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Aug 18, 2018

The Fresh Prince of Polynesia

In this era, the most competitive time in the history of surfing on tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel Bourez hauls the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. Can he beat the Hawaiians?

WRITTEN BY

Jon Coen

This story was originally published in print, in the Spring 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

It’s one thing to have a mountain, wave, or trail right in your back yard. But it’s another entirely to grow up at a world-class sporting venue. Picture a preschool T Rice learning to link turns at Jackson Hole, or a Sam Hill riding the hills of Western Australia with training wheels, or even 21-year old surf phenom, John John Florence getting pushed into waves at Pipe, the measuring stick by which all other surf spots are graded, which happens to be steps from his backyard.

Now imagine growing up on Tahiti, a spec of land in the middle of the ocean, formed by a series of geologically violent volcanic eruptions, and comprising of craggy cliffs lurching out of the blue South Pacific.

On this lush island is a place where massive Southern Hemisphere swells travel thousands of miles to come pulsing through a deep trench and crash with life-threatening explosions on a reef as rough as a cheese grater.

Teahupoo, as it is called, is essentially the watery playground on Tahiti where Michel Bourez grew up.

The channel at Teahupoo in Bourez’s Tahiti, brings the crowd closer
than any other event in the world. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Bourez, a seven-year veteran of the ASP World Tour and considered one of the strongest surfers on the planet, not only because of his physical strength, but the force with which he surfs, has lived his entire life in Tahiti, the hub of French Polynesia.

Franck Seguin

Hailing from Rurutu, his quiet pride and prowess in the water is the modern embodiment of the very Polynesians who had migrated through Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to settle Tahiti. He’s known in the surfing world as “The Spartan,” for his resemblance to the chiseled warriors of the film “300, Rise of an Empire” and for his potent carves known to decimate wave sections. His Firewire surfboards — the most technically constructed boards on tour, shaped by Australian board building legend, Nev Hyman — have to be reinforced to hold up through his turns.

Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins”

No one complains about growing up in Tahiti. Bourez’s father, a math and physics teacher, was a multi-sport athlete most accomplished as an outrigger canoe racer. An early version of the outrigger was likely the craft that the first peoples of Southeast Asia migrated to Tahiti in. It’s been an Olympic sport for nearly 100 years.

Compare this spectator at Teahupoo to a sweaty middle aged man at a football match in Manchester. Surfing has the best fans. PHOTO: steve dickinson

Make no mistake, Michel was a great canoe racer, but he was an all around waterman and also a talented surfer. And when it came down to it, he preferred paddling for waves to simply paddling. “My father didn’t like that decision,” remembers Bourez. “He didn’t realize there was any future in it. But once I dedicated myself and he saw the path, he supported me 100 percent.”

Surfing is a huge part of Tahitian culture. Like Hawaiians, Tahitian family days are spent at the beach.

“Every family has at least someone who surfs, from the father, to brothers or cousins. It’s just got a great vibe and brings happiness to the family,” explains Bourez. “For me, it was about the freedom. You’re in the ocean and there are so many things you can do on a wave. You’re out there with your friends and you’re using you’re entire body. And no one can tell you how to surf.”

Vetea David was the first Tahitian to make the ASP World Tour, qualifying in the late 1980s. Like Bourez, two decades later, he was known as a power surfer. Bourez was too young to have known David in his prime, but as he got older, he learned about and respected the doors David had opened.

He also has a great amount of respect for Raimana Van Bastolaer, Tahiti’s fearless ambassador to the heaviest wavemaker on the planet. At the age of 18, Raimana took him to Hawaii for the first time.

The Spartan, poised like the Tahitian warrior. Photo: Franck Seguin

“Raimana is a Tahitian legend,” says Bourez, “We still hang, surf and talk all the time. But he was so good to me. I was so stoked to travel and he hooked me up with my first sponsors. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Bourez explains all this from Coolangatta, Australia where he’s preparing to surf the first event of the 2014 season. Idyllic in its own way, it’s an altered scene from the traditions of Tahiti. And the peeling, performance-oriented wave is far different from the man-eating reefs of his island home. No one has nightmares about this place like they do about Teahupoo.

