The Mitch Coleborn Pro Spotlight
In an industry of counterfeits, Mitch is staying true to himself
By Zander Morton
Note: This profile, from our August 2013 issue, went to print before Mitch won the ASP Prime in Saquarema, Brazil. At the moment he sits in 20th on the ASP Men’s World Ranking, in a strong position to see his 2014 World Tour aspirations become a reality.
Mitch Coleborn isn't f—king around anymore. After a dozen magazine covers and a slew of video sections, he's established himself as one of the best surfers in the world "not on tour." But now, the tour is exactly where he wants to be. It's where the best surfing in the world is happening right now, and Mitch realizes as much. So he's hired a trainer. Dialed in his surfboards. And why wouldn't he? Qualifying is the next logical step. Winning heats and competing for a world title is the only way to completely legitimize his career. Let's call it the "post John John Florence" era, a time in surfing history when video sections alone just aren't going to cut it. These days, a career without qualifying comes attached with an invisible asterisk, a "yeah he rips, but…"
If you follow professional surfing, you're most likely aware of two things about Mitch: One, he's a talented Australian goofy-foot. And two, he was once arrested in Canada.
The former is something to be proud of. You've no doubt watched Modern Collective, Lost Atlas, and Dear Suburbia. But the latter, well, it's the one black eye on his otherwise illustrious career, so let's set that record straight up front. During the middle of a trip to Western Australia together—a week after Mitch secured a keeper result in the opening ASP Prime of the year at Margaret River—we start the conversation.
What's the biggest mistake you've ever made?
Canada. That was a big wake-up call.
On October 14, 2010, Mitch's good friend Josh Kerr won the O'Neill Coldwater Classic in Canada. Mitch also surfed in the contest, falling to Eric Geiselman in the quarters. At the event's conclusion, Mitch and crew celebrated Josh's victory. The following day, he woke up in jail.
That evening, news reports spread across the Internet like wildfire: "Australian professional surfer Mitch Coleborn faces up to six months in a Canadian jail after allegedly exposing his genitals to a group of children and adults near a school. He is charged with committing an indecent act. If convicted, it could limit his ability to travel the world, and he also faces the prospect of being placed on Canada’s national sex offender's registry."—Via surfersvillage.com
Can you elaborate on the story?
Yeah, it was just a big misunderstanding. And now, I know to never believe what I read because it was blown so out of proportion. More than anything, it was really embarrassing. I can't even be down at the pub having a beer without someone saying something about it, and that's something I have to live with forever. My real good friends, they would never say anything, but those people who don't know me and that's the only thing they have on me, they'll say shit, and that sucks.
It was just a big night out, right?
Yeah, and I was pissing in the middle of the street early the next morning. So it was a big night out. It was after the Vancouver comp ended, and a lady was walking her kid in the morning and I was pretty much in the middle of the street, and she called the cops. I was just mindless. The main street of the town has everything: the school is right next to the grocery store, which is right next to the cop station, and that's next to the pub. So they grabbed me [the police] and booked me, and that afternoon I woke up in a haze, realized what had happened, and just thought, "Holy shit."
I figured it was fine, that shit happens in Australia every day, no worries. [He isn't kidding either. Ever heard of Paul Fisher? If not, let's just say Australia is a bit more liberal about public nudity]. But the cop was trying to be the hero and ruin my life to make his somewhat better or something. So they took my passport, and I had to stay a few more days to get it sorted out. I never had to go to court—I had lawyers that handled it properly—and it's no big deal now at all. My lawyer went straight to the court and was like, "Are you guys serious? Do you know how stupid these charges sound?" He had it all thrown out straightaway. They wanted to make an example of me. The cop was a complete f—k wit.
What was the worst thing you read in the papers?
I tried not to read anything—the words getting thrown around about me. They weren't something I wanted to see. I still won't read any of it; it makes me feel shitty. It was definitely a massive wake-up call. I was just stupid.
Don't let one overblown incident fool you: Mitch is no dummy. He's not one to waste his cash drinking and making bad decisions, and he sure as shit isn't letting an ill-fated piss in Canada define his career. He was raised better than that.
He grew up riding horses (and in a pony club!) with his two sisters (one older, one younger) 20 minutes from the beach on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, and when he started surfing at age 10, he quickly realized he wanted to make it his career. Three years later he convinced his parents to move closer to the beach. "We had this sick, renovated house and a bunch of land, but all I wanted was my parents to buy a shit heap on the beach so I could surf." A year after moving, at 14, he was picked up by Volcom, and he's been with the brand ever since. "Thank god my parents listened. They did what was in my best interest and I'm forever grateful."
