The Big Leagues

By
Updated: April 27, 2020

Why Dom Walsh turned his back on a promising rugby league career to chase waves around the world.

Dom Walsh cuts a lithe and sinewy figure. It’s a frame that speaks of long hours in the water with a little yoga and cardio on the side – a far cry from the bulk he carried when he was playing football for the North Queensland Cowboys.

Many kids grow up in Australia with the dream of playing professional rugby league. For Dom Walsh that dream was much closer to a reality. Maroubra beach was young Dom’s regular stomping ground, but his talents as a footballer were identified early, and he honed his skills as a hard-running lock forward at nearby Matraville Sports High. Fast-tracked for a career in rugby league, he relocated to the Gold Coast to finish school at Palm Beach Currumbin Sports High and join the Gold Coast Titans Junior squad.

“I wanted to play for Australia when I was younger,” reflects Dom, back in Oz after recently returning from a stint on Hawaii’s North Shore.

By age 19, Dom had signed a deal with the North Queensland Cowboys and moved into the centres. Playing at an elite level places huge demands on the body and coaches expect you to be both big and mobile. Under pressure to put on weight, Dom hit the gym and beefed up to a chunky 95kg. “It was a struggle for me to keep weight on because I wasn’t naturally a big person,” he admits.

No Fun

Dom had basically spent his entire teenage years working towards a life that would involve pulling on the jersey every week for a first-grade team. However, after a few trial games with the Cowboys and endless hours of training in the torturous North Queensland heat, Dom began to feel a little disillusioned with the whole idea of professional rugby league.

“It was probably six rounds into the season and I noticed that I wasn’t playing very good. And I realised that, you know, it had a big effect. Yeah, I was sort of depressed, I suppose because I was in a situation, I didn’t really want to be in there. And, you know, at the time, as a young kid, you kind of feel like there’s no way out… That’s when I said, I can’t do it…”

Free To Move

The fun had been sapped out of football and Dom also desperately missed the beach and the surfing lifestyle he’d grown up with, so he got in his car, aimed it south and never ran another hit-up. Instead he channelled his energy into creating a scenario that would allow him to chase waves around the world on a whim.

“There were a lot of places that I always wanted to go as a kid, but I never got that opportunity because of the football. Yeah. So, I kind of guess I visualised all the places that I wanted to go. But obviously you need money to go to them and I didn’t have the money. I never really had a job because of football.”

Dom began working for a solar-installation company, travelling to remote locations to sell renewable energy packages. Eventually he clicked with another employee from within the company and they broke away and started their own business in the same field. While his mate Tom took care of installations, Dom created a sales and customer-service role that allowed him to roam the globe and log-on with a laptop.

“As long as the place has reception and wi-fi, I can pretty much do it from wherever I am,” he stated confidently.

Weighing In

Once Dom had created an economic base, word started to circulate about this guy who used to play football and was fearless in heavy waves. Revered photographer Russell Ord, who was also a professional league player in a past life, remembered meeting Dom in Margaret River a few years ago.

“At first glance he was a typical surfer’s frame; skinny little lightweight, bleached blonde hair, surfed extremely well and charged – and I mean charged – a few local slabs.”

Ordy, who was contracted to the Western Reds in the ill-fated Super League era, has an appreciation for the kind of demands the sport places on you, and puts Dom’s reinvention in perspective by flipping the equation. “You spend your whole rugby league career becoming bigger, stronger and faster; training is bloody intense like most high-impact professional sports. I couldn’t imagine anyone on the current surfing tour having the frame to one day wake up and have a change of heart, give up surfing and want to be a league player.”

Ordy also understands how challenging it is to make the physical transformation after Rugby League.

“To this day I still don’t know how he completely changed his body frame. Most people I know that give up that pro football life just put on weight (in the wrong areas).”

Made The Cut

These day’s Dom’s fighting weight is 75kg. That’s 20kg less than the scales read at the peak of his playing days. He still trains intensely, but the heavy weights have been replaced by boxing, skipping, hill-running, swimming and yoga.

Dom may have shed the bulk, but he’s adamant that playing at the top-level has given him a psychological edge in the surf. “I think any sport at a high level helps you in some way to relax under pressure. Especially in rugby league, you know there’s a lot of those sorts of situations when your team’s under pressure or you’re under pressure or you’re extremely tired and exhausted; just trying to stay relaxed, and sort of present and in the moment. And just to realise that sometimes you’ve got no control. So you just gotta let things happen.”

That ability to tolerate physical pain and exhaustion while still maintaining mental focus comes in handy for Dom who regularly has to switch between work and surf mode. By way of example, he flashed back on a really bad wipeout at Teahupoo last year. Teahupoo is an ultra-heavy wave in Tahiti that breaks over shallow, live coral and has claimed the lives of surfers in the past. After getting rolled across the reef and sliced up Dom had to immediately endure the painful, but time- honoured, procedure used to ensure the live coral cuts don’t turn into major staph infections. Basically this involves having someone rub fresh lime into the wounds. The process stings like crazy but surfers swear by the treatment. Dom remembers 20 minutes after the lime-wash on his wounds, he had to make an important work call. “I was on the phone to customers, with cuts all over me,” he grimaced.

