Interview by James Royce | Imagery by Jesse Little
First off, Connor Oleary is not an underrated surfer.
He won the 2017 WSL Rookie of the Year award, is the son of a Japanese surf champion, and has just about the silkiest roundhouse you’ve ever seen. But I guess it’s easy to toss that term around when you’re as humble about it all as Connor is.
Having grown up just south of Sydney, Connor dialed in his patented backhand (and rest of his dynamic repertoire) along his home beaches of Cronulla, New South Wales. Rumour has it he was teaching surf lessons just to fund his Qualifying Series campaign in 2016. Which he ended up winning, by the way. His first year on tour was consistent with quarter-finals and finals appearances, and he ended up wrapping up that aforementioned Rookie Of The Year Award. He’s recently relocated to the Northern Rivers, but not unlike a handful of other Australians competing across the world, he’s been on the road for several months. Leaving without much of an idea when or how they’ll return. When they get the results they want? When the borders finally re-open? When Qantas starts handing out half-decent Christmas flight deals? All factors.
We became more formally acquainted with Connor after he dipped into our illustrious brick-and-mortar while in town for the recent Quiksilver Pro. Often quiet, always kind, and always down to have a coffee and chat and not be fussed with the day passing by. And much taller in person, as well. Very much gives the impression of being that popular guy in university who, when you bump into him at a pub two years after graduation, not only remembers your full name but actually also very genuinely asks you how you are and how it’s going.
Oh, and he ended up winning the whole contest soon after.
Connor! What’s up, how’s Hawaii?
Pretty cruisey actually. It’s been dead flat since we got here but we’ve just been chilling. Getting the bodies all sorted for when there are waves the next few days. Which it looks like it should be pretty good from the next few days onwards to the next two weeks from now. So, yeah, a lot of surfing will be happening in the next two weeks, which will be fun.
How’ve you been passing the time between getting out of the water?
Going on swims and we’re staying at Backyards so it’s really close to the beach. Enjoying our downtime really, playing a lot of cards and watching Netflix. Really just relaxing and not really doing too much, hah.
Well I did see you just had your anniversary, so congrats on that!
Yeah, cheers! She’s a trooper. I’ve been away for, now, well it’ll be four months. Back in December thankfully. She’s been trooping along and, you know, I wouldn’t be able to do this without her. It’s a weird journey with surfing. Especially now with being gone for so long with quarantines and everything else. It’s definitely been tough but she’s been amazing throughout the whole process. Makes it a lot easier when I know everything at home is all good!
So you left in July or August?
Yeah, I left in August. Start of August. The fourth of August, I think? Yeah, it’s been a while.
And you’re going back after the Hawaii stint?
Yeah, I’m going to go home. While I’ve been away it’s been kind of good timing, actually. In New South Wales they’ve flagged the whole hotel quarantine law, and I live in New South Wales, and because the vaccination rate is so high at the moment we’re able to go home and not worry about quarantine. So, yeah, pretty much just do this event and then head back and enjoy the Christmas with the family.
So when you left initially did you have a plan that you were going to return this December or was it more of a, “Well, I’ll just return when I can return,” game plan?
Well, I mean, the main goal was to re-qualify back to the CT. That way I didn’t have to spend as much time away. I was planning and doing Mexico and then Tahiti, and that was about a month. But I didn’t end up doing too well in Mexico and then Tahiti ended up being canceled pretty abruptly. So then I had to shift my focus on trying to accept the fact that I was going to be away for a while and reset my whole outlook on the year. Try to start from scratch again. Which is pretty, you know, it’s challenging. There were definitely times when I was thinking I’d just finish the year and go home and reset and start fresh in 2022. But that reset was tricky. I mean, there was definitely a little bit in the back of my mind that knew I was going to have to be away. But I wasn’t really thinking about it until after Mexico when it all hit and it just got worse once Tahiti got canceled. So it came up at once pretty quick, hah.
Definitely seems like it’s not so much a process of contemplating the enormity and length of it all but more so, like, “How am I going to pack for all this?” Hah.
Yeah, for real. Once it gets going it just happens so rapidly, though. I mean halfway through Mexico it was like, “Oh, fuck, they canceled our heat.” And I was like, “Oh my god.” And I had already lost before and I knew that Tahiti was canceled so that made the whole situation worse. It was just a matter of accepting the fact that I was going to be away for the next couple of months and re-shifting my focus on the challenger series and going from there. It did suck falling off and all that. But it was sort of a blessing in disguise because I’ve been having such a great time. That, and I’ve had enough time away that Australia’s settled down with COVID. In a way, it’s been really good timing… And we’ve been having a hell time too so it’s been pretty good.
Yeah, I mean from our small sample size here in France, it seemed like Australia had a very strong presence and crew everywhere they went. All positive and very good but almost surprising from a purely logistical standpoint considering the greater circumstances of how the world’s going around us.
