Taylor Knox rolled into Carlsbad on a cloudy, September afternoon in 1984 and whimpered as the brown van his stepfather, Fred Watson, drove slowed to a stop at the red light just above Tamarack. Their home on Oxnard Shores, 150 miles north, seemed as far away as Kilimanjaro. His young mother, Janet, looked into the back seat, trying hard to convince the 13-year-old that Carlsbad was the place to be if he wanted to become a pro surfer (which he decided on at the age of 8). But this blond boy looked out the back window and out into the dark Pacific and sobbed a bit more. He was scrawny and about to enter Valley Junior High School as an eighth grader without a friend.But for a young boy wanting to become a pro surfer, Carlsbad was fertile ground for learning and boasted one eighth of the top 16 surfers in the world: David Barr, a stylish regular foot, and Joey Buran, “The California Kid.” Along with this talent was heaps more who were also preceded by a “hotbed” of talent deeply rooted to the history of surfing itself. Taylor Knox was about to get an education.
Former pro surfer Witt Rowlett recalls the first time he met Knox. He drove down to surf solid eight foot storm surf at the state campground in South Carlsbad (which was closed for the season) with Phil Treible, a former U.S. Juniors champ who, according to Rowlett, “ruled.” Knox was changing into his wetsuit at the top of the wooden stairs next to the main lifeguard tower (which was a big “no, no” at the time and something that locals in the know didn’t do) when the two pros gave the “stern, serious kid” a few words of advice: “There’s a lot of current out there. Be careful.” Knox didn’t say much but inside was happy to see that these two strangers were also paddling out; he wouldn’t be the only soul in the water on that rainy day.The two pros walked north towards the padlocked lifeguard tower #7 to paddle out—a better position to get through the treacherous inside waves and make it to the outside. The grommet, however, started his paddle in front of the main tower. After about 30 minutes of struggling under wave after wave, the two pros made it to the outside while the current swept Knox further and further down the beach until he finally got out, walked up to tower #7, and tried again and learned that from there, his efforts would bring him to the main peak to join the “mythical” Phil Treible, as Knox describes him, and his future coach, Witt Rowlett.
Knox’s surfing may not have caught the pros’ eyes that day, but his determination did. And so Rowlett invited him to drop by his surf shop, Carlsbad Pipelines where he became a “shop rat” and eventually an employee whose main responsibility was to clean up the dog poop in the yard to the back of the shop. “Taylor worked really hard,” Rowlett shakes his head in recollection.
Until Valley Junior High, Knox “never heard of a surf team,” and so he tried out and made the team; and by default, inherited a “solid” group of close friends. These were the surfers of Valley and Carlsbad High who, according to the rigid pecking order of Warm Water jetties elite lineup, would surf the inside. And when it broke like a world class wave — before the small Jetty was put in — it would freight train with top to bottom barrels 100 yards down the beach and guys like David Barr and the ’84 Pipeline Masters winner, Joey Buran, would put on a show that would cause the other surfers to ‘ooh-and-ah’ and say, “that’s how it’s really done.”
But Knox was intimidated by the talent north of his South Carlsbad home in Sea Cliff, where his step dad was the superintendent of construction. He mostly just biked down Poinsettia Lane where he had to carry his bike over the railroad tracks (there was no bridge at the time). He would surf no matter what condition, from horrible to perfect (and still does today!).
When Knox made the Carlsbad High School surf team, there were many surfers on the team better than him: Sean Dominquez, Yancy Herbert, Mark Sharp, Tim Monk, Jeff Dana, and Josh Potter to name a few. But at a tryout contest for Witt’s Carlsbad Pipelines just north of Tamarack at Cherry Street, two of the pros judging that day, Paul and David Barr, saw some talent in the ninth grader: He was “S” turning through the flats of the waves while most of the other surfers were hopping towards the beach. They recognized this kid had some raw talent. And so that’s when David approached him and sort of took him under his wing: getting him onto the Linden team (which had some the best surfers in North County), taking him surfing, and buying him “lots of breakfasts.” He was right where he was supposed to be, starting to catch up with the other kids and doing what he does best: improving.
Fast forward to 2007. Knox is now 36-years-old and laughing. He turns to one of his best friends, Josh Potter and says, “You know what…I’m going to still be a professional surfer at my 20th high school reunion.” And he’s still as humble as when he first drove into Carlsbad. He loves and appreciates his friends and family dearly.