Both Sides

Dom spent much of last year based at Teahupoo, exploring the limits of his surfing ability. “Making the drop and throwing yourself over the ledge there terrifies me more than any other wave in the world,” conceded Dom.

While Tahiti is a great place to be based, Dom still chases down big swells across the globe. This means he constantly has one eye on synoptic charts and swell forecasts. A good swell might only last a day or two so you really need to be in a position to drop everything and get on a plane. Africa, Fiji, Hawaii, Australia and South America all have waves Dom likes to target and he could easily add another handful of places to his surfing bucket list.

Dom prefers to travel alone so he can operate on his own terms, but admits that there’s an internationally mobile crew who often wind up in the lineup alongside one another. Quizzed about his encounters with other big-wave surfers, Dom painted the picture of a scene that can be at once friendly and ruthlessly competitive.

“You know, there’s different types of guys that you come across. Some guys are really competitive. And all they care about is getting, you know, the best wave of the day. And you also come across guys that are really supportive and you know, they’ll try and push you and they acknowledge you and tell you to go. They’re the guys that I really aspire to be like but there’s definitely both sides of it…”

Self-Funded

While most of his peers are supported by sponsors, Dom still has to make his own ends meet. He admits it can be hard to juggle his nomadic surfing existence with his job. “I find when there’s waves, you know, me personally, I kind of tend to just drop everything and just surf, so sometimes when I’ve had, you know, two or three weeks of waves, I’ve got nothing done, and the stress after the swell can be quite intense.”

Like most surfers who thrive on big waves, Dom makes the annual pilgrimage to Hawaii each year. While He’s Happy To Surf

different waves to avoid the crowds, Dom well understands that the wave known as Banzai Pipeline or simply ‘Pipe’ is still considered the ultimate proving ground. Pipeline is heavily exposed to the huge swells, which aim at Hawaii every northern-hemisphere winter. Pipeline appeals to surfers because it can take giant lumps of ocean and bend them into achingly beautiful, green-lit cylinders big enough to drive a bus through. It can also slam you head-first into the hard volcanic reef and kill you in an instant.

After five seasons in Hawaii, Dom still has a mixed relationship with Pipeline. “Pipe’s definitely a wave that can really love me and hate me.” And while Teahupoo may be the scariest, he accepts that Pipe is still the most challenging.

“In my opinion, it definitely is, because not every wave out there’s perfect, you know.”

Hard To Take

Dom suggests his favourite surfer to watch at Pipeline is a guy named Anthony Walsh. Dom indicates Anthony does so well because he has an incredible tolerance for punishment. “He (Anthony) gets some of the most incredible waves out there because he goes out there on those days that are just so crazy…” According to Dom Anthony will break several boards in a session and put himself in the path of fifteen-foot walls of whitewater that roll over the reef like a derailed train. All because the waves Anthony is looking for are the perfectly formed peaks in between the giant, ugly ones.

Meanwhile, Dom’s strategy for scoring a great wave at Pipe involves an almost cloak-and-dagger kind of approach. He spies on the wave, waiting for crowds to thin and opportunities to present themselves. “I think it’s about just being really smart about when you actually choose to paddle out there and picking those windows.”

Dom admits he’s had scary experiences at Teahupoo and Pipe, but he’s grateful he’s yet to endure anything he’d call ‘majorly serious.’ However, he’s been in the water when heavy things have gone down and indicates such moments can be haunting. “Yeah, I was in the lineup at Pipe this season when Kohl Christensen fractured his skull. I was actually sitting chatting to him just before he got the wave, and when he took off, we heard all these whistles from the beach, and then we saw him being dragged up the beach unconscious. That was pretty scary and definitely created a really eerie feeling in the lineup for sure.”

Serious

While surfing heavy waves obviously has its own inherent risks, Dom insists he regrets nothing about his decision to walk away from the game that consumed him during his adolescent years. “To be honest, I always liked surfing better,” he insisted. “I just knew that I’d never get anywhere in the surf industry, so I pursued football.”

Perhaps Dom does not yet have the backing or kudos that some other high-profile, big-wave surfers boast, but one could argue his economic independence holds him to a more pure surfing path. His conviction to chase waves of consequence is all the more sincere, because he must do it via his own means, risking not only his physical well-being but his financial viability every time he commits to jumping on a plane and chasing waves.

“I basically just want to get as many barrels as I can before I die,” he insists. “You know I just want to be in the best health possible so I can continue, you know, going on these adventures and chasing the waves I want to chase because that gives me the most happiness out of everything.”

It’s that sort of single-minded devotion which puts Dom Walsh in a league of his own.