Did we call it, or did we call it? On March 12th — the very day ESM’s latest issue hit shelves with an in-depth big-wave surfing feature claiming Will Skudin as a dark horse Big Wave World Tour threat — Will went out and made the finals of the DIVE N’ SURF Oregon Pro Big Wave World Tour event at Nelscott Reef, trouncing famed international stars to win both his opening round and semifinals heats along the way. The result was a personal best, a new standard for East Coast performance, and a huge career step for Will, who’s been working for more than 10 years to earn recognition as an elite big-wave competitor. It also came at a critical juncture in the season, when final seedings for next year’s events are being decided. Currently sitting at 16th in the World Rankings, Skudin may now have a chance at breaking into the coveted ranks of the Top 12 — who earn guaranteed invites to each BWWT event — if the DIVE N’ SURF Todos Santos event runs before the end of the month. So, keep your fingers crossed that it does, and in the meantime, check out what Will had to say about his recent career high-point…
ESM: So Will, obviously this ended up being a really important contest for you. Walk us through your mindset leading up to it. You were initially signed up as second alternate for this event, right?
Will Skudin: Yeah, this will be my fifth contest that I’ve done, but I’ve always traveled to them as an alternate, so I’m used to it. I’ve been through it before, and I knew that usually the top three or four alternates are pretty much guaranteed to get in, so I started mentally preparing for the idea that I was in. And then I got an e-mail before I even left for the contest — I was actually just packing my bags — and they told me that I was into it, so it was cool to be able to travel to Oregon knowing that I was going to do the contest, because it allowed me to mentally prepare to compete instead of having to just hope the whole time.
ESM: What’s that process of preparation like for you?
WS: I just kind of clear my head of all the life drama and focus on the objective in front of me. I ask God to give me strength, courage, and endurance to make my way through. And then there’s a lot of visualization that I do, too. My mom taught me to do that when I was young. I used to swim competitively, so she would have me visualize my races before I even got in the water. Now, I visualize myself making my heats and making the finals. It’s kind of funny too, because I never visualized winning this event. My goal going into it was to make the final. That’s where I wanted to be at the end of the day.
ESM: How would you describe the conditions that were on offer when the contest rolled around?
WS: The size was there. There were some big sets and then the wind picked up. It was gnarly. It wasn’t the biggest, most perfect, giant big waves, but it was every bit of gnarly. It was 30-foot faces with the wind blowing up the face. It took every ounce of muscle in your feet just to hang on for the drop. You were literally floating above your board on every drop. You couldn’t even bottom turn until your feet got set. It was a really challenging and difficult big-wave session. Some people were saying it wasn’t that big, but there were a couple of waves I rode that day where I got pounded. I got lit up a few times. Especially in the final on this one right. That was a serious beating.
ESM: What was going right for you during the contest that helped make this result happen?
WS: I felt really in tune with the ocean. I’ve surfed out at Nelscott Reef about five times prior to that contest, so I knew the wave a little better than some of my competitors, and I had a strategy. I saw that the current was pulling really hard from the left to the right, and I did some commentating for the webcast, so that was really helpful, because I saw how the judges were scoring some of the waves. People were getting 9.0’s on lefts, so going into it, I had this strategy that I was going to sit all the way off to the right and try to get a left. If you get a left, you get pulled back out the left channel, then you can relax your arms and the rip will pull you back to the peak. So then I would already have one wave under my belt and not have to be fighting the current, and then I could start looking for a right. That was my strategy for my heats. I did it in every one of my heats. I went left first and then started looking for a right, and it worked out.
ESM: What were some of your favorite moments from the event, overall?
WS: My favorite heat was the finals. I feel like I surfed pretty well, and it was actually the most fun heat, believe it or not. There was this giant left in my first heat that was such a sick drop, and the wave just came right to me. It ended up gobbling me up, but I made it as far as I could, and it was one of the bigger waves I caught the whole day, so that was exciting. I don’t know why, but the two big waves that got me — the right I had in the final that closed out on me and ended up just nailing me, and then that big left in the first heat — those were the ones that felt really good. Maybe it was just the size of those waves. I didn’t really make the wave, but the drops were just nuts, so I got a rush more than some of my other ones. As far as the best feeling of the contest, though, the moment when they told me in the channel that I made the final was sick. You don’t get to experience that kind of feeling all the time: where you’ve worked for the last 10 years to accomplish something. I’ve made two semifinals, and I’ve lost two times in my first heats, but I had yet to make a final, and coming into this event, I was ranked at the bottom of the totem pole. It looked like I wouldn’t be on the Big Wave World Tour next year, or I’d be at the very bottom of the alternate list. So I needed a big result in order to have the opportunity to compete next year. It was do-or-die, so I set my goal to make the finals. And then my semifinal was a slower heat that was tough for everyone in the lineup, so at the end of it, I wasn’t sure where I stood, because it wasn’t my best heat. But once I found out that I had won the heat, I definitely let out a couple of yells off the back of the jet ski [laughs]. I was pretty psyched. And now that I’ve made the finals at an event, it’s just human instinct to want to do better, so now I really want to win one of these things.
ESM: It seems like some of the changes resulting from the ASP’s acquisition of the Big Wave World Tour will make next year’s events harder to get into than ever before. Was that weighing on your mind heading into this contest?
WS: Yeah, every single event from now moving forward is do-or-die if you’re someone who is on the edge right now. You want to be in the Top 12, and it looks like I’m not going to make it for next season, because I think I would have needed to place 2nd or 3rd in the finals. I was 0.18 points away from 3rd. You have to be in the Top 12 to really be in most of the events next year, but if you’re 13th, 14th, 15th, or 16th, I think you should be either possibly in some of the events or toward the top of the alternate list for next year. The Todos Santos event will be the last event on the tour this year, so if that event runs, then I’ll have another opportunity to tap into that Top 12, and that’s really the goal, because then I would be in every event next year. So my fingers are crossed that that event will go. They put it back on hold, and it doesn’t really look like there’s much swell on the radar, but there could be something right at the horn. We’ll see what happens, but obviously, I really want the Todos event to run. It’s a wave I’m really comfortable at. I’ve spent a lot of time there in my life, so hopefully it runs. But, if it doesn’t, next year will probably be very similar to what this year was like for me: I’ll be somewhere at the top of the alternate list for a bunch of the events, if not maybe in a couple. I got a wildcard into Todos this year, so I’m hoping that will continue. It’s a new era of big-wave surfing and big-wave competition, so I’m just rolling with the punches and trying to prove to the world that there’s a place for at least one East Coast guy on the tour.
ESM: Sounds like a plan, Will. Anything else you wanted to say about your experience at the Oregon contest?
WS: Well, just to have the opportunity to compete against these guys on tour — I’ve had posters of some of these guys on my wall since I was 12 years old — and then actually beating them was a dream come true. If anything, it just makes me more hungry. I’m really excited about trying to improve my equipment and my game and really trying to win the World Championships one day. If you look at that final I was in, there were guys who were about 13 years older than me in there, so that gives me time. In 12 years from now, I can’t imagine how much more in-tune my big-wave game will be. Big-wave surfing is like a good glass of wine: you get better with age.