How SUP Saved Tom Carroll
A slight tropic disturbance had been antagonizing the North Atoll region of the Maldives for several days. The ocean is gray and tattered. A million-dollar catamaran, The Explorer, swings on its anchor chain. Onboard, Tom Carroll, a knotted ball of muscle, enjoys the passing fits of sunshine. Relaxed on a yoga mat, notebook and camera nearby, whatever he’d been studying escapes him. Wind swell steadily marches past the hull and Tom’s gaze grows long and deep before eventually breaking. Shouting over his shoulder to nobody in particular, he hollers, “Downwinders for days, mate!” Atmospheric turbulence or not, for the 51-year-old two-time ASP World Surfing Champion, there’s opportunity and enjoyment to be found in all oceanic conditions. For the past ten years, though, this iconic surfer’s kink has been directed at standup paddling, a sport that has played a major role in his recovery from one of the darkest periods of his life.
The day passes. The clouds blow through. Back on the island of Kuda Huraa, Tom sits at the resort watering hole, orders a lomi lomi and settles in. “This time last decade, to think that I would be walking around with paddles and big boards and all this shit in my garage, I would have been like, ‘Come on, you’re killing me!’ No way,” he says, nodding at his early reluctance to embrace the sport. “There was no way you could have convinced me that I’m going to be out there with a frickin’ bloody paddle in my hand. I would have never imagined it,” he continues. “But I like the way it’s given me another option.”
The passage of time does funny things to a man’s mindset. Tom, while as fit a Baby Boomer as you’re going to find, hasn’t been kind to his body over the years. A wipeout at Waimea Bay in 2009 destroyed his ankle. Reconstructive surgery ensued, keeping him out of the water for over a year. Prior to that his list of injuries already ran deep enough to make a tough man wince. His battle wounds include, but are not limited to, a surfboard rupturing his stomach, a knee injury in ’78 that should have ended his career, a concussion, shredded ligaments and tendons in his ankles and, most notoriously, the surfboard-to-sphincter he suffered during a 1988 surf contest in Japan. There are the injuries. Then there’s his most serious impairment—a dismal plunge into self-abuse that ended the marriage to his first wife, Lisa, and affected his relationship with his three daughters, a relationship he’s since put serious time in repairing. Last fall, in a stirring interview that ran on “60-Minutes Australia,” he admitted to years of methamphetamine addiction. So unlike a lot of people his age, Tom doesn’t see his 10-year dive into standup paddling as a source of physical rejuvenation. He sees it as a lifesaver. Literally. “I went into recovery in December of 2006,” Tom says. “Standup was a large part of that recovery.”
Prior to that, Tom had lost his way, turning to drugs, namely meth, to stimulate his overactive zest for living. He and his brother, surf journalist Nick Carroll, have delved into Tom’s plight in a new biography, TC: Tom Carroll. In a particularly telling excerpt, Tom writes, “I started taking it orally. I’d get a little bit, thinking, ‘I’ll just take that.’ But because it was so insidious, because it fit in so perfectly with my pathology, I was gone. I was a goner. Everything was set up in place, in my nature and what had been developing over the years and—boom!—it ignited a very strong addiction. “In the beginning it seemed like it helped me. It seemed like it backed me up with everything. I was there for people, I was getting stuff done, I was engaging. But then you need it to do things. And then it wears off, and you’re left with yourself. “I’d use fairly regularly, but I wasn’t using too much. I was a functional user. It was the kind of drug where I couldn’t use huge amounts. I was on a downhill spiral though, slowly going deeper and deeper. I became more and more covert, more underground. And eventually you end up wanting to inject it, because the effects start to back off and you have to use more. “Then I began studying the drug I was taking, started reading the horror stories and started seeing it all going on for myself. It was scary. Really scary. Another level of fear that you can’t express to anybody. But I kept going because I had set up that compulsive obsession with the drug. When it wasn’t around, maybe one-eighth of me would be thinking about what was in front of me, and the rest was consumed thinking about it: ‘How am I gonna get it? Gotta get on the phone.’ I already had the covert behavior pattern in operation.”
Clean and sober now, he reflects, “The hardest part was coming to terms with the ego. It fought me. It battled me. A large part of my rehab process was reckoning with it.”
According to his brother Nick, a former editor with Surfing magazine, Tom’s fall was extremely difficult on the family, tearing relationships apart while putting everyone in positions they could have done without (in an act of desperation, Nick once physically threatened one of Tom’s California dealers to try and save his brother). But despite the heartbreak, Nick says it was also cathartic for the Carroll clan. “It’s really been a time of healing for us all,” he says.
Nick and Tom’s mother died when they were very young, 9 and 7 respectively. All they knew was that it was a prolonged illness. “Tracing the routes of Tom’s problem, we found out that our mother (who died from pancreatic cancer and anorexia) had an amphetamine problem,” Nick says. “It’s really helped us understand something that happened many years before, and affected us later. It was tremendously painful.” After he did a stint in rehab and was clean, Tom began looking for something to occupy his time and energy. Enter standup.“It was a challenge physically, mentally and even spiritually. I immersed myself in it,” he says. “I had paddled a little before, but I began to really study technique and hull design. I could workout until every muscle from my scalp to my toes was sore. And then you get out there in the ocean and you start to see things differently, from a different perspective. It rekindled my relationship with the ocean.”
Life is much improved today. He’s healthy, fit and more in tune with what’s important in life.