Yeah, to be honest, the world tour, over the championship tour, it’s very lonely. Everyone’s got their own little crew and keeps to themselves. There isn’t too much group camaraderie, which is a bit sad. I really felt that this year. And I think the challenger series is the complete opposite. I mean, you’re traveling with guys who you’re competing against because it helps with cost. And at the end of the day, they’re your mates. I’m traveling with Wade Carmichael and Cooper Chapman at the moment and we’ve been competing since we were kids.
So, to be able to travel the world with your mates, and I think with the Australian crew at the moment we’re trying to follow that trajectory of the Brazilian guys, we’re all backing each other. Because at the end of the day you want to see your mates succeed. If you’re not going to get through heats you want to see your mates get through heats instead of other people. I think we’re all on that same, level playing field. Aussies backing each other. And it pumps everyone up and makes them better because they know there’s such great support if you’re winning an event with everyone around them. Because we’re going to back them and be around until the end for them. It’s a really cool shift in dynamic from the tour. And I mean, yeah, we’ve just been hanging out for three months. And it’s easy to switch off when we’re all enjoying being able to get together.
We definitely saw that when you won at Culs Nus too! Which, congrats by the way. But it was fun seeing that with the Quiksilver contest here. Especially since we were worried about how the world’s been moving and all that the whole thing was going to be a bit of a grim wash. But it ended up being the exact opposite. Everyone having a great time on top of the feeling of normality.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, there are a lot of people that are serious the whole time and, you know, are focused and all that. But for us that’s not really our mentality. We switch on when we need to and when we’re not focused on the event we just try to enjoy ourselves. Leave the competitive brain aside until you need it. The waiting period these days takes so long so you can’t be laser-focused for ten days straight, it’s just too draining.
You have to learn to switch off and enjoy yourself as well. You don’t want to get pent up on results and center your trip on the placing you had. And I think that comes with maturity as well. It’s all about the experience and the experience is what you’ll remember forever. And I’ve definitely created a lot of experiences and memories throughout this trip that aren’t result-based. Just memory-based. Traveling around the world with your good mates, making memories like that, instead of being so hyper-focused and, like, ah, I won in France, therefore, I had a good time.
Like, I did bad in Portugal but I had one of the best times ever. Even though I did badly there. It’s just a matter of taking in the experience as a whole because that’s what’s going to last forever. There are only ten days of competition and the rest is really about enjoying yourself. Training and staying on your game, sure. But you’re in a foreign place with people you know so you may as well make the best of it.
And were you able to hop around anywhere else in Europe between Portugal and France? It’s quite a big place!
When we were in Portugal we just drove around and spent a lot of time around Ericeira because it’s there. Found some fun little waves on the other side of Lisbon and really fun waves on the back beach of Peniche. Portugal you have really good waves. We hunted around and scored waves and surfed ourselves out. That was super fun and then we went to France and the waves weren’t amazing but we still managed to find surf. France is one of those places where you’ll always find waves no matter how big or how small it is. And we managed to pump and gun the little Hossegor coast and find banks to ourselves. We had a hell time. Staying in Jeremy Flores’ AirBNB which is right next to his place so there were really good vibes. Getting a coffee from Waxed every day and pottering around the Wasted Talent shop, hah.
No free advertising! Were you able to get around anywhere else? Know some of the guys made their way to Ireland just for laughs. But you stuck around the continental area?
Pretty much. We went to the Wave Garden in Spain one day, which was pretty cool. I went there last time I went to Europe for the day and just went the day after I won the comp. Had a couple hours so, yeah, it was good fun down there. It’s in such a cool little hinterland of Spain and to be able to surf perfect, little right barrels is in a pool is something you’ll remember.
I’ve only surfed the Waco one. And that’s fun because you’re in Texas and there are beers and barbecue and everything plus it’s Waco so it’s, like, what else are you going to do? That, and I know some of the coworkers here went to the wave pool in the UK last year… or was it two years ago? Either way, they went and got smashed on it because it was put up the to the max setting but, still, from a novelty perspective they seemed to have a decent time, hah.
It’ll never replace wave pool surfing. Personally, I think it’ll never replace the ocean. But it’s a really cool addition to surfing and it’ll definitely evolve the sport a lot more to what it already is. It’s super exciting.
It’s definitely a fun experience but, yeah, like you, I agree, it’ll never be able to replace the real thing.
Yeah, you never get out of the pool and go, “Oh, that was so satisfying.” There’s just something about the ocean that’s so therapeutic and will never get replaced no matter what.
Hopping around all these different countries and crossing all these borders, I have to ask, when the stern-faced border agent takes your passport and asks you what you do for a living… What do you say back to them?
