Pit Crew: Billabong's Chris Heffner Talks Team-Rider Development

Ferreira Joins Billabong
After a big rookie season, the young Brazilian earns a sticker from one of surfing's biggest sponsors.

In 2015, Billabong team manager Chris Heffner had two veteran surfers to shepherd through elite competitions. A notably small representation for the iconic brand who sponsors two of the Tour's most thrilling events, Teahupo'o and Pipe. But with the dawning of 2016 the self-described family-man will have his hands full with five men and three women CT surfers.

Chris Heffner's number one team. Chris Heffner and his No. 1 team. - WSL / Chris Heffner

WSL: How would you describe the dynamic between team riders as individuals, as a group, and with team managers like yourself? Heffner: For the athletes it's like being in a band. They're traveling the world together performing for fans in different countries, signing autographs, doing press conferences," Heffner explains. "The athletes tend to stick together but eventually - just like you read about bands - personalities clash here and there. Spend too much time with anyone, and there is bound to be some friction somewhere. My job is kind of like band manager - I've got to keep everything together and make sure the athletes make it to wherever they're supposed to be, whether it be a heat, a photo shoot, an autograph signing or a dinner."

Jack Freestone
Jack Freestone disappears behind a thick Sunset Beach barrel for a perfect 10-pointer during Round 3 of the Vans World Cup.

WSL: So in 2016 you've nabbed Brazilian Rookie of the Year, Italo Ferreira, and rookies Jack Freestone and Ryan Callinan will be joining Joel Parkinson and Taj Burrow. What have you guys done to deepen your bench? Heffner: Well, we went through a period where we kind of lost sight of having a succession plan in place. We had Taj, Joel and Andy, and we did have Jordy (Smith) and Kolohe (Andino) on the program at the time. But when we lost them, we didn't have anyone to fill Taj, Joel and Andy's shoes. There was a big gap before we had Jack Freestone and Ryan Callinan qualify. We don't want to let that happen again, so we've put a full development plan in place.

Ryan Callinan's Quarterfinal finish at the Vans US Open last season was one of his top two results. - WSL / Kenneth Morris Ryan Callinan (AUS) on his way to victory in Round 4 of the Vans US Open of Surfing.

WSL: Tell us about Billabong's Bloodlines program. What is it? How does it work? Heffner: Bloodlines is made up of our top groms, guys like like Jack Robinson, who won the Men's Pipe Invitational, Griffin Colapinto who took the Junior's division at the Vans US Open, and our recent signing of rising junior star Kai Hing.We send them on several trips a year and have them work on their surfing, give them some guidance and give them the tools that they'll need for a professional career. The team riders graduate from the Bloodlines program when they turn 18 to a program called NexGen. NexGen is entirely focused on taking these kids and having them qualify for the Championship Tour. Richard Dog Marsh created it, and has developed it for us, and we're already seeing results. We don't necessarily 'make' our team riders go through the programs per se, but they are tools that we've put in place that are on offer to develop their careers. Jack Robinson, Griffin, Kai and the Moniz Brothers are at a point where they can and will be part of the NexGen program, along with a couple of our other top QS campaigners like Frederico Morais, Taylor Clark, Tomas Fernandes and Victor Bernardo, whom we also recently signed.

Jack Robinson
Jack Robinson took down a few big names on his way to victory at the Men's Pipe Invitational, including local specialist Jamie O'Brien.

WSL: What do Team Managers like yourself do to encourage your veterans to help your up-and-comers? Heffner: There's a lot of essential knowledge that Taj and Joel have in their combined 30+ years on Tour that they can pass on to Jack, Ryan and even Italo in his 2nd year. Even basics like where to stay, where to eat, the best flight routes, etc. can be extremely helpful to the rookies. Then, they can share info like how a particular wave behaves on what tide, what size boards to bring. I'm sure that they'll hold back some info - as they could still draw those guys in a heat - but I expect that they'll be pretty supportive overall. [Taj and Joel] were very receptive to helping the guys and had actually offered some advice and tips to the rooks before we even spoke.

Joel Parkinson
Parkinson is a former winner at Snapper Rocks, Stop No. 1 on the CT. In 2014, he had an impressive performance, but was eliminated by Gabriel Medina in the Final. Though at least one of his rookie teammates is from the area, Parkinson's veteran experience is still noteworthy.
Chris Heffner testing the conditions for his athletes in Fiji. Heffner testing the conditions for his team in Fiji. Photo Credit: Tom Servais. - WSL / Tom Servais

WSL: There are a lot of intangibles that come to play in your line of work. What are the important things that are hard to quantify? Heffner: The travel and contests can be a grind. So really I try to keep it light and make sure the crew are having some fun - but not too much fun - [keeping] them in a position to be successful in the water.