“My biggest fear is to fall off the map completely. It’s why I’m still dabbling in a bit of everything” Mitch says, driving to Perth airport after our final session together in WA. We just surfed a little left wedge, where he finally found some semblance of a rhythm, despite riding a board ill-suited for chest-high surf—his only option after breaking virtually an entire quiver the past six days. It’s been a rough go. During the surf, he displayed flashes of his normal self: sticking two large punts and slicing a few big turns. Somehow, Mitch throws more spray than anyone. I can sense he feels some relief after putting together a decent session. If nothing else it’s a reassurance—this shocker of a week he’s having has been an anomaly, not a rule. “I think I’ve just been trying to balance too much; it’s been my problem recently. I’ve always done my best focusing 110 percent on one thing.”
Indeed it has. In the past, Mitch has worked with the luxury of months to piece together a movie section, and he’s consistently produced bangers. Now, constrained to quick trips between events on a quest to qualify, he’s trying to do too much in too little time—determined to put only his best surfing on film. And he’s trying to do it for everyone: Kai Neville, TransWorld, Volcom, the list goes on. He’s truly stretching himself thin.
“I’ve gotten in a good training routine, too. At the events I keep myself fresh and warmed up. It makes me feel really good. Confident. But on a freesurf trip, I feel like an idiot warming up. I’m not going to be down there doing f—king star jumps when we are just going for a surf, but then I paddle out and I’m cold and weak in the knees, and I can’t land a thing.”
Last night, on the final evening of our trip, Mitch surfed alone—as the sun, a glowing ball of orange, quickly slipped behind the horizon. An array of low-hanging clouds dotted the sky, some red, some purple. A full moon rose in the distance. For photography, it was a beautiful scene. But dusk is a dangerous time to be surfing in West Oz. And solo? Forget about it. WA’s lineups are rife with predators: great whites, tigers, bulls. You name it, they’re out there. And it’s common knowledge that sharks are most active during the waning light of day. So why risk it? Why paddle out at Cobblestones—a notoriously sharky, shallow right-hander, when the waves suck and your life is at risk? From the safety of land, I pondered that very question. But Mitch recognized potential existed to nail a good photo, and with TransWorld Surf Senior Photographer Damea Dorsey fired up, he paddled out. Mitch goes the extra mile.
Nearing dark, he scratched for the horizon, caught inside. After taking two on the head, he flipped and paddled for the last wave of the set. Damea yelled out, willing something positive to happen, as though Mitch might assimilate his words of encouragement, “Go, Mitch. Come on! This light is amazing!”
He jumped to his feet, threw two casual pumps, and took to the sky. On his backhand he tweaked his tail high and his board toward the beach, rotating full circle and landing hard, his front foot just barely failing to reconnect on the way back down. Damea cringed. He looked at the back of his camera, at what could have been, and added, “He’s always been my go-to guy. I’ve never seen him have this sort of shocker.”
Standing on the shallow inside shelf, Mitch hung his head in frustration. Suddenly he reeled his board in, lifted it above his head, and smashed the tail into the reef. From 100 yards away, I could hear it—the sound of fiberglass fracturing into a hundred pieces. Mitch had officially reached his breaking point. Twenty-four hours later at the airport, he had time to reflect.
How would you sum up this past week in WA?
As far as my surfing went, it was the worst trip of my life.
It felt like a perfect storm of things not going your way.
I’m such a one-sided guy; I can’t do everything. And my focus has shifted so much in the last six months towards competing and qualifying—the best surfs I’ve had recently are the ones where I’m not wearing a leash, when it’s three- to four-foot, making waves count, not trying a full rotation out into the flats every f—king time and getting blown up. That got old for me, especially with injury. The way kids approach waves now… Look at Ryan Callinan. He’s injured most of the year and that’s not what I’m about.
Making heats at Margaret’s was the simplest formula. Winning heats again was fun, whereas this trip, where I went back to trying full rotations out into the flats—it was just not fun [laughs]
It appeared that at Margaret’s you realized you could surf at 60 percent and it was enough to win heats. It wasn’t what you’re capable of, but it was working, and you got a ninth-place result by toning it down.
I don’t get the section every time to do an air, so I try to surf the wave the way it presents itself. If I actually try to tone it down to 60 percent, I’ll surf 40 percent and get smoked. I can’t just bypass sections and think cutties are enough to get through. But, at the same time, that perfect ramp… I’m not the most consistent guy with airs—I’d be lucky to nail one every heat—and if that section doesn’t come I can’t do the air. Sometimes that’s where I think the judges actually cook me. Like a judge has told me, they are always waiting for something more. Even if I surf the wave as hard as I can, if I don’t go to the air or do something wild that it doesn’t look like I’m going to pull, they’ve kind of not scored me.
In that regard, do you feel like the profile you built in Kai Neville films almost hurts you sometimes?
Yeah, it sort of built me up too much [laughs]. Now everyone is doing it so much quicker, the kids qualifying are so much younger. I almost feel like… I don’t want to say I missed the boat, but I don’t understand why it was so much different five years ago—to not even worry about qualifying. Now, they [the ASP] don’t even have a World Junior because all the good kids under 20 have qualified already. It’s crazy. It happened so fast. When I was 18 it was like, “I’ll just cruise and shoot a couple movies with Kai,” and then before you know it, brother [Kolohe Andino] and all those kids are 18, working with Kai, and qualifying, and I’m just like, f—k.
It’s an interesting time. Right now there are young guys like John John and Medina on tour and threatening the older guard—Slater, Fanning, Parko, Taj—who are all in their late thirties or early forties, and have been on tour for more than a decade.
That just proves the tour is where it is at right now. I want to qualify and not have the hype around me like John John did, even though he has completely lived up to it so far. He finished top five first year. I’d like to fly under the radar and get used to the tour and the system. Dane [Reynolds] and Jordy [Smith] had that same pressure on them—when they qualified there wasn’t a headline in a magazine that didn’t mention both of their names. Jordy came out all confident; I think he made calls about how he was going to win a world title, and then that first year he barely requalified. I don’t want that pressure.
It seems like you put a lot of pressure on yourself this week.
I could just feel things not going my way from the start—everything was happening against the grain. I’m a good judge of my own surfing, and whether it’s in a half-hour heat or a week freesurfing, I have trouble turning things around sometimes.
How have you dealt with pressure to this point in your career?
There’s more now than earlier because everyone knows I’m trying to qualify, and things like this—freesurf trips, obviously the profile, and then there’s always a cover-up for grabs, and you want to nail the shot, and it’s just one of those things.
I don’t get jealous. Like, I just went on a trip to South Oz with Ozzie Wright, and he wasn’t having a shocker. But the way he surfs, he wasn’t doing full-rotation air reverses, and so it put me in a good place mentally because our approach is so different. He was riding these crazy-ass boards, and it was easy not to feel that pressure to match him.
Here in WA, from the very first time surfing, Jay [Davies] and Creed [McTaggart] were going mental, and I instantly felt I needed to step up to that level. I needed to match the way they were surfing—Creed is so damn consistent and Jay always throws something big—and I just put myself in that position instantly, and when I wasn’t living up to it I kind of lost my cool.