Run a Knife

Taj Burrow on transitioning from the professional tour to the real world, dealing with inevitable regression as a middle-aged surfer, and his favorite ’CT competitors.

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The only child of two surfing expats from Palos Verdes, California, born and raised in Yallingup, a small town on the enviably waverich southwestern tip of Western Australia, Taj Burrow came out swinging in the late 1990s, a teenage phenom. In the nearly 20-year run that followed, he made more than good under surfing’s brightest lights. 

While Burrow never won the big one, he did bag nine WCT events, including a Pipe Masters in 2009, and became a fixture at the top of the rankings, finishing 14 times in the top 10. Ten of those were top-five placements, with a high of second overall in 1999 and 2007. Outside the touring circuit, he was considered one of the era’s preeminent freesurfers, a staple on magazine covers and sponsor posters and in blockbuster surf movies. It was in the latter category that he especially made his mark, particularly via his three cult-classic signature films: Sabotaj, Montaj, and Fair Bits

The greater effect was that Burrow carried a universally high approval rating, a rarity for a touring pro. His name was found in many conversations concerning just who the best surfer in the world was, and in many more conversations among admiring and impressionable young punters as to who their personal favorite was and who they were trying to emulate. 

The crux of it, of course, came down to Burrow’s supreme talent in the water. Capable in conditions from 2-foot junk to 20-foot slabs, he surfed in a wide stance with a slight hunch, a ready-to-strike coil. He was light-footed, as fast as they make ’em, always pressing, surgical with his rail, and blessed with raw unpredictability, refined control, and that special intangible commonly referred to as “pop,” among many other characteristics. Burrow often just felt like the most progressive, cutting-edge surfer alive. 

But in the highly scrutinized field of professional surfing, where persona really seems to matter, Burrow’s approach on land also did him favors. Self-deprecating, affable, an enjoyer of the finer things and a late night, he was seemingly cognizant of his station as one of the fortunate few. He took his craft and his trade seriously, but appeared to have an awareness that, in the grander scheme, pro surfing really was the sweetest gig. 

Now in his 40s, Burrow is still very much of those traits in and out of the surf. But since retiring from the tour in 2016, he’s mostly kept it local and quiet. Though he’ll still chase down a can’t-miss swell to postcard locales, he’s settled into a slower-paced life back in Yallingup with his wife and two young children. The transition has been eased by the fact that he’s got one of the world’s happiest hunting grounds almost literally at hand: Burrow enjoys a view of a world-class wave from the front door of his primary residence, and dozens of other setups he’s known since youth are just a short drive away. 

When I caught him on the phone on a recent morning, however, he was not watching for sets from the porch. He was inland, hands dirty, hard at work on a somewhat newly purchased piece of land where he’s just built a second home. The call connected to the rev of an unmistakable buzz.

Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

WB   Did I just hear a chainsaw? 

TB    [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve just had a tree fall over on the fence between me and the neighbor, so I had to organize a scene with some chainsaws. But it’s all under control. 

WB   That’s not a typical line item on a professional surfer’s daily to-do list. What brought you out to the bush? 

TB    So I’ve lived on the beach my whole life, which is such a gifted life, and I’ve been absolutely spoiled rotten. But in recent years I’ve had the urge to spread out and have some room to move, to have peace and quiet and a bit of privacy. So we bought this land two years ago. It’s not far from my other house. It’s only eight minutes inland, but it’s a bit more rural. And we built a house on it probably six months ago. I didn’t think I’d cope with the transition well, but it’s been incredible to literally learn the lay of the land. I’m really falling in love with it. As you can imagine, there’s always so much that needs doing, which keeps me busy and keeps me young. We’ve got, like, 30 fruit trees and big veggie gardens and chooks. 

WB   From the podium to the chicken coop…

TB    Transitioning from the professional tour to the real world is very, very tough for a lot of people. You’re a rock star, then all of a sudden it’s over. I’ve been fortunate enough to set myself up where I’m pretty comfortable, but a lot of pro surfers can have a hard time once it’s done. On the other side of that are all my friends from home who are tradies, either carpenters or plumbers or electricians. They’re all good at doing shit. When I retired, I realized I’m not good at doing anything but surfing. It made me see how valuable it is to have skills with your hands, whether it’s fixing shit or building shit—just being able to do shit. I haven’t really had to do anything like that in my entire life. I’m playing catch-up in that department. So it’s been really rewarding and empowering to learn how to do shit and make shit.

WB   Speaking of surfing and surfing good: How are you feeling about your surfing these days, now that you’re some years removed from competition and filming and having to maintain the edge?

TB    You know, it’s actually been really difficult to deal with, my surfing regressing a bit. I spent most of my life feeling like my body was flexible and strong at all times. But sometimes when I hit the water nowadays, my body is not as up to par in a few areas I’d need to surf a certain way. The big one I’ve noticed is my leg strength. Like, I don’t go for nearly as many airs as I used to. I stick to the face 99 percent of the time. I feel much more vulnerable to injury, too. I don’t need to produce, you know, so I’m like, “What’s the point of really risking it?” 

WB   Do you ever line up a section so good, you just can’t help yourself? 

TB    I definitely do, but I feel like my technique has gone downhill so much, which is hard on my confidence. And if I’m not confident when I throw myself into it, I’m already questioning myself about making it. Our waves are short, sharp, and chunky, and the ocean’s not very forgiving here. It really punches back, so you don’t want to fuck up. I’m getting to the point now where I’m happy to belt sections instead of going above the lip. All I really want to do is get tubes and do turns. It’s been a funny process. 

