In his first year on the elite CT surfing circuit, the former carpentry apprentice has made a huge impact.
In his first year on the elite CT surfing circuit, the former carpentry apprentice has made a huge impact. I first met Callum Robson back in 2019 on a boat charter that saw us roaming the Indonesian archipelago in a time before COVID. Callum was part of a crew of aspiring young surfers on the boat who all wanted their piece of the pro-surfing dream. He was 19, transitioning to the big leagues after a distinguished junior career.
Reflecting back on that trip there is a tendency to think about what might have stood out about the good-natured kid from Evans Head on the NSW north coast; if there was a clue that in three years the solidly built natural footer would be standing on the podium at Bells, clanging the runner-up trophy, nipping at the winged heels of Filipe Toledo.
As we plundered Indonesia’s wave playground a couple of things were certainly evident. Despite being one of the best junior graduates in Australia and having the promise of a bright surfing future, Callum already well understood the meaning of a hard day’s work. His dad was a builder and had taken him on as an apprentice carpenter, both father and son conceding it was a good idea to have a back up rather than put all your stocks into a notoriously volatile pro-surfing scene.
The experience had obviously helped eliminate any sense of entitlement or complacency he may have possessed.
Meanwhile, out in the water Callum’s surfing had a distinct level of intensity. Sometimes he approached sections so hard and fast you cringed a little when board and body collided with the lip. His powerful frame hinted at the once promising career as a rugby league centre. He’d given away the game to pursue surfing but retained some of the muscularity synonymous with the sport. Callum hit the lip like a hard-running centre trying to break the defense – the line had to be right and the force explosive. When both came together the results were devastating.
Callum’s first experience as a fully-fledged member of the elite CT tour was Pipeline in Hawaii earlier this year. The WSL had flipped the schedule, meaning the welcome party for the rookies was being hosted at one of the world’s scariest surfing venues. While prepping for their maiden contest the newbies would also have to mingle with Pipe’s menacing crowd.
Prior to the event Callum expressed an intelligent perspective. “I love surfing in Hawaii. I love surfing Sunset and Pipe and all those spots…it’s always like, Pipe’s uncomfortable and most of the spots in the lineup it’s all pretty uncomfortable, but you’ve kind of just got to get comfortable in that situation and embrace it.”
As it happened, the contest was blessed with glorious conditions and as sky-tickling west swells wrapped around Kaena Point and marched towards the reef at Pipeline, things very quickly got real for the rookieclass of 2022.
Callum remembers struggling to contain his excitement. “I was super nervous before my first day, but as soon as I got in the water for my first heat and the waves were as good as they were it was more so the excitement and the thrill of actually being able to surf Pipe with two other people and potentially getting the wave of my life.
“I was just hungry to get the best wave I could.”
Watching live it was evident Callum wasn’t going to sit on the shoulder at twelve-foot Pipe and die wondering. As he donned a helmet and hurled himself at the folding violence the phrase, “My, he’s having a dig,” came to mind. However, judges are less interested in heroics, they need ‘completed rides’ to make their scorecards tick over. Midway through the heat, Callum had to check himself.
“I almost forgot about competing a little bit and I was like, ‘I’m just pulling into big closeouts (dumpers). Put your competitive head back on Callum, and make the heat.’ Because you never want to end up in that elimination round.”
Callum slipped through in second and then in the round of 32 claimed his first major scalp of the year, Ethan Ewing. Many fans and pundits have pegged Ewing as the style-king most likely to lead the charge as an Australian world-title contender. It might have been midway through the first event, but Callum’s win sent a clear message that Ewing wasn’t the only surfer from Down Under to watch. By the time the CT aimed at Bells for the fourth CT event, Callum was in a solid position on the rankings but was yet to have a real breakout performance.
Determined to make the most of the opportunity, Callum headed to Bells early and took part in a training camp with veteran Victorian coaches Adam Roberston and Cahill Bell-Warren, alongside fellow elite competitors Connor O’Leary, Owen Wright and Molly Picklum.
Coaching had in fact become a pillar in Callum’s pro-surfing act. He’d worked closely with his cousin, Peter Duncan, an experienced coach, and throughout 2021 he’d even donned the coach’s hat himself, joining the team at Surfing Australia’s High Performance Centre. He found analysing the surfing of high-flying prodigies helped with his own surfing.
“It gave me a different understanding and made me think a lot deeper about what I wasdoing with my own surfing. Just by breaking other people’s surfing down and then going home and studying it and just trying to come up with different ways to relay the information in the best way.”
So when it came to Bells, Callum was more than ready to take a few pointers from Adam Robertson and Cahill Bell-Warren. A key focus of those sessions was on approaching Bells with a positive mindset.
“We mainly just worked on reframing the negatives into opportunities,” explains Callum. “Bells has so many opportunities; you’ve just got to know how to surf it right. And you’ve just gotta know what turns work out there and how to see it.”
Putting a positive spin on Bells immediately paid dividends for Callum as he marched through his early round heats, dusting Ryan Callinan and Seth Moniz (round one) and Frederico Morais (round three) en route to a career-defining clash with three-times world champion Mick Fanning in the round of 16.
