him. I just wanted to be Spencer Hargraves. I always wanted to be in his crowd, to hang out with him, he was a great contest surfer back then, focused, fit and knew how to win. I guess at first we did sort of get on, but then when we started competing against each other, there was a big rivalry.
With the ASP World Tour surfers coming to Newquay each summer, did that have a big influence on you?
It was great watching guys like Cheyne Horan, Rabbit, Shaun Tomson, MR all coming to your town and competing, that was just awesome. Then when I was 13, Simon Law stayed at our place and I used to carry his boards down the beach, caddy for him and watch him train and prepare. My mum would make him a massive breakfast and he’d drink orange juice and stretch in the mornings and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is the best life, ever.’ Simon Law taught me a lot about surfing, he was a really big influence.
At the Alder Surf Pro in Newquay in ‘91 you had a heat with Curren aged 16 and you two had to ride in a 4x4 up the beach because of the crowds. Was that a major turning point?
It was a big turning point in that he was one of the best surfers in the world and the reigning World Champion. But even back then I remember thinking I could beat him, I was out there to win, I always had that belief. Even before that year I was being talked up a lot as a prospect, I’d beaten guys like Ross Clark-Jones, Matt Branson, Shane Powell and the ASP guys like Graham Cassidy and Al Hunt were saying, ‘Here’s a kid that can make it on tour.’ I was hearing that quite a bit actually, after a while of hearing that stuff you tend to think in the back of your mind, ‘Well maybe I can’.
What is it that made you particularly stand out in your view?
I was very dedicated, very hungry. I was surfing three or four times everyday, and every surf I was practising heats in my mind. People said I was quite a powerful surfer, so that was my tag if you like. But I never worked on that, I just went out and surfed waves.
You used to travel to comps with your brothers and parents. How important is that to have family solidarity, to stick together?
Fortunately for me we’re a very close family and our parents took us everywhere to compete and spent a lot of their money on us, without that, without their push and support we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today. And having older brothers helps you feel stronger and safer, I guess, so family support is really important. But I left school at 15 and went straight on tour, and from 16 I was travelling on my own.
How do you see your own image as a surfer? Is it accurate? Is your image something you concentrate or work on promoting?
I’ve never really given too much thought about my image, I’ve been so wrapped up trying to compete all the time. But being a pro surfer has changed drastically over the last few years, guys do the comps but then also do photo trips to get exposure and I have to move with the times too, so I have changed my outlook a bit, trying to juggle trips and contests. I’m getting older and I’m more mature, so I understand the importance of carving out an image for myself. In terms of my surfing, I suppose it’s power really, the old school type of approach. I can do the airs and stuff but it’s not really so much what I’m all about, or known for.
You qualified for the WCT in 1998 and stuck around for a few years. Tell us a bit about that.
I was talking to someone about this the other day and we couldn’t work out how many years I was on the WCT for, I thought it was four. I had a couple of injuries, the worst one was in Tahiti where I got a scrape from the reef at Teahupoo, got a really bad infection and nearly lost my leg. I was in hospital in Tahiti for four days on a drip, and they said I had to leave Tahiti because I wasn’t getting any better. I was in hospital for ten days in Australia on the Gold Coast, still wasn’t getting better and they said they might have to cut my leg off. Then thankfully it started to heal, and in the end I was OK. Anyway I got voted the injury wildcard and got back in. The next year was 2001 when September 11th happened, the tour was cut short and I was in 29th, but I requalified via the WQS for 2002.
Back then with you on the WCT, British surfing was leading the charge in Europe. What happened since then?
Well the whole thing just got so huge around the Hossegor area, in terms of the industry. Plus down there the waves are just world class, and the guys from over the border in Spain can all access it too, the Portuguese drive up so all the guys surf together and learn from the others’ level. Plus of course you’ve got the WCT events there for the last seven years or so, it’s just got massive. It’s hard for me when I came back here to England because I do feel so far away from the scene. Surfing here doesn’t really give you the opportunity to test yourself against the best European guys. It’s not our fault, we’re just isolated physically, being an island. But some of our surfers, well I don’t know why they don’t go down to Europe more, because that’s the place to be to progress your surfing and your career.