WB   Have you experimented with “alternative” equipment? 

TB    I did go through a patch there where I was riding a lot of fun twinnies and trying different boards, and the liters went up a tiny bit. But I like to try and keep my volume down. I think once you go up in size, there’s no going back, and I don’t want to go there. My boards are 26 liters now. When I was on tour, that was probably 25. 

WB   Looking back, how would you define your time on tour? You won a lot of events, were always a favorite, and came very close to a title a few times. 

TB    At a certain point, I just accepted that I was a hot-and-cold guy. I never saw myself as a consistent world-tour surfer for a whole year, which is obviously what it takes to win it all. I definitely had lots of events where I felt completely locked in and invincible, but that would only be short lived. So it was always a bit of a roller coaster for me. But when I was feeling hot, I felt like I could win anywhere.

WB   How did you balance the type of focus needed for comps with the commitments of filming for movies? 

TB    It was tricky. I loved shooting video and coming up with parts and making movies—more than anything, more than competing—but it was really hard to wedge it in while being prepared for the events. And then there’s obviously the risk factor of getting injured when you’re trying to surf for clips. I just did both as best I could. I’d put everything into getting the best clips I could, but then when I got to the next event, I was so competitive that I wanted to put everything into that as well. I wanted the best of both worlds, which is hard to have. When you’re focusing for contests, you’re strategically working on getting your surfboard and your body and your diet and your head space perfect. Everything has to be perfect. When I was filming, I would be in a much more relaxed state: traveling, surfing good waves, hanging with friends—living that really fun side of professional surfing. And yeah, it probably distracted from my competitive focus, and probably took away from my performance in heats. So, I don’t know, maybe my contest results could have been better if I hadn’t focused on videos. 

I just accepted that I was a hot-and-cold guy. I never saw myself as a consistent world-tour surfer for a whole year. But when I was feeling hot, I felt like I could win anywhere.

WB   Would you do it any differently if you could? I mean a title is one thing, but there’s something to having those films almost as documents of your “work” that I think is maybe a little more lasting, surf-culture-wise, than winning a few more heats or even a few more events.

TB    I hear that. And nah, I wouldn’t change a thing. [Laughs.] I hope that I made some type of mark through my movies or just having a really cool video section. The movies I grew up with, they resonated with me so much, especially growing up all the way out here in the middle of nowhere. Just being an excited grom, throwing in a surf movie, getting psyched out of my mind, and then going straight to the beach to surf—that was everything for me. Even to this day, I’ll hear a song and I’ll be like, “Holy shit, that’s the section at the Bluff from one of Jack McCoy’s movies.” It still sparks something in me. And I hope kids got the same feeling out of watching me surf in videos when all that stuff came out. These days, I don’t know if kids get the same feeling because we’re just drowning in content. 

WB   Here’s the real question, what the people really want to know: Do you think you might have another movie in you? 

TB    [Laughs.] No, I don’t think so. My friends always try and start me up for it. They’re like, “Why don’t you make another video? People want to see you.” And sometimes I’ll have a session—not every session, but the occasional one here and there that feels really good—and I’ll be like, “Shit, I should have had someone filming that.” But I don’t feel like that enough to really want to make it happen. I feel awkward trying to film and put out content. No one needs to see that. [Laughs.] The young guys are so incredible nowadays. I’ll just leave it to them. 

WB   Whose surfing impresses you at the moment?

TB    Well, everyone seems to be pretty bloody good. I mean the guys at the top of the rankings are the best, which is why they’re up there. 

WB   So you’re still watching the events? 

TB    Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] It’s pretty addictive. My parents, for example, when I retired, they were like, “Phew, finally, we can just relax and not stress over every heat, watch every single thing that happens.” And then, a couple of years into my retirement, they were like, “Oh, my God, we still watch every single contest, every single heat.” Really, it’s where the best performance surfing is happening. The pressure of a heat leads to that. And so I think Filipe [Toledo], over the last few years, has been really exciting. He seems a level above everyone and a well-deserved world champion. I really am a fan of his. Gabriel [Medina], too. He just covers so much ground. It’s like he’s everywhere at once, and creates so much opportunity for himself. And I’ve absolutely loved watching Jack Robinson’s rise to the top. Obviously I watched him grow up out here, and I’m thrilled to see how far he’s come—just to see what an animal he is as a surfer and now as a competitor. The mental strength the kid has—he’s so good at finding that place, shutting off all the noise, and being in the zone. I’m very proud of him. 

WB   When you see him out in the lineup around home, does how good he’s surfing push you at all? What does? 

TB    I just know that while I can surf good, I want to get good waves. Because there’ll be a day when I won’t be able to run a knife into Rabbit Hill or backdoor one at the Box. I know those days are limited. So while I can still do it, I want to do it as much as I can. I’m grateful to have had the run I did on tour, and I got to surf the best waves in the world, but I can still remember how every warmup was having to deal with the world’s best hustlers. [Laughs.] That’s really what they are. It’s intense in the lineup, and I’d be out there going, “What the fuck am I doing here? This is the exact opposite of the surfing I enjoy.” So now that it’s over, I’m pretty happy to surf off the beaten path and get some waves to myself and some friends.

[Feature image: A visual reference to the subject’s titular terminology and a reminder that words like “regressing” are absolutely relative to their user—though Burrow’s humility is certainly a lesson in and of itself. Photo by John Respondek]

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