For a soft-spoken kid, Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. He earned a wildcard slot to the Quiksilver Pro France in 2007, went out, and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated his sport more than any other athlete in history.

In 2008, Bourez was selected as one of just a handful of surfers to take part in Red Bull Rising, a training camp for young athletes featuring Australian surf coach Andy King and a “management” role that took care of the athletes’ travel needs for a year on the World Qualifying Series.

“I was really keen to do it. Andy King knows exactly what he’s talking about. And to have that structure – to not have to worry about the flight, rental car, and accommodations was huge,” Bourez said. “I was able to really focus on each event.”

With a fantastic start to the 2014 season, Bourez is looking to rise above the field. PHOTO: franck seguin

“He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now”

He was 22 and attacked the next season. He surfed consistently and in late November of that year, he won the Reef Hawaiian Pro in heavy barrels, the first jewel of the Vans Triple Crown, securing himself a coveted position on surfing’s biggest stage – the ASP World Tour.

“Michel is a self made athlete,” explains Raimana. “He was so agro as a kid. He wanted so hard to be where he is now. He had some good support around him at the right time, the right place. His family and friends, were always behind him.”

But the ASP World Tour was no joke. In fact, Bourez has hung through possibly the most competitive time in the history of surfing.

In 2011, the ASP dropped the number of elite surfers on tour from 44 to 32, making it insanely more difficult to stay onboard.

Franck Seguin

Yet Bourez still managed to make the finals of the Oakley Pro in Bali last year and win the Reef Hawaiian Pro again (not an official World Tour stop, but a Prime-rated qualifying event with the best in the world).

Then there’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez – Australians, Californians, Brazilians, and most notably, a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii.

Florence is considered by many to be a future World Champ, maybe of multiple titles. But Bourez insists there is no inner-Polynesian rivalry between he and the Hawaiians.

“When I go to Hawaii, I hang with the Hawaiians. They have the same way of life as Tahitians – pure Island style. It’s the same culture, so it makes it easy for me to do my job. I don’t have to deal with localism. I always feel welcome,” Bourez states.

And it works the other way too. “We always welcome the Hawaiians to Tahiti too. It’s a give and take.”

But on the tour, there are three or four surfers at any given time flying the Hawaiian flag. Michel is left to haul the red and white Tahitian flag all by himself. TheHawaiians include a veteran, Freddy Patacchia, 31, who has made a strong return to the forefront in the last year, 26-year-old Sebastian Zietz, of Kauai, who won the Vans Hawaiian Triple Crown in 2012 and turned heads his first year on tour, and another noted power surfer from Maui, 25-year-old Dusty Payne.

The Channel at Teahupoo has caused him all kinds of stress in the past. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.” PHOTO: steve dickinson

For Bourez’s part, he said, “I just do my thing. I have to just rep myself, my family, and my friends.” There’s a hint of conflict in his voice. “Of course I know I am the main face of Tahitian surfing. All I can do is my best.”

Bourez finished the 2012 ASP Tour ranked No. 15 in the world and bettered that in 2013 by finishing in the No. 12 spot in one of the most historic seasons ever.

Meanwhile, he and his longtime girlfriend, Vaimiti Laurens, have had a son. Vaimiti is an elementary school teacher and travels with him when competitions coincide with the extended breaks that Tahitians get from school every five weeks.

Bourez is truly enjoying fatherhood. “Vaimiti’s brother surfs. All of our friends and neighbors surf. We live right on the beach. Sometimes my son spends all day in the water,” Bourez says. “We just try to have fun when we’re all together, But I don’t need to push him to surf.”

Bourez did not make a quiet entrance to the world stage. he earned a wildcard slot at the Quiksilver pro France in 2007 and eliminated Kelly Slater, a man who has dominated this sport more than any other athlete in history.

At the beginning of March, the World Tour opened with the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Coolangatta, Australia. This year, the ASP is a whole new game. The main governing body of professional surfing was taken over by ZoSea Media. ZoSea is an entertainment holdings company headed up by Paul Speaker, former president of Time Inc. Studios and board member at Quiksilver with Terry Hardy, Kelly Slater’s manager. The goal has been to better present surfing (a traditionally fringe sport) to a larger audience. Traditionally, the event sponsors have produced the webcast and owned the rights to their events. This year, the sponsors will simply pay to have their name on the event, but the ASP will own the media rights. ZoSea has worked out media deals with Youtube, Facebook, and ESPN. It’s a bit controversial, as surfers and fans are unsure of where the sport is going. But Bourez remains positive.