Fanning is a four-times Bells champion and despite his extended absence from full-time competition had shown glimpses of his best in the earlier rounds. There was also huge sentimental support for Mick among the Bells crowd who were eager to see to their snowy-haired world champion whip some of the new, young faces.
Mick reminded the passionate Bells crowd of a time when fans Down Under had a world champion to cheer for, meanwhile Callum was trying to become a contender in an era in which Australian surfing was struggling to maintain a presence in the upper-tier of pro surfing. For Callum it was also a classic case of being asked to prove yourself by toppling your hero.
“Growing up Mick Fanning’s been my favorite surfer, someone I looked up to interms of his training and just full stop in life,” he insists.
The clash went down in classic, five- to sixfoot Bells conditions.
For much of the heat Mick seemed to have Callum’s measure, but as the heat wound down Callum was still just within striking distance. After Mick slayed a 7.5 he kicked off with a confident grin and the crowd roared. The commentators were pencilling him into the next round when Callum took a wave moments later. There was a minute and 35 seconds remaining as the former chippy hauled into a stretched ribbon of southern ocean that invited him to conjure something that would reign in a world champ making a stirring cameo.
In numerical terms Callum was chasing a 7.54. He stayed cool and made the rail of his board cut through the clean faces like a well-measured saw stroke and then double-slammed the lip through the inside with a couple of sledge-hammer snaps. It was clutch surfing at its best and the judges rewarded him with a 7.77, enough to give him a famous win in his first ever match-up with Mick Fanning.
“It was something I’ll remember forever for sure,” says Callum.
The victory was made a little sweeter when Mick gave him a big hug post-heat and encouraged Callum to ‘smash’ the next competitor. Later Fanning sent Callum a note of encouragement offering more considered words.
“He sent me a message saying: ‘Well done and I hope you can take it all the way’.”
As it was, Callum almost did take it all the way, crafting a path to the final, where he was eclipsed by the light-footed Filipe Toledo.
After the final, Robson celebrated with his Australian friends on tour and is quick to point out there is a collective push from the Australian camp.
“I’m like a massive believer in that group, and just being surrounded by people that really genuinely support you, especially when they’re the people who you’re competing against like your peers. We’ve got a great thing going on at the moment.”
In the wake of his stunning Bel ls performance, Callum still didn’t have the support of a major sponsor. Rather than expend energy chasing deals he’s entrusted a manager to take care of his financial backing so he can focus on competing with minimal distractions. Asked whether or not there was any significance in his success on a blank board he responds confidently.
“I guess it just shows that I back myself, I guess. Yeah, that I trusted myself to do well, which is why I chose to do that.”
Callum is well aware one good result does not cement his future, but with a spot on the CT secured for the back end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023, he can afford to set his sights on loftier goals. He has real faith in his working relationship with shaper Adam Fletcher from Sparrow surfboards, and like good mate and inspiration Morgan Cibilic, he’d desperately love to haul his way into the top five in his rookie year. He also admits he has one eye on qualifying for the 2024 Olympics.
For the time being, Callum will be approaching every heat the only way he knows how: “I just value just putting everything in, like not taking my foot off the throttle. So that’s where my head’s at.”
Fur ther validation for Callum’s zesty, no-nonsense approach came with his recent victory in the Challenger Series event at Snapper Rocks. Under the current WSL system the top tier ‘CT’ or ‘Dream Tour’ competitors are encouraged to take partin the Challenger Series (tier two) events, meaning they are often just as competitive as the elite contests. The Snapper Rocks Challenger Series contest attracted an illustrious field, including eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater and a host of other elite tour competitors.
This time Callum found himself in the final alongside local Snapper Rocks specialist, Sheldon Simkus. As the final kicked off, heavy winds and rain descended upon the Coolangatta setting and the swell jacked-up considerably. While the thick, barrelling waves imploded over shallow sand, the two natural footers engaged in a dramatic wave-for-wave duel. As the seconds ticked down Simkus held the lead. However, Callum again proved his capacity to keep a cool head and perform under pressure. He claimed a late wave and reeled in the wiry-limbed local.
Arriving on the sand a victor, Callum was chaired up the beach by his Evans Head brethren who had travelled up the coast to cheer on their favourite sporting son.
The win at Snapper proved to Callum and everyone else his break-out performance at Bells was no fluke. Instead it reaffirmed the young surfer with the untamed attack had worked hard to refine his approach, adding new degrees of control and refinement without losing any of the raw power that gives his act its potency.
At the time of writing, Callum is ranked number eight in the world and headed for a jungle-fringed left-hander in East Java known in surfing circles as G-land. The grinding wave stretches gloriously along a reef several football fields in length. G-land shimmers and sparkles beneath the Indonesian sun like a coiling jewel. It is hollow and heavy and shallow and fierce, but for a gifted professional like Callum, having the opportunity to ride the majestic wave with only a single guy out is one of the best perks of the job. There is no doubt he will embrace the challenge the only way he knows how – at full throttle.
Meanwhile, his new legion of fans will be glued to their screens, hoping this bold new force can spearhead a revival of Australian surfing in the competitive arena.