“My son and daughter, Hunter, 9, and Jordyn, 7, are my sweethearts,” he says. I don’t know how I got so lucky. They are really amazing kids.” And when he’s not traveling to remote places around the world for a competition, he spends as much time as possible taking them to Ponto where he teaches them to surf, or they just hang out and have fun.
Knox is the first surfer in the history of Carlsbad High to have his jersey retired, and he’s earned it. He and Kelly Slater are the last two surfers remaining on the ASP World Championship Tour (WCT) from the Momentum Generation, the group of elite surfers who led the evolution of surfing through the early ’90s and into the new millennium, and who are sometimes referred to as the New School. And his good friend Taylor Steele documented it all starting with his video: Momentum (hence, Momentum Generation). Knox stands out as the power broker of the group and as Slater says, “he combines power and flow together in a way few surfers do; he is one of the most technically sound surfers on the tour.”
And Slater adds, “it is no mystery that Taylor is a better surfer than competitor.” This fact has also been a huge source of frustration for Knox, but he has come to realize that when you are doing the best you can and learning, you are winning. “When my learning goes from five percent to 10 percent,” Knox says, “I’m that much better off.”
Even then, he became the 1995 Professional Surf Tour of America champion. And in 1996, he helped the USA to victory at the World Surfing Games by scoring a perfect 10. And in 2001, he came a heat away from becoming the ASP World Champ. He sat out at Sunset and waited for a bomb that never came. The points he earned from that contest put him at fourth in the world and his best finish yet. And although he has gone up and down in the tour ratings and even fell off tour in 1999, he has earned the respect of his peers and many, like the current ratings leader, Australian Mick Fanning, name him as their favorite surfer. He is a surfer’s surfer who has a style that Surfing Magazine editor and one of Knox’s best friends, Evan Slater (no relation to Kelly), says is “timeless.”
Knox has been stereotyped as a “Jock Surfer” by many because of his dedication to training and doing yoga for years, but when Knox’s friend and Major League Baseball’s all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, is asked about whether he saw Knox shagging balls in the outfield before the opening of Petco Park, he says, “no, and I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, it’s the equivalent of me bailing my board out in the lineup.” And Hoffman was right, while chasing a high fly ball into right field he almost ‘killed’ a couple of players. And when he stood in the outfield discussing the Padres team for that year with Bruce Bochy, he felt like Seinfeld’s George Castanza talking baseball with George Steinbrenner.
But Hoffman respects the way Knox “goes about his business.” He’s defying the odds, constantly bettering himself — evolving and competing to win. A lot of people look up to him. He’s genuine.” Hoffman adds, “He’s crazy. He rode a wave as big as the Western Metal’s building in left field. I don’t know how he could have caught something moving that fast, especially since he took a beating on the wave before.”
The wave he’s referring to is one of the most significant rides in surfing history: a 52-foot monster off of Todos Santos Island in Mexico. He won the inaugural K2 Big Wave Challenge earning a check for $50,000, which he put straight into his ATM.
Big wave legend Mike Parsons (who towed into a 64 foot waves at Cortes Banks, 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, says “it was as talented of a thing as I’ve ever seen. Not any other surfer in the world could have made it but Taylor — everybody else is falling on that wave.”
Knox has worked out on his body for years and his current certified trainer and Carlsbad local, Paul Hiniker, says that he is in the shape of a pro surfer 10 to 15 years younger. And Knox agrees, “I’m in better shape now than I was at 26. And I’ve finally figured out that the body follows the mind. How did I do that? Meditation.”
He spends 10 minutes every morning and every evening before he gets too tired, to bring his mind to stillness. Sometimes his brain races with thoughts, but with seven years of practice, he is calming down and starting to feel. He is no longer waiting for the experience of life to happen, he is living it. Becoming aware of negativity, and then avoiding it when he can — except when it’s coming from within. And then he’ll face it and see it for what it is from the subtlest part of his mind. If Joan of Arc were a male surfer living in California, her name would probably be Taylor Knox. But Knox is not fighting a battle in the outside world, but in his own inner world where he feels the only true “spiritual” war lies. Knox is taking the advice of what Jesus said long ago, “know thyself.” He thanks his friend and teacher Ron Rathburn for “helping him to see” for himself.
“Life is an interesting invitation,” Knox says, “and just maybe, I’ll be the oldest surfer ever to be world champion. But I’m not worrying about it. I’m just learning to take life one moment at a time.” •