“It will be a little different for us. I’m sure there will be a few changes to the way they’re driving the ASP. But the ASP realizes where they should be and everyone feels like it’s going in the right direction.”

Backed by longtime sponsors Red Bull and Hurley, the start to Bourez’s 2014 campaign couldn’t have gone any better. He came out of the gate in average conditions at Snapper Rocks in Australia, and laid down the lethal frontside gouges he’s known for, one after another – bam, bam, bam. And he took the round one win over Owen Wright, the very talented Australian who had just returned from a devastating back injury, and California’s Kolohe Andino, son of pro surfer Dino Andino, thus raised in the very bosom of the surf world with top caliber sponsors and coaching.

In round two, he faced Patacchia, who referred to Bourez as his “island brother.” Even after throwing down multiple versions of his trademark power turn, Bourez fell short of Patacchia’s backhand attack. But it was one of the better heats of the day and signified a bright start to the season.

Photo: Franck Seguin

Through his career, Bourez has set attainable goals each year and achieved them, but he has yet to scalp one of those elite Tour victories. One thing that’s puzzling is the lack of a good result at Teahupoo, where he is the only surfer who gets to sleep in his own bed.

In 2011, when the swells reached superhuman size and power, he missed the quarterfinals by less than two points. He has yet to really put his mark on that event, even with the entire pro surfing world and half the population of Tahiti watching the action on everything from luxury yachts to wooden canoes. Between the wave and proximity of the crowd, it’s a very intense arena.

“Maybe the pressure of having an event in Tahiti gets to me. I know that wave better than anyone. But the vibe of the whole surf world and all the boats in the channel is so different than any other comp,” Bourez said.

There’s a whole crop of kids who have come up behind Bourez including a fellow Polynesian, John John Florence of Oahu, Hawaii. Florence is considered by many to be a future world champ, maybe of multiple titles.

Younger surfers in general seem to be at a disadvantage at some of the best waves on the planet. In the last ten years, Parkinson, Fanning and Slater have won a combined 51 tour events and every single title. Fanning and Parko are both 32 years old. Slater is a full decade older. As good as the young bucks surf, statistics show that the surfers who have competed at these waves for ten or fifteen years understand the intricacies involved in getting the best scoring waves.  

Before the Tour morphed in the last five years, surfers had more time to go to a venue and develop intimate knowledge of the wave and skill. Slater knows Cloudbreak like a lover. Fanning made it his life mission to rip Teahupoo. Bourez would like to go learn other waves as he gets into his 30s.

Then there’s the fact even being the most powerful surfer in the world isn’t quite enough. John John Florence has a power game similar to Bourez but is also one of the best barrel riders with a complete aerial repertoire.

“The only thing is missing with Michel is his air skills. Once his has this, he will dominate the tour, no questions,” said Raimana.

The real factor going for him is that determination, the focus, just like his tattooed Tahitian warrior ancestors. That’s something “The Spartan” already possesses.

“He surfs or works for himself and his family first and foremost. The only pressure he has, he puts on himself. He doesn’t need to prove anything to us Tahitians, French, or foreigners,” explains Raimana. “We’ll always back him up no matter what. We love the person, the surfer he is. Whoever is supporting him will be blessed by his work. We love Michel.”

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Athletes & Explorers

Dec 13, 2018

Steph Davis: Dreaming of Flying

What drives Steph, to free solo a mountain with nothing but her hands and feet, before base jumping? “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear."

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Presented byimage

In the coming days the Outdoor Journal will release an exclusive interview with Steph Davis, follow us via our social networks and stay tuned for more.

Do you have to be fearless to jump off a mountain? Meeting Steph Davis, you quickly realise: no, fearlessness is not what it takes. It’s not the search for thrills that drives her. She’s Mercedes travelled to Moab, Utah to find out what does – and to talk to Steph Davis about what it takes to climb the most challenging peaks and plunge from the highest mountaintops.