Passing through these idyllic Indian Ocean atolls Tom is enjoying a brief break in his hard-charging schedule. Along with his lifelong mate Ross Clake-Jones, he’s the co-star in the new 3D film Storm Surfers, which documents the duo’s big-wave chasing antics. The worldwide series of junkets has given him plenty to do this year. After his reprieve on Kuda Huraa he’ll head to Germany for a premiere (he’s huge in Germany). Then it’s on to France before he lands in Hawaii this winter. He’s also promoting the new book.
“What standup did for me was challenge every view I held of surfing, and that’s just what I needed when it came into my life,” he says. “It challenged me with how I stood up and looked at the ocean. It challenged me because now I had this frickin’ thing in my hand that I had to figure out what to do with.”
As Nick concedes, “Surfing wasn’t that good for Tom,” referencing the rough lifestyle that went along with the sport during Tom’s time as a pro. “Watching him with the sport, it was a new start and he was able to completely reinvigorate his relationship with the water.”
Beside the surfing aspect of the sport, Tom isn’t against dropping the hammer on himself and those around him when the opportunity arises. “The only time I look at it as a workout is when I’ll go train with my brother and his crew,” he says. “My (second) wife Mary is a prone paddler and we’ll go do some sprint stuff too. I did a few workouts with Jamie Mitchell and those guys are doing full-on Olympic workouts. Ten-time Molokai champ? I love being around it.”
In many ways Tom’s relationship with standup paddling parallels the evolution of the sport. In the winter of 2004 he spent time in Hawaii with the iconic and reclusive surfboard designer Dave Parmenter, who was ensconced on Oahu’s West Side. With canoe and outrigger racing already an integral part of the community, standup paddling caught on easily there. Like a lot of other standup paddlers, Tom picked up a paddle at Parmenter’s suggestion. Returning home after the surf season on the North Shore, he was intrigued enough to pursue it further. “There weren’t any standup boards back then, so I had to find the biggest board I could,” remembers Tom. “So I found this 12-foot Mickey Muñoz. It was a bitch. All I had for a paddle was an aluminum dinghy paddle with a plastic blade and no handle on top. Standup was a completely new beginning. I felt like a kook.” Crude equipment was hardly the only hurdle to clear. The resident surf population in Tom’s home of Newport, Australia, wasn’t initially keen on his craft. Already boasting a reputation for overindulgence in the lineup, the sight of his 5’6” frame on a 12-foot tanker was met with skepticism. “I remember this guy was surfing at my local home break, and there I am falling off and kooking all over the place, and he just looks at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he gave me such a stink eye,” he laughs. “It was small, he was on a shortboard and having a bitch of a time. I was having a bitch of a time too, but kind of enjoying it. And I thought to myself, ‘Maybe he’s right.’ But then there I was trying something new and different and kind of having an OK time. He woke me up.”
From struggling on his Muñoz, he soon graduated to Surftech’s 12’1″ x 31″ Laird Hamilton model. Advancements and innovations entered the picture as the sport began to flourish. On a trip to Hawaii in 2007, Tom again linked up with Parmenter, who by that time had teamed with Todd Bradley, Brian Keaulana and the C4 Waterman program. The crew had made Makaha their own, experimenting with shapes and paddles on the West Side’s big waves. It was during that trip that Tom would also meet shaper and designer Blane Chambers of Paddle Surf Hawaii and strike up a friendship. When he returned the following year they connected, and as Tom reckons, “an entirely new world opened up for me in Hawaii … he turned me around and had a profound impact on my life both in and out of the water.” Even with three Pipeline Masters titles—and one of the most memorable, and critical, turns in event history (1991)— there were still places around Oahu he’d never seen, and they began exploring seldom-surfed, out-of-the-way reefs. Both men also have a well-articulated sense of what makes a board work, and over the next couple of years, as Tom got a handle on his personal life, their conversations about design and functionality carried the relationship. “He does some amazing stuff, and he’s so left of center,” says Tom. “His designs are different from everybody else’s. Right now we’re working on some new hull design stuff that’s really exciting. Because they’re such big boards there’s a lot of surface area, so it makes the hull design really important. We’re focusing on contours and how the water is coming in and out. It’s not just an oversized surfboard like when we started all this.”
While Tom’s enthusiasm for the sport is admirable, in the big picture, it’s just as important for a young sport like SUP to have an endorsement from an absolute legend who has such influence in mainstream surfing circles. Influence and, perhaps most important, respect from the sport’s iconic figures.”You don’t want to look around too much at what the other guys are doing (when you’re competing against them), you want to try and stay in your own space, but what Tom was doing was inescapable,” says former rival Tom Curren, a three-time world champion and star in his own right. “He had such a presence. When we were competing against each other it was kind of like the height of power surfing, and he was easily one of the most powerful. I was just trying to keep up.” And a decade later, Carroll still seems genuinely fascinated by the sea, and this still-new form of interacting with it. “I think paddling becomes addictive,” he smiles. “For a while I lost my surfing. It’s like, ‘Why would I want to lie down? I can’t see shit and I can’t get around the lineup. And I can’t go surf a little wave down there or over there.’ I was bored, you know.” But for Tom Carroll, whether he’s lounging in the Maldives, winning world titles, slapping fives at a Storm Surfers premiere, or downwinding ten miles off the Aussie coast with his brother Nick, it’s all surfing. Growing up in the ultra-competitive lineups of Narrabeen in the ’70s, then battling it out for 14 years on the World Tour taught Tom a lot, but more than anything he’s learned to appreciate life in a new way.
“Standup came to me at a time when I really needed change,” says Tom. “It reconnected me with being human again. It rekindled my relationship with the ocean. It saved my life.”
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