I actually write: Surf school instructor. I’ve never written pro surfer in my life! I’ve just written surf school instructor. Well, actually before I would write, “Surf school instructor,” I would write, “Student.”
Hah, I did student until I hit 25 and then I realised I was pushing it just a little too far.
I think I was like 24 too when I was like, “Yeah, this isn’t going to roll anymore.” But surf school instructor works every time. They look and go, “Yep, I know what you are.” Except when you go to America and they ask you a hundred questions and sometimes they’ll be like, “Huh… Where do you get your money from?” And I’m like: Oh no. I mean it’s been wild traveling through COVID. Especially being one of the few people allowed to travel outside of Australia. You know, very few Australians are allowed to travel and we’ve been very fortunate enough to be the first few who are able to. It’s been crazy but it’s been good to travel the world while Australia’s been in a bit of turmoil with all that bullshit. It was kinda a good time to leave and we’ll get back when everything is slowly coming back together. It’s been great.
Any particular highlights?
We’ve been having the fucking best time ever. We’ve been calling it, “The Good Time Tour.” California we went to a few baseball games, a few Padres games, in San Diego. You know Johnny Norris? We’re pretty good mates with him. He gave us the full Pads experience. Did the full car park… what are they called?
Tailgates! Yeah, full tailgate. Got a few beers, went into the game and just got absolutely plastered and it was so fun. And then went to Europe, got really fun waves in Portugal. Nothing too crazy. Went to France, same thing just surfing our brains out and then actually went to Paris and spent a week in Paris. We didn’t want to go back to California so we decided just to stay for two weeks after the event just because, you know, you’re in Hossegor and you want to get some waves but also Wade’s birthday was coming up so it was just, like, let’s just jump in the car and go to Paris and send it for a couple days. And then we came back to California and managed to get free tickets to go see Rüfüs Du Sol in Los Angeles.
Lush! Challenger tour life is tough.
I mean, we just managed and it was friends of friends who is the manager of Rüfüs and he got us VIP tickets. We weren’t supposed to go but, I mean, it was sort of the opportunity of a lifetime and we ended up having a great time. And I mean we had the opportunity to party with them at the top of the stadium which was fucking crazy. Just a whole different world with what they do, but I mean we were having a hell time and it’s cool to be a part of it and see their life, even for just a little bit. It’s been good that it’s been flat for a few days because we’ve been on the mend a bit, hah.
Going back into a tour mindset deal, and describe things here like I’m not a Stab Premium subscriber, but what exactly is the deal with this new qualification shakeup? There was some weird rule change and then it got protested but now it’s getting taken away if I’m correct?
So, it started this year. There’s this rule called the double-qualification rule, where, before they changed it, it was usually the top ten qualified for the world tour through the qualifier series. But there’s usually someone who already qualified for the CT that was doing the qualifying series and then ended up in the top ten. So it would go to the next person. To put it in perspective, take Kanoa for example, he’s in the top ten but he’s already qualified through the CT, so it goes to the next person below those ten.
Instead of going to just the tenth person it goes to the eleventh, you know what I mean? But this year they scrapped that. And then they said they moved the spots to twelve. But if there is someone who is double qualifying through the twelve, then they won’t bump things down. There are only twelve spots, regardless. So say Kanoa was in the top twelve, now only eleven new people could qualify through the championship tour.
And it was honestly a bit weird just, how, I mean it doesn’t really make sense? Because it lessens the amount of people who qualify back on the championship tour. Like, Kanoa and that, they love competing and doing the qualifying series and there’re only a couple this year anyway. So if they do well in one they certify a spot for themselves and it just is a bit unfair.
Then the challenger series community protested against it and said, “Hey, this isn’t fair. The amount of CT surfers that are doing this are lessening the challenger series.” There’re only four challenger series events so there really isn’t much of a chance for any new people getting on. Because at the moment I think there are only, like…? Three? Three or four CT surfers who are in the top twelve right now. And there’s always about four or so anyway.
So I guess the WSL realised that and changed it back to allowing double qualification. So the entire ten people will qualify instead of the twelve with some weird cutoff. Which is fair.
Well, I mean. That makes sense, hah. And I hear there was a 200-plus person group chat trying to sort it out and everything?
Yeah, I was on that, hah. I ended up muting it actually, it just got too much. But it was good that it got everyone together and made it clear to the WSL what we wanted.
So what should we be looking forward to in this Hawaii contest?
Well, the contest should start on the first day. So it should kick off straight away which is pretty exciting. Run and done in the first four days and then we can get back to our families and enjoy the summer holiday. Looks like there are going to be waves the entire waiting period so it’s just a matter of picking the right days.
Well in that case I’ll have to hedge my bets against all the Americans with Thanksgiving the day before the contest starts. Or at least look for anyone with not enough literage and a sense of overconfidence, hah.
Yeah, seriously! That’s it.