New York is known for many things, but big-wave surf talent is not one of them. But Long Island's Will Skudin has been quietly changing that. Until this past year, he had competed in a handful of Big Wave Tour events, and while he was named Surfer of the Year by Eastern Surf Magazine, he was still living largely in the big-wave shadows.
Then winter came and something changed. Skudin spent this historic El Niño-fueled season chasing as many swells as he could through the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. During every milestone swell this winter Skudin was there, which earned him a prestigious nomination for the 2016 Surfline Overall Performance prize at this year's Big Wave Awards.
While Skudin didn't win at Saturday's ceremony (Shane Dorian took the honor), his nomination earned him a spot as an alternate on the Big Wave Tour and the kind of confidence that only comes with hard work, dedication and heavy humblings. Sporting an "I Love NY" tee at the award show, Skudin arrived with the appropriate swagger, rolling almost 10 people deep with a posse that included his parents.
WSL: How would you describe the past winter, in the canon of winter seasons?
Will Skudin: I'm 30 now, but I've been doing this since I was 17 religiously, so I've only had 13 seasons. This season is probably three-to-five times more active than any season I've been a part of. It's insane. So with that, it blew away every other season that I've been a part of.
You have to understand that the biggest the waves are going to get, ever in the world, we're going to try to paddle.
WSL: How did that impact your travel schedule and training?
WS: I was really happy that it happened at the time of my life I'm at now. I feel good mentally and physically and also have my sponsors' support, my business' support. I was able to financially do what I needed to do to get to where I needed to go. Everything lined up with support from all angles.
WSL: Was there anything new that the frequency or size of waves brought for you, in terms of having to adjust or up your game?
WS: I learned a lot about equipment this year, and we changed a lot about our equipment and also mentally. You have to understand that the biggest the waves are going to get, ever in the world, we're going to try to paddle. You have to mentally be ready for that. For me, it was getting through almost like a mental block -- there's a big difference between a 40-foot face and a 60-foot face.
Something I worked on a lot this year was connecting with why I do what I do.
Something I worked on a lot this year, was that my -- not spirituality, but connecting with why I do what I do, and why I want to do it. Take away the cameras and all of this, and am I still there for the same reason that I fell in love with it? I've found where I wanted to be, and I know why I do what I do now, whereas in the past I wasn't as connected as I am now.
WSL: Was there anything specific you did to cultivate that?
WS: Yeah, I had a morning ritual. I'm a Christian, I believe in Jesus and the Lord. I don't talk about it much, it's something I keep private. So I pray in the morning and do my little morning stretch and have my moment with God, and I listen. I connect with why I do what I do. And then I take that energy and use it in the ocean.
It's like you have to become second; it's not about you. You learn how to just accept that whatever happens is going to happen. So it's not about, 'Is God real?,' or getting super-religious. It's about getting out of your own bubble. It's not about you, it's about the experience. This is a really ego-driven sport because it's just you and the wave. So for me it was about connecting with the bigger picture.
Big-wave surfing isn't about you, it's about the experience.
WSL: Did it change how you felt in the water?
WS: Absolutely. It's the reason I'm here today. I was catching waves that I wouldn't have been catching before. Because I was mentally ready to do what I needed to do. I'm stoked to see where it goes, too. Because I feel more mentally and physically ready than I've ever been and I'm more excited about it.
WSL: What was your best, or most memorable, day of the season?
WS: At Nazaré. I paddled into a pretty big wave there before the whole northern hemisphere Pacific side started. A couple waves landed on me that cleaned me up, that were that moment of being under a wave that big and knowing it's going to break on you, and knowing that you're going to be ok.
WSL: Why was it the best?
WS: Because it was the closest I came to fear. It was the pinnacle of the biggest ocean I've ever seen in my life. Nazaré doesn't have a channel, so you have waves landing on your head, swimming to the beach and fighting for your life. Every wave after that -- a perfect reef, Maverick's, Jaws -- you can position yourself accordingly, so your chances of getting cleaned up are way lower. Having that Nazaré experiment let me move into the rest of the year, where I wasn't as -- you're looking at these waves that can still kill you, but there's higher odds that you're going to be in a better position than at Nazaré. And you get the confidence because you had your ass beat.