Four short years later, at age 18, his junior career took off, and after securing his first decent contract, he made a down payment on a house of his own on the Sunshine Coast. In the years since, Volcom's loyalty to Mitch has paid off in spades. His name is synonymous with every high-profile film of our generation. His success allowed him to recently purchase yet another home, and he didn't stop investing there. Along with fellow professional surfer Dion Agius as well as Kai Neville, Mitch started a sunglass brand called Epokhe.
Where did Epokhe stem from? At 26, you're young to be starting a company of your own.
Yeah, that began with Modern Collective. We [Mitch, Dion, and Kai] wanted to start something but not clothing because Dion and I surfed for major brands. But we waited a bit too long after the movie to call the brand Modern Collective. We knew we were on to something because after MC we each put 200 dollars in, had 30 shirts made, and sold them off the MC blog for 60 dollars each in a few days. We tripled our money, and it was an indication that we should be doing something bigger.
It took us a while to get our vision for Epokhe sorted, and we landed on sunglasses because it wasn't a totally flooded market, margins are high, and it seemed like the easiest, most attainable thing for us right now. I'm stoked with our first line, where it's all at, and hopefully a Volcom or whomever will come along eventually and buy the company. At least that's the goal.
It's a smart move. If it becomes the next Electric, that would certainly take some pressure off your career.
I hope so. That's the thought. Times have changed a bit since Christian Hosoi, who didn't know the value of a dollar and was just renting mansions in Hollywood [laughs]. I guess I just realize this doesn't last forever.
And you guys sponsored Creed [McTaggart]. That sure was a good first pickup.
Yeah, it was between a couple young kids, but we landed on Creed. I knew it was happening but hadn't seen him start to explode. But this winter, during a small day at Backdoor, I was standing on the beach and he surfed this wave, and I just went, "Holy shit, this guy rips." He did a massive carve, a quick check, and a big finner, and flowed it all so well. Then, I'm in the airport, and there's an eight-foot billboard of him in the Billabong store, and I'm like okay, everyone is realizing at the same time he's going to blow up. And now, having done two trips with him already this year I'm baffled. I was a little more used to it [his surfing] on this trip, but I went on a trip with him in January and he f—king blew me and Dion out of the water, hands down. [Laughs] We're like, we just picked this kid up and he's smoking us. It's crazy.
He should do the comps; he's a consistent surfer.
I'll talk to him about it. I am his boss now [laughs]. I'll sit him down, and say, "Coming from your team manager…"
But he isn't cut out to be anyone's team manager. Not yet. Sure, he's an intelligent guy, one who will certainly have surf industry success when he hangs up his proverbial cleats, but that time isn't now. He's too talented on the water to pursue anything other than his own surfing. He's meant to be an elite World Tour member, meant to be chasing a title. Besides, the freesurf world is indie these days: tight jeans, "vintage" tees, and worn Jack Kerouac books a big part of the culture. Does anyone actually wear their sponsors' clothing anymore? Mitch does. And he's far closer to sharing the psyche of AI than Dane Reynolds. It's obvious: he wants to win contests, not make lo-fi flicks. It shows in his surfing. Every session. Mitch dominated the junior series growing up; now it's time to dominate the WQS.
"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.
I noticed you never took that anger outside of surfing.
Because it wasn't anyone else's fault. It was all going on in my own head.
I know how hard you were trying and how tough this trip was—with conditions the way they were.
Good, 'cause I thought you must've been thinking, "This guy is a dick" [laughs]. It's not like I didn't want to be here. I wanted to nail the biggest and best thing; I wanted to get clips and photos. I didn't feel like I had to be here or I had to get them. No one is forcing me to do anything. It's just that I know where I need to be this year and that's focusing on the events. And in freesurfing, injuries are a scary thing, especially when you've had a couple.
When did you first seriously injure yourself?
I first hurt my knee when I was 22, so it'll be four years now [he's had both knees operated on]. One I had cut out straight away, cartilage damage, and I had the other one fixed about a year and a half later. That was two years ago, and I'm still f—king worried about it.
Does that mentally screw you?
Yeah, subconsciously, my brain sets off this alarm and tells me not to land. Like, I'll stick a big punt and fall off last second, and then pop up and realize, "F—k, that didn't even hurt. Why didn't I just hang on?" But my brain is used to it now, firing that trigger, and it's hard to overcome.
That happened a lot on this trip.
Yeah, it would have been nice for just one little fluke landing [laughs].
How do you think you'll handle the stress of performing in 10 WT events each year when you qualify?
I just need to be better mentally prepared. I overthink things, and there's something I haven't quite figured out. It's right there; I just haven't quite gotten it.