It seems like a lot of the top English surfers go to Ireland and Scotland to do photos rather than to Europe to try and win contests or qualify.
It’s weird coz when I grew up there wasn’t really a niche where you could go and get photos and get paid. If you needed to get more money, you’d say to your sponsor ‘I’m gonna do this in the contests’, ‘I’m gonna reach this ranking’ or whatever, if you make that you get your bonuses and move up. Today there’s guys who make a living by pretty much staying at home, which, well it’s good for them. Not all surfers are able to go on tour and do well, it costs a lot of money to tour, and if you’re losing, you’re in debt. So it’s natural, the way things are. There are so many magazines and photographers out there in Britain now that lots of guys are able to just do that here. In one sense it’s a bit of a shame, because we have had guys with the talent to follow their dreams, they just haven’t set high enough goals for themselves. But it is a good thing too, because that’s the way things are going and you have to move with the times. I have to do that now, go and get photos, I can’t just only go and compete.
These days there’s Euroforce where the continental surfers all stick together to push their careers collectively. When you were qualifying on your own did that hold you back, or otherwise?
A bit of both really. I was the only Brit and Euro and I tried to use being the outsider to my advantage, to dig deep and spur myself on, but that’s never easy. In terms of isolation, well to be honest, when the continental Europeans started really coming through I probably isolated myself a bit too much from them. Now I think it’s a great thing, how strong all the Europeans are together, and coming from another era I’ve got to watch and learn from these guys. I’m maturing and learning all the time, trying to fit in and get on with everyone. I’ve got heaps of friends on tour from Europe and seeing them right up there is definitely something I can draw strength from and use to motivate myself.
Where does your motivation and desire come from? You’re quite an intense guy when you’re in the zone, game face on. I imagine that’s quite intimidating for an opponent. Is it anger or something else?
I just try and just go hard, that’s the way I surf. It’s weird, some people might have the wrong idea of me, I do look quite intense, maybe it’s because I’ve got flarey nostrils (laughs), I might look angrier than I am (more laughs). But people that do know me know that I’m a really nice guy, quite softly spoken, you know. But when I’m going into a heat I am on the job, pretty focused.
How has your approach changed lately?
Well it’s probably true to say that my preparation hasn’t been the best over the last few years, I’m learning and understanding the need to be fitter. But my surfing has also changed in the last year or so, my approach to riding the wave. I think in the past I’ve had a tendency to go out there and try and smash it too much. I’m trying to calm my surfing down, draw out the turns more, to use my power in different ways. The other thing is I don’t think I’ve been surfing the wave itself enough, I’ve actually been trying to force it a bit too much, force my surfing on the wave. But it’s good that I’m learning and progressing, it’s healthy. My approach has changed a lot and I think people will notice it this year.
What’s on the horizon for you today? You’re fired up and ready to attack to QS in 2008? What goals do you have?
Obviously I’m not getting any younger, but I feel I haven’t peaked yet, I feel I’m still getting better. I’ve been training more than ever, and I feel that I can qualify for the Top 45. My surfing is improving, and my thing for this year is just to attack the ’QS, hard. I’ve been reading stuff in Surf Europe actually, the interviews with the Euros on Tour (SE56) and I think a good thing taken from what Aritz said was about you getting out what you put in, and it’s so true, I really believe that. If you work, work, work, hard enough at something, you’ll get there, and that’s my big motivation for this year. I’ve also started to get into a bit of coaching, trying to help some of the younger guys on around here, teach them about training, improving their surfing. To be able to maybe pass on to a young surfer some knowledge or advice that I’ve gained from my own experiences to help them go on and achieve something, that’s something
that appeals to me.