In 2017, Bede Durbidge was competing against Julian Wilson and Owen Wright on the Championship Tour. Now, four years later, he's coaching them -- along with seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons in the Australian national team -- The Irukandjis.
After spending 12 years on the CT, winning the Pipe Masters and a Triple Crown title, Durbidge is more than qualified to lead Australia's best surfers into the biggest competitive stage of their lives. Durbidge caught up with the WSL before him and the rest of the Aussie head off to Japan:
WSL: The Tokyo Olympics is a couple of weeks away, how are you feeling?
Bede Durbidge: Really good. We've put a lot of time, especially with the extra year on top of it, so it's going to be really cool to go there and put all the hard work into action.
Has there been anything you've gained having that extra year to prepare for the Games?
I would say not drastically more cohesion with the team and staff. I think the extra time, just like any relationship it grows if it's been working well, and that's the case with us. We were named The Irukandjis as the national team, and that's been a great process and has got that cultural sensibility which is good.
You've been around the guys and girls who are on the team from back when you were on the CT. How are they feeling, and how do you see them as being the torchbearers leading into the Games, having witnessed their careers when they were just grommets coming onto the scene?
Yeah definitely. It was so cutthroat to make it. There are so many good Australians. It was kind of just at the end era of Fanning and Parko and Owen and Julian were the next tier below them, so I think it's quite fitting that they got the spots and can be the heroes for the little grommies coming through. And on the other flip side, Sally and Steph have been there a long time. Tyler didn't get to compete that year, but it would have been a mad race between those three for two spots.
Australians take the Olympics seriously and as a nation are always expected to perform. Do you feel much pressure is on the Aussies?
I think at the start, there was, but as time has gone on and just the way the Brazilian boys have really come on and the USA girls, the pressure's not so much on us at the moment, which is nice. The Aussies can fly under the radar, dig deep, get the spirit going, and can do some serious damage. It's really an opportunity for our surfers.
You mentioned the Brazilians -- are they the country that you think will be the biggest threat -- or are there particular surfers on the men's and women's draw that you've picked as potential danger men and women?
Oh yeah, definitely on current form, data, and results from the Brazilian men for sure. And in the women, the USA girls, but it's the Olympics -- anything can happen. On current form and results, they are definitely going to be the favorites. But it's only a field of 20 in each, and it's a smaller contest, so if you're on, you've got a good board that's when you know you can win events and upset the favorites.
There's been a lot of speculation around whether John John will be fit in time for the USA team. In your first hit out as a coach, you helped take him to his first World Title. Have you been following that much or given some thought to how he will perform?
For sure, he's definitely a big threat as well, obviously, with his track record and just knowing what drives him and whatnot. He's had a bit of bad luck with the injuries but knowing him, he won't leave any stone unturned and give it his best shot. I think he'll be there, ready to go and be tough for anyone. I think he can show up for sure.
You mentioned cohesion and time together as a team. How different is it for the surfers competing as a team rather than individuals, which is basically what surfing is -- an individual sport?
It's definitely different. It just takes time for people to understand that they can still surf for themselves and compete, and it's all about them. Then when they're not competing, it's all about the team supporting and contributing -- it's a big part. Especially the Olympics, it's bigger, it's for your country -- you have to tap into that.
You recently had a warm-up at the ISA Games in El Salvador. Were you more nervous competing back on the CT or watching the team compete?
[Laughs] I definitely feel watching the team compete is harder. I don't know, when it's new, and you make mistakes, it's just hard. At the start of my career, it was a lot harder. But when you get time to work on things and you're collaborating on different strategies, it's definitely a lot easier to head into those stressful moments.
Are you happy with how the team has been preparing given how disruptive 2020 was and all the scrutiny surrounding the Games this year due to the pandemic? This is possibly going to be the most-watched and closely analyzed Olympic Games maybe ever in history.
Yeah totally. The ISA Games were really a good opportunity for that. We treated the Games like that and had a really tight bubble. As a group, we did everything together. At the event with no crowds, it'll probably feel mellow compared to a lot of world tour events. It's going to be interesting. I don't if that pressure might just not be there because of how empty the beach will be -- it won't feel like that.
It's been a long time in the making, but how do you think the world is going to react to surfing making its Olympic debut?
I think it's going to be really cool and hopefully received well. It's such a unique sport that's got so many elements happenings -- nature, physical capabilities; you're on board. It's just such a unique sport that I really think people will gravitate towards and will want to follow after the Games that have maybe never watched it before.