Like, when am I going to get that feeling where I just know I'm going to win an event, or I know I'm going to qualify, or I know I'm going to land a f—king crazy air? You know what I mean? I'm just waiting for that little mental block, that little something, to shift in a positive way.
Before the US Open in 2012, everything was peachy for Mitch. He'd overtaken Bruce Irons as Volcom's marquee freesurfing athlete and been granted a wildcard into the Volcom Fiji Pro—where he beat Kelly Slater in the first round at eight-foot Cloudbreak. Shortly after, he'd gone on two editorial trips, one to Indonesia for this very magazine, where he told me, "Qualifying is the next step for my career. The feeling of winning in Fiji, that's what I f—king want to chase." He had an ASL and Surfing Magazine cover forthcoming and was in prime position to make a run at the 2013 World Tour, having already secured keeper results in Brazil and South Africa. He just needed one more big finish. With six months, three primes, and four six stars remaining, it must've felt a virtual certainty. Oh, how quickly things can change.
What happened in the second half of 2012?
I was totally thinking I was going to qualify last year, and then after the US Open, I f—king… I don't know. I'm trying hard again this year too, but last year, at the US Open for instance, I've never tried so hard, and I got smoked. It was a buildup of everything and I just got to that point and lost. I went to England and France with nothing afterwards, my head was gone, and after I lost early at those couple I went to Virginia and lost first heat again. I was meant to go back to Europe for two more, and I was like, "Screw this." Kristie [Mitch's girlfriend] met me in Virginia and we went to New York for two weeks. Just cruised. Volcom was calling me going, "F—k, dude. Don't you want to qualify?" And I'm thinking yeah, but I'm not going to force it and go back to Europe now and hate it even more. I went to the Canaries later and lost first heat there, and then I lost first heat in both Hawaii contests. I actually still had a chance to qualify going into Hawaii.
How did you mentally reset?
Last year, I was holding grudges—like seeing some people qualify almost too easy. I'm not sure what I was holding a grudge against but I was letting that get to me. At the US Open, I had Nat Young in the heat before quarters. I made a priority mistake and let him go on a wave and he extended his lead. I could have gotten the score but didn't go waiting for a better wave, and nothing ever happened. I worked it out at the end of last year. If I would have made that heat and he [Nat] only got the 1,300 points I ended up with, he wouldn't have qualified. Shit like that, it's crazy. I guess I never recovered, and I can't let that continue to happen.
Mitch isn't whinging. Far from it. It's easy to write his struggles off as a first-world problem. Yes, he's a privileged individual. Yes, he gets to travel the world and surf perfect waves. And yes, he's compensated nicely to do it all. He realizes as much. But surfing is also a job. And like Mitch said, it's not one that lasts forever. Simply put: Mitch really f—king cares about his career, and his work ethic is refreshing. There are plenty of young pros paid well to not do much of anything. Mitch isn't one of them.
Back in Sydney, the stress of contests and photos and movie parts disappear, at least for a night. Mitch is in town supporting his girlfriend of 10 years, Kristie Kahler, and the launch of her new clothing line, Winston Wolfe. It's an all-leather look, loosely named after the Pulp Fiction character with the same name. The brand took off quicker than expected, and when Australian beauty queen and Miss Universe 2004 Jennifer Hawkins plugged it on Instagram recently, business skyrocketed. At the launch, life-size images of a half-naked beautiful blond sporting WW's new gear adorned the walls. A more clothed version of the same model is in attendance. I do my best not to stare at either. At the event are some of Mitch and Kristie's good friends, potential buyers, PR agents, and plenty of free beer. It's a good party. For the first time in seven days, Mitch seems comfortable. At ease.
I ask Mitch how he and Kristie make their relationship work. "I met her when I was 16. We broke up for a couple of years, but we always knew we were going to get back together. It was just one of those things. I met the girl of my dreams when I was young, and for a long time that was hard to wrap my head around. Now, we just know."
Sarcastically, Mitch's buddy Jordy chimes in, "How do they make it work? Look how successful Krid [Kristie's nickname] is! Mitch had better treat her good. All he's got to do is keep her happy and ride her coattails."
It's an obvious joke. Mitch is in the prime of his own career. He may have a few mental hurdles to leap on the way to the WT, but he'll get there. Of course, he's happy to see Kristie's endeavor paying dividends. "It's a lot more fulfilling to see her reach her own goals. As long as it doesn't make us spend even more time apart, then it'll be all good."
Screw riding his girlfriend's coattails, anyway. And those back up plans: Epokhe, real estate investments? All that shit can wait. Mitch has a cozy spot waiting for him on the World Tour; all he has to do now is make himself at home.