Russell Bierke has quickly put himself into big wave surfing's elite. The quietly spoken hard-charging surfer from Ulladulla in New South Wales, Australia lives anything but an ordinary life. He first burst onto the scene as a teenager with a reputation as a slab specialist thanks in large part to the reefs he frequents not far from his south coast home. Since then the 24-year-old has continued to impress with performances in Tahiti, Hawaii, Nazare, and Shipsterns solidifying his reputation as one of the best big wave surfers in the world.
In 2016 Bierke won the Red Bull Cape Fear event in sickening 8-10 foot slabs in Sydney's south. Two years later he qualified for the WSL Big Wave World Tour, then in 2019 won the Heavy Water Award at Surfer Poll off the back of the release of his widely-acclaimed edit ‘Flow State' -- directed and produced by Andrew Kaineder.
When Bierke last competed at Jaws during the 2019 cbdMD Jaws Big Wave Championships he rode a monster barrel that he described as probably one of the best wave waves of his life. He remembers the lead-up being one of the most hectic moments of his competitive career.
"Yeah, it was pretty insane. I remember we were all looking at it thinking it was another huge, huge swell forecast. I think it was meant to be similar to the year before where it got called off. It's always a bit nerve-racking when you're keeping an eye on the forecast like that."
"The draw came out and I was the first heat of the day which is always a bit nerve-racking being the guinea pig so you're not getting to watch it for as long but it looked like the wind was light and as soon as I rocked up and saw the conditions it was like, just pure excitement to get out there -- it was as good as Jaws gets really."
That opening wave Russ mustered would be nominated for the 2020 Ride of the Year at the WSL Big Wave Awards. Though he didn't know it at the time, it'd be the last time he'd surf Jaws for a couple of seasons. Strict Covid travel restrictions in Australia have forced Bierke to stay put confining him to sharpen his act at home. Now, he has his sights set on Jaws once again as one of the invitees of the 2021 Quiksilver JAWS Big Wave Challenge presented by TUDOR.
"I've kind of just been keeping an eye on the forecast over there. It doesn't look like there's been too much action so far so, I'm kind of hanging out and if I see a good round of solid waves I'll probably jump over there."
While he may have discovered the formula for success at Jaws in the past Bierke is quick to acknowledge three surfers that have the place wired.
"Shane Dorian, Billy Kemper, and Albee Layer -- they are probably the top three Jaws riders, and they all have such completely different strategies. They've all got their own little blueprint. I find the key to riding Jaws well is treating it like you would a six-foot wave and trying to take like, gnarly lines out there and go for the barrel and everything."
Born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii until he was 5 years old Bierke's Hawaiian roots run deep. His Dad Kirk Bierke has been building boards since 1975 and spent the majority of his shaping career on the North Shore of Oahu -- not a bad CV if you're chasing a big wave board. Kirk shapes all of Russ' boards to this day and is regarded as one of the best underground shapers in the world. Russ explains to the WSL that his Dad has refined his Jaws quiver off what led to his previous success at the break.
"The last time there I had a 9'8" that felt pretty magic -- that was the one I got the ride of the year nomination on and it's nice and refined. I ended up breaking that board in my next heat [laughs]. We've made a few little tweaks to it and I took it for a test spin I think two weeks ago around here and it felt really good. I have a 9'2" if it's smaller and West and clean and then I'll take a 10'2" if it's similar to those conditions the year before where Twiggy pulled into that huge one and the event got called off. There are so many different moods so anything from a 9'2" to a 10'2" and they're all quads -- I like the way they ride and the speed response you can still get out of it."
Each season the performance level of the crew that opts to paddle-in vs tow continues to boggle the mind. Surfers almost twice Bierke's age such as Peter Mel who rode the wave of his life at Mavericks age 52 in 2021 and three-time Big Wave World Champion Grant "Twiggy" Baker, at 48, continues to push the limits of what's possible. For Bierke it's a reminder that the best wave of his life may still be on the horizon.
"It's cool to see. I'm 24 now and Pete Mel would be over twice my age [laughs]. To see someone who has pushed the sport of big wave surfing so much when they were younger to still up to their own level at 50 is pretty insane. It's exciting knowing that there is a chance to be able to keep doing that for that long, and keep improving."