This time last year, Australian surfer Mikey Wright arrived at the Vans US Open of Surfing as a well-regarded freesurfer who was getting middling results on the Qualifying Series (QS). He lost his second heat of the event, and left Huntington Beach with an unremarkable 49th-place finish.
But that was then.
This time around, when Wright paddles out just south of the Huntington Pier, he will not only be one of the highest ranked surfers on the QS, at No. 3, but also one of the most recognizable names.
That's partly because of his pedigree: His sister, Tyler, is the two-time, reigning WSL World Champion, while his brother, Owen, is a veteran of the men's Championship Tour (CT).
But it's also because of his rep as a mullet-wearing giant killer who's thrown a wrench in the ambitions of John John Florence and Gabriel Medina -- beating them on the Gold Coast and in Uluwatu, respectively -- during the five wildcard appearances he's made this season.
None of that comes as a surprise to his coach, Quiksilver Global Events Director Troy Brooks. The two have been working together in Queensland for about two years, refining every component of Wright's competition game -- from preparation to heat strategy and everything in between. Before Wright takes on the beach break in Southern California, here's a look at some of his secrets to success.
World Surf League: What prompted Mikey to seek out coaching in 2017?
Troy Brooks: He was a freesurfer more back then, and wanted to sharpen up his competitive skills before the [Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, in which Wright surfed as a wildcard]. We started working together early mornings, weekends, before work, after work. He's really good with my kids. So we would all go surfing together, and work on things with his technique and heat strategies. I basically made him surf a thousand one-foot waves in the worst conditions possible. And my kids probably had the same froth to go out in those waves as well, so it worked out all right.
He was a really talented Junior and really good in small waves, but since his late teens he's been focusing on big performances and big clips and some of the best edits in the world, and probably forgot how to grovel in a one-foot beach break. But he's got it now.
If you were to envision a montage of Mikey's progress over the past two years, what would it look like?
We broke things down into little pieces and worked on each of them. Pro surfers focus on their boards, always making sure they're riding the best equipment in their heats. Freesurfers, they're riding the best board they have at the time in every surf. So they constantly don't have their favorite board because they might have just broken it.
So now, Mikey saves his favorites, and puts it on cotton wool and pulls it back out for for the next event. When you show up to compete, [the mindset of] you're being there to give your best performance. Linking all his turns together. Technical elements. Things like that.
What appeals to him about competition, why now?
He's a pretty competitive person, no matter what he does. He really wants to win at what he's doing, so it made sense that surfing would lead that way, too. Plus, his sister and brother are two of the most amazing athletes in the world. And they're doing quite well, obviously. So I think it's in the family bloody. A bit of a natural progression.
Coming from the CT yourself, are you imparting some of your experience from that as well?
It's a funny thing. I traveled the world and lived that life for probably 10 years. And you spend probably nine months a year on the road. And for me, with two kids, I was happy to stay at home and watch them grow up instead of watch them grow up in photos.
I probably lost that competitive part that I have inside me, and I got it back when I was coaching Mikey at the Gold Coast event last year, where I actually felt [it] again during a heat. I was nervous, you know - all these competitive urges came back. I might have competed a local board riders comp, but there's a difference between that and a serious event. The addiction came back.
And with Steph [Gilmore] last year, I coached her in the Roxy Pro last year and this year, and she got a victory last year. And it almost felt like I'd won again, as well. There is a mutual benefit and emotional appeal to coaching that I'd never thought I'd have.
Mikey has this rock-star persona and unofficial fan club that seems to match his style in the water. What is it that people love about him?
He's a surfer with true character, and not a conformed, F1 [Formula 1] approach to surfing. He did his freesurfing clips, he's done some of the biggest airs in the world. He's already set the bar. And one of the biggest thing is that he's come back into [pro] surfing now, and he's looking like he's trying.
A lot of freesurfers that have gone back to it have tried to make it look like they're not trying. And if they fail, they can say, Oh, I wasn't into it, or it wasn't for me. Whereas Mikey's giving it everything he's got, and he's not afraid to show it. You can see his passion in his heats.
His style, too -- he drives the biggest four-wheel drive in the whole country, I think. That's how he lives. He gets up and sends me pictures of the fish he caught that morning and his dog on the beach. He had three or four days off and went camping and fishing at the back of Coffs Harbor with his girlfriend.
He's not like your normal, I lost that heat, I better go do more weights, do more heat drills. He'll do the work, but [his way]. It's easy to pretend you're not trying.
You can watch the Vans US Open of Surf live on CBS Sports Network (US only, check local schedule), the WSL website, the WSL app, and Facebook.