Former CT star Richie Lovett will always be a proud Australian, but back in his touring days he fell immediately in love with Lower Trestles, and through some very heavy ups and downs he's become an adopted son of the break. After twice being voted the most underrated surfer on tour he finally captured his first and only career win at Lowers in 2003. But in 2005, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and his career was abruptly ended. As he sought treatment in California, Trestles became his home base, and the San Clemente community his salvation. That's one reason why Lovett returns every year to see friends and watch the contest. We caught up with him after his latest session.
WSL: First, how are you doing these days?
Richie Lovett: Great. I just got out of the water. Surfed Lowers with Warren Kramer [a member of the WSL medical team] this morning.
How did your relationship with Trestles begin?
Must have been the late ‘90's. I was staying with Jake Pato in Huntington, and we did a day mission down to Lowers. It's kind of a rite of passage. It's funny though…a lot of the other Aussie guys were never super keen to come to the States back then, but I loved it right from the start, and Trestles was the whole reason why. Y'know, you get down to Lowers it's so removed from everything -- a total contrast from the hustle ‘n bustle of LA just an hour away, and it's almost like a remote surf break.
Just a crowded one though.
(Laughs) But once you get a couple, you realize how fun and high performance that wave can be. I just remember thinking it was a perfect canvas.
When did you first compete there?
I was in the first CT they held there, in 2000. I didn't do very well, which was frustrating. Y'know, I was one of those guys who really struggled to reach my potential on tour. I was doing some of my best surfing there. I was dropping high scores, and had some OK heats, but I never really converted it into a good result. Then 2003 happened.
What made things click that year?
Well, I'd just made a bunch of finals on the ‘QS leg in Europe, so I didn't have to worry about requalifying coming into Lowers that year. So I definitely made a conscious effort to just relax and let go before every heat. And it's funny because when you're winning everything feels so easy. You're just letting things happen. It's when you're losing that it seems hard. All the stuff between your ears is what's getting in your way -- it's such a mind game. So it was such a relief to finally win an event.
One of the coolest things was Taj afterwards, how genuinely stoked he was for me to win the event. He had already won a bunch of events, and was just really happy for me. I got carried up the beach. All the Aussies were on hand, so was Bruce Beach and all the Electric crew, I had plenty of support, which was awesome.
And just two years later your life changed forever. When did you know something was wrong?
I was on a trip in Indo, surfing my brains out, and was experiencing a bunch of pain after every session. I thought I'd strained my groin, but then after a series of chiropractic and doctor appointments, X-rays finally showed there was an abnormality in the femoral head of my bone, in the ball joint of my hip.
I went to a specialist in Sydney, just before Hawaii that year, and he told me a bone biopsy was required, and if it was a malignant tumor, he'd probably have to take the top of my femur off… I was looking at him like he was mad, thinking, what are you talking about? I mean, I was heading to Hawaii to surf in the Triple Crown.
At that point, he asked me what I did, and I told him I was a professional surfer. He goes, 'What else can you do?'
The doctor warned me about going to Hawaii, saying it could be like signing my own death warrant if I damaged the femoral head in any way. So I was really careful. I surfed a few heats at Sunset, and basically dipped out. Then went out for my heat at Pipe, against Luke Egan and Renan Rocha. Those guys were just wide-eyed, ready to compete. I just sat on the shoulder, soaking up what was going on. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is how it could potentially all end.'
One of the tour doctors, Warren Kramer, suggested getting a second opinion in LA with specialist, Dr. Earl Brien, who was a surfer. His diagnosis was similar, but he was able to schedule an immediate biopsy. And honestly, because he was a surfer, I also felt a connection with him that gave me some comfort.
So the day before the biopsy surgery I rode down to Lowers, it was winter, and there wasn't anyone around. I just needed a moment, and I sat there staring out at the ocean just thinking about what was about to happen.
Unfortunately the results showed I had a malignant bone cancer called Clear Cell Chondrosarcoma, and the top third of my femur needed to be removed, as well as some muscle tissue.
Did you know right away your career was over?
It was a heavy moment, and up until then I was still planning the next year on tour, and in the back of my mind I was thinking there might be some way I could some day get back to that elite level, but after the surgery it hit me. I knew that part of my life was over.
Warren Kramer lives down by Trestles, and he actually took you in, correct?
Yes. It was such an amazing gesture. I mean, I barely knew him at that point. I can't even begin to describe how much it meant to me. My wife and I ended up living with them for a few months. He and his family became my family through this whole ordeal. He and the entire Trestles community rallied so hard behind my cause. I didn't have insurance then, so the bills were upwards of $150,000. Kramer and guys like Bruce Beach and Pat O'Connell held fundraisers and everything. It was amazing how much support I was getting from the entire community, and that's why I still love it so much here. Kramer is one of my greatest friends.
I had to learn to surf all over again. It was a good 8-9 months before I even paddled out and stood up on a little wave.
How long until you were surfing again?
I had to learn to surf all over again. It was a good 8-9 months before I even paddled out and stood up on a little wave. I did it in at Manly Beach, about 50 years away from where my grandfather first started pushing me into waves. It took years to just start surfing okay again, especially on shortboards. And while I'd accepted the fact that I wasn't going to be on tour, I did compete. In 2014 I won an event at Manly called the King of the Beach; it's a local Boardriders Championship. After that I also competed in the Australian Open of Surfing at Manly, a QS event. I guess I just had something to prove to myself, then something clicked, and I decided I didn't need it anymore. My life has unfolded in ways I never imagined. I didn't want to leave the tour like I did, but so many other good things have happened since.
And now you're into designing surfboards?
Yeah. As I got stronger through rehab, I was looking for different equipment that could help me surf the way I wanted to surf. I began messing around with the AKU software and started designing my own boards. It was such a fun thing to do, and I could make myself the boards I needed. Having worked so closely with so many different shapers over the years, I already knew most aspects of board design.
Then a few years ago an opportunity came up with GSI to design boards for some of their brands, and I've been into it ever since. I recently gave their 7S brand a complete overhaul, and I get to design all types of boards from performance hybrids to more higher volume models for regular surfers. I also work for Surf Hardware International, FCS, and Gorilla, doing everything from sports marketing, fin design and team management. But a lot of my passion and focus is on surfboards and hardware, and making the experience in the water more enjoyable.
So did it surprise you at all that three of the top four finishers at this year's Hurley Pro call San Clemente home?
Not at all. I mean, Filipe and Jordy are both such incredible surfers, and I love the contrast in their styles. Jordy is so powerful and he can just muscle his way through turns, and fit his board into everything. And on the other side Filipe is a more of a dance thing. They're both so good out there it's ridiculous. I just look at what these guys are doing and compare it to how the surfing was when I won out there an it's just crazy how much it has evolved. What these guys are doing on waves is truly innovative and inspiring, and there's no better performance wave on tour to showcase where surfing is today than Trestles.