Australian goofyfooter Matt Wilkinson made his Championship Tour (CT) debut in 2010 and quickly became known as one of the most likable and sometimes outrageous surfers on the elite Tour. Despite strong natural talent, his personality has historically made a bigger statement than his surfing: In 2011, he permed his naturally wavy hair and rollerbladed to the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast contest each day. (See his Dawn Patrol interview above for his famed taste in wetsuits.)
Now, at age 27, Wilkinson is at a turning point personally and professionally. With six years on Tour, he's ranked No. 17 on the Jeep Leaderboard, and is ready to nudge that number up to No. 10 or better. Before the action kicks off at the Moche Rip Curl Pro Portugal, Wilko described the shift that has seen him start winning more heats, surfing more aggressively and yes, cutting off his hair.
World Surf League: First, let's talk about your hair cut. Is this is a whole new Wilko?
MW: In J-Bay my hair was getting way too long, and I was thinking about cutting it. I wore a beanie on the way over there, and it turned my whole hair into one giant natted dreddie. So when I got home from J-Bay, I told my girlfriend she had to cut it off and she was like, "I can't!" So I did it myself, and this is what's left. She fixed it at the end.
WSL: Is it part of a toning-down of your personality?
MW: I've tried to step up my game a little bit, but I'm still doing the same stuff. I'm definitely more serious, but only in the parts that need to be serious. I'm still doing some stupid [stuff].
I was so close to falling off Tour and it scared me.
WSL: How do you see your role on Tour?
MW: I came on Tour and was having a lot of fun, doing whatever I wanted. I guess that went down well with the fans. I seem, I think, more approachable than other surfers. Everyone seems scared to say hi to [others]. When I'm walking down the beach, people will call, "Dude! What's going on, you [expletive]?!" And I think, "Hey, I don't know you, sir."
I think I'm more approachable than a lot of guys. Which is fine with me. But I definitely feel that my surfing has a place, too. I think I have one of the best backhands on Tour, and I'd love to win an event with that and show people that I can win and event. This year I've been working pretty hard. What's let me down over the years is my consistency. I've definitely improved on that this year. And even heats that I've lost, I've been putting down bigger scores and surfing smarter heats.
So hopefully for the rest of the year and into next year I'll keep doing that and get result after result, rather than sporadic 25ths and thirds.
WSL: Are there specific changes you've made? What's new in terms of your approach?
MW: I've been training with Glenn Hall, he's been coaching me. It ends up being preparation, but putting a lot more work into making sure all the little things that I can change have been changed. And if it goes down in the ocean and the wave doesn't come, or it comes for someone else, then I've done everything I can do and the ocean's going to stuff me.
The last few years, I've just rocked up to my heat and been like, "Alright. I'll put my wettie on, paddle out and hopefully I win." And then come in and think, "I didn't win. This sucks." Whereas now, where I'm making sure I know where the best waves are, and I know which waves I should be surfing, that suit my surfing and how I plan on winning a heat. And then if my plan doesn't come off, at least I planned there and went for it.
I think I have one of the best backhands on Tour, and I'd love to win an event with that.
WSL: When you talk about working on the little things, what does that mean?
MW: As far as training goes, it's been getting fit enough to surf a 30-minute heat and still be surfing at 100 percent at the end of the heat no matter how strong the currents are or how big the waves are, and that's something that can definitely take a toll on your body. And if you need a 7.00 [point-ride] or something and you're not fit enough you'll catch the wave but maybe make a silly mistake.
WSL: What kind of training are you doing?
MW: We have a standard kind of workout, and then we've been running the beach and doing all sorts of weird, fun stuff. Like kicking balls around and if you drop the ball you have to do push-ups and run around. We do stuff that by the end of it you can barely walk, but you didn't notice that you were trying that hard when it was happening. Mostly tiring games that when you make a mistake you have to do burpees or push-ups or sit-ups. And kicking the ball out in the ocean, you've got to race out to try and get it. Trying to have more fun than sitting on an exercise bike in the gym.
Going to gym is the easiest way to know how much exercise you've done. And a lot of stuff on Bosu balls, keeping your core switched on, doing balance stuff while doing squats on the Bosu ball and catching stuff. Keeping your mind going while exercising.
WSL: So do you have an awesome six-pack now?
MW: Maybe under all this hair and chub.
WSL: You mentioned that this is all a bit different from your approach in previous years. How and when did that mindset change?
MW: At the end of last year I was so close to falling off Tour and it scared me a little bit. I spoke to Glenn over Christmas, we were having drinks together and he was like, "You've been Tour for five years. It's time to put some effort in and see what you can do. You've had your fun." And I said, "Yup. That's absolutely right."
He said it as a friend and then it turned into him being my coach. Which has worked really well, because he's doing the Tour as well and we're helping each other. I think it just scared me being so close to falling off Tour. And he said, "You're a better surfer than that. You should be Top 10, not just hanging on." So he put that into my head, and thought, "Yep, I'm ready to see what I can do."
This year has been really good. We've worked a lot and had a lot more consistent results than last year. And I think not the results, but the heats that I've surfed and lost, consistently feel like I've surfed much smarter heats, which is crucial.
WSL: Are there any specific goals that you have for the remainder of the year, and looking ahead to next year?
MW: Well I feel like I've got enough points to requalify now, which is a big weight off my shoulders. In the last few years I don't think I've been in Portugal with that. A bit of pressure off here. I'm still within reach of making the Top 10, which is my goal for the year. So if I get a big result here and at Pipe [the men's next and final CT contest of 2015] that's still my one goal.
I've never gone into Pipe feeling confident, so going there this year I'll try and put as much time in the water while the QSs [Qualifying Series contests, part of the Vans Triple Crown] are going on and surf. Every year I've needed results either in the QS or the CT to requalify, so I've gone over there and put a lot of effort into Haleiwa and Sunset and gotten good results and requalified just before Pipe, and thought, "I'm done! This is what I needed to do." And gone into Pipe and not cared. But this year I want to go over and not focus on the QSs and just surf Pipe and get more confident out there and figure out what I need to do to get a big result at the contest.
WSL: One last thing: You've been on Tour for a few years. You have a long-term girlfriend. Big picture, what do you see for yourself? I think you see where I'm going with this.
MW: I've settled down a bit. This year I've traveled on Tour quite a bit with my girlfriend, which has been cool. We had a cool little holiday in Italy right before the Quiksilver Pro France, which was nice. I want to start being Top 10 for the next few years, make some money, retire. Sit in the sun and drink beer.