Shaun Tomson, former world surfing champion, on what life lessons his sport taught him – ABC News

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Shaun Tomson, former world surfing champion, on what life lessons his sport taught him
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Shaun Tomson has experienced some incredible highs. He's also experienced some devastating lows.
He was a world champion surfer, widely regarded as one of the best tube riders of all time. He is an actor, author, environmentalist and businessman.
Everything he knew changed dramatically when in 2008 he received a call telling him his teenage son had died after playing the "choking game".
"I lost my beautiful son, Matthew, 15-and-a-half years old, I lost him to a poor decision," Tomson told The Ticket.
"He heard about this game at school called the choking game where the kids at school all wore ties … he played the game, and it killed him.
"My life and my wife's life came to a complete, grinding halt.
"And for many months, I questioned who I was. What's my fundamental purpose? Where am I going? What am I doing? And I went back to this code … I will always paddle back out."
The code he's referring to is his surfers' code, his mantra, which is permanently tucked into his back pocket as he travels the world.
It's a code he shares with others who may find themselves needing some balance after life has thrown them a curveball.
"Paddling back out" is what surfers do, no matter what — no matter if they had been thrown to the bottom of a Hawaiian reef by a monster wave, no matter if a shark comes after you, as happened to fellow world champion surfer Mick Fanning in South Africa in 2015.
It was in South Africa that Tomson learned to surf at Durban's South Beach, in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was the beach where his father Ernie had been attacked by a shark decades earlier, ending his dream of being an Olympic swimmer.
"He had a good shot at a gold in the 1948 Olympics and he was attacked while riding on his little wooden surfboard, but I think it's one of the first recorded attacks on a surfer ever in South Beach in Durban," Tomson said.
"My dad, he taught me how to swim and surf 100 metres away from where he'd been attacked. So, in one of the lines of the Surfer's Code, I write I will never turn my back on the ocean, which is a Hawaiian term actually.
"He showed me through his example that even though he'd had his career and life changed by that shark attack, he still had this great love for the water.
"Surfing teaches you never turn your back on the ocean, it teaches you about humility, it teaches you about perseverance and resilience. It teaches you about hope.
"I write I know there will always be another wave, this concept of hopefulness and this concept of optimism. It teaches you about honour."
A friend contacted him back in the early 2000s about a severe environmental challenge at the California surf break Tomson now calls home, Rincon.
His mate asked him to think of something that would empower a group of kids being invited to the beach for a media day highlighting the impact of environmental degradation on future generations.
"I went home and I wrote 12 lines, every line beginning with 'I will'. I wrote down the fundamental lessons that surfing had taught me about life, not how to be the number one surfer in the world, but about courage, about camaraderie, integrity, honour, bravery, persistence, resilience," Tomson said.
"And I printed them on little plastic cards, and I gave them out to the children … ultimately, we got the environmental problem solved … but the cards and the code took on a life of their own."
Tomson took the words he wrote on the cards and turned them into a book, Surfer's Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life.
During two years of COVID, Tomson spoke to around 150,000 people across all walks of life: PTSD survivors, others in drug rehab and prisons, through to CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world.
He asked each of them to record four words that described how they were feeling; those that emerged as the most repeated were stress, anxiety, depression and disconnection.
In helping people deal with the despair brought about by COVID, Tomson teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet-philosopher Noah benShea to publish The Surfer and the Sage: A Guide to Survive and Ride Life's Waves.
"I don't have the answers, but I'll tell you what, I have some really interesting insight … all my books are just guides, I don't believe in prescriptions," Tomson said.
"It was wonderful to do this collaboration together to bring a kind of metaphorical spirituality of surfing together with his spirituality and create the sort of book that's there to just help people through this disruption."
Along with a group of like-minded Australians and Hawaiians, Tomson was at the vanguard of professional surfing in the early 1970s.
"There was no such thing as being a pro surfer, but I had this amazing love and passion for surfing," he said.
"And then I joined up with this band of crazy dudes from Australia — Rabbit Bartholomew, Mark Richards, Simon Anderson, Peter Townsend and then some guys from Hawaii.
"Together, we created this dream … we were making a couple of hundred bucks a month … but we had a vision," he said.
All of them went on to become world champions. They turned a lifestyle into an industry now worth more than $US100 billion ($158 billion).
"Together we created this, and we created this opportunity today for young guys and young girls to make millions and millions of dollars," he said.
"We have Stephanie Gilmore of Australia who has just won a world title, she's eight-time world champ … and it's just so wonderful to see these young athletes surfing and inspiring people and getting paid for it.
"It's been an amazing, amazing ride … the fundamental role, I think, for an athlete is to inspire … athletes in their own way are leaders … [they] make us see life differently.
"The meaning of life can be distilled into two sentences, one is, 'I will be better'. We have this genetic compulsion we want to be better.
"And the second one is, 'I will help others be better'.
"That's it. That's life, in many different words and in many different ways but that's who we are as humans. The biggest word is hope."
As much as he loved travelling the world during his 16 years as a professional athlete, it is what Tomson does today that he enjoys most — speaking to schools, universities, business groups and his surfing buddies as they catch up to watch old surf movies together.
"I love doing this. I love it because I lost my son. I lost my hope. When I do this, I get it back," he said.
There is a saying: only a surfer knows the feeling. Australia's oldest living world champion, Nat Young, coined the phrase, all surfers are a tribe.
"In some ways, I agree with him. There's this wonderful tribal element, almost like ancient knowledge," Tomson said.
"In the area where I now live in Santa Barbara, the indigenous tribe was called the Chumash that lived there.
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"The oldest human remains were found in my area 13,500 years ago and right on the beach, there's this beautiful memorial.
"My late son Matthew and I would often go up to the memorial and you leave an offering … it's my favourite spot.
"It's called Shalawa Meadow and it has these words: 'The sacredness of the land lies in the mind of its people. This land is dedicated to the spirit and memory of the ancestors and their children.'
"They are amazing words, and it ties us back to this connectivity to the land, to the past, to the present, and to place.
"My place has been in the sea and whenever I go up and look at the memorial — and it's very close to the water, it's only 50 metres away — I know I'm in this place where I should be."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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