Just after he had surfed -- and won -- his first Qualifying Series (QS) heat of 2017 at the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro, the former Championship Tour (CT) surfer Ryan Callinan was finding his groove again after a disappointing rookie campaign in 2016.
"It feels more like how I want to surf, showing off what I want to do and being comfortable in doing it and confident that I can," he said.
All along, confidence has been the key to Callinan's success in surfing -- or lack thereof. That missing component was perhaps most responsible for him falling off the CT in 2016 after just one season in the big leagues. Going into the year's final, crucial requalification events in Hawaii, the 24-year-old Newcastle goofyfooter was in 10th place on the QS -- No. 10 being the cutoff for requalification. He needed just one solid result to secure his place on the CT in 2017.
It was evident, however, that Callinan was struggling to keep his chin up after a long and mainly fruitless rookie CT season. "I've been away for three months and won't get back until Christmas," he said at the time. "So I've had my own battles to try to stay motivated and keep everything together."
Unfortunately for the young rookie, those battles bore out in the lineup, just when he needed points the most. Throughout the two top-tier, QS10,000 events in Hawaii, he won just one heat. Instead of the boost that would have gotten him over the qualification line, he dropped to 17th on the QS rankings. Clearly deflated, he headed back to his family, friends and girlfriend at his beloved Merewether Beach where he settled into recharging his batteries, restoring his confidence, and rebuilding his career.
This first heat back in Round Two of the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro was a crucial test, and one he passed emphatically. His heat score of 18.20 was the second-highest total of the round, and featured his patented powerful backside hacks and a massive frontside aerial. It was his best contest result in six months.
"It's weird to get such big scores early," Callinan said in his post-heat interview. "I ended up getting some scores at the end of last year but I feel like those scores didn't reflect how well I was surfing, so it was good to put some big numbers up."
So far, returning to competition at his home break has been a positive for Callinan. In previous years, the pressure of being the hometown favorite has been a double-edged sword. After all, in it's 32-year history, no Newcastle surfer has ever won the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro, an annual QS6,000 with deep roots. Legends like Mark Richards, Nicky Wood, Simon Law, Luke Egan and Matt Hoy have all tried and failed. For one of surfing's most parochial towns, the pressure to raise the trophy has often been too much.
For now, though, Callinan is taking it one heat at a time, enjoying hanging in his hometown and surfing with a confidence that now makes him one of the event favorites. With the forecast improving and his focus restored, we can expect some more big numbers. Callinan will next surf in Round Three.