Steph Davis, getting ready to jump. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

At noon, when the sun is at its highest point above the deserts of southeastern Utah and when every stone cliff casts a sharp shadow, you get a sense of how harsh this area can be. Despite Utah’s barrenness, Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. But Steph is not here because of the natural spectacle. Here, in this area which is as beautiful as it is inhospitable, she can pursue her greatest passion: free solo climbing and BASE jumping.

Castleton Tower… Look closely. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Today, Steph wants to take us to Castleton Tower. We travel on gravel roads that are hardly recognizable, right into the middle of the desert. Gnarled bushes and conifers grow along what might be the side of the road. Other than that, the surrounding landscape lives up to its name: it is deserted. Steph loves the remoteness of the area. “One of my favourite places is a small octagonal cabin in the desert that I designed and built together with some of my closest friends. It’s not big and doesn’t have many amenities but it has everything you need: a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchenette … and eight windows allowing me to take in nature around me. That’s pretty much all I need.” Steph Davis cherishes the simple things. She has found her place, and she doesn’t let go.

No ropes, no safety net. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Castleton Tower is home turf for Steph. She has climbed the iconic red sandstone tower so many times she’s lost count. The iconic 120-metre obelisk on top of a 300-metre cone is popular among rock climbers as well as with BASE jumpers. Its isolated position makes it a perfect plunging point and it can easily be summited with little equipment – at least for experienced climbers like Steph Davis.

“It would be reckless not to be afraid. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.”

Steph is a free solo climber, which means she relies on her hands and feet only – not on ropes, hooks or harnesses. She loves to free solo, using only what’s absolutely necessary. She squeezes her hands into the tiniest cracks in the stone and her feet find support on the smallest outcroppings, where others would see only a smooth surface. Steph climbs walls that might be 100 metres tall – sometimes rising up 900 metres – with nothing below her but thin air and the ground far below. She knows that any mistake while climbing can be fatal.

Flying. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

The possibility of falling accompanies Steph whenever she climbs. Is she afraid? “Of course – it would be reckless not to be. But I don’t have to be paralysed by fear.” She has learned to transform it into power, prudence, and strength. “It’s up to us to stay in control.”

“You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

That’s what, according to her, free soloing and BASE jumping are all about: to be in control and to trust in one’s abilities. “It’s not about showing off how brave I am. It’s about trusting myself to be good enough not to fall. It takes a lot of strength, both physical and mental. You have to learn to face your fears and accept them for what they are.”

Touchdown. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

Steph Davis likes to laugh and she does so a lot. She chooses her words with care, and she doesn’t rush. Why would she? There’s no point in rushing when you’re hanging on a vertical wall, with nothing but your hands and feet. Just like climbing, she prefers to approach things carefully and analytically. That’s how she got as far as she did. “I didn’t grow up as an athlete, and started climbing when I was 18,” she smiles, shrugging. But her work ethic is meticulous and she knows how to improve herself. Whenever she prepares for an ascent, she does so for months, practising each section over and over again – on the wall and in her head – until she has internalised it all. She does the same before a BASE jump and practices the exact moves in her head until she knows the movement is consummate.

Steph loves the orange-gold landscape with its towers and elegantly curved arches of sandstone. Photo by Jan Vincent Kleine

“Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear.”

Would Steph consider herself brave? She says that she wouldn’t know how to answer that, you can see the small wrinkles around Steph’s eyes that always appear whenever she laughs. In any case, she doesn’t consider herself to be exceptional. “I’m not a heroine just because I jump off mountaintops,” Steph says she has weaknesses just like everyone else. But she might overcome them a little better than most of us do, just as she has learned to work with fear. “Bravery is not caused by the absence of fear. It is brave to accept fear for what it is, as a companion that you should sometimes listen to, but one you shouldn’t be obedient to.”

She slows the car down. We have reached Castleton Tower. It rises majestically in front of us while the sun has left its zenith. If Steph started walking now, she’d reach the top at the moment the sun went down, bathing the surrounding area in a golden light. She takes her shoes and the little parachute; all she needs today. Then she smiles again, says “see you in a bit”, and starts walking. Not fast, not hastily, but without hesitation.

All photos by Jan Vincent Kleine

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