It was a rainy day in Biarritz in Autumn of 2016 when we first spotted Kael Walsh in the line up. The waves were junky and onshore, and the sort any average surfer may turn their nose up at, but Kael was out there having a ball.
He hit every section, even those totally unsuitable for airs, with aggression and spontaneity, without a single over-coached safety turn or cautious lip-line floater in sight. It was clear straight away that this was one of the surfers leading the sport towards its exciting future, so we gave him a call and organised to sit down with him for a chat at his favourite French burger joint.
WL: So you live in WA, but I guess you’ve been travelling around loads recently? Tell us about some of your trips this year.
K: I’ve been to Indonesia a few times and to America for the Young Guns competition. I think I’m going to Hawaii soon as well. I’m just trying to find good waves pretty much.
WL: How is it being 16 and having to juggle stuff other 16 year olds have to do, like going to school?
K: Well last year I was doing home schooling, which was really hard, because you think your going to be at home, and you can be doing all these other things, but actually you have to sit down and do your school work.
WL: So you’re in regular school now?
K: Nah, I actually did a TAFE course. It’s like another sort of education, so I learned to make websites and stuff. I got a certificate in that and now I can go to university with it.
WL: I guess because there are quite a lot of pro surfers your age in Aus, the alternative school pathways are quite well trodden?
K: Yeah, it’s way better because you can actually get interested in the subjects you’re doing, because you choose to do them. I went there like two days a week, started at nine and finished at three, and still surfed through the week.
WL: And do you know many other pro surfers your age who don’t seem to have any interest in setting up anything else, who say “I’m just going to surf and hope I make it”?
K: Yeah, I think I know a couple of kids who are doing that, who put all their balls in one court. It’s not for me. I don’t know, I just feel like you could become a free surfer, or you could become a competitive surfer, but there’s no guarantee you’re going to make it on The World Tour. I mean, no one’s guaranteed that.
There are so many guys on the qualifying series who are just labelled as QS surfers. They just get gobbled up and disappear, and everyone forgets about them, and then they’re not worth any money
WL: Who are the other guys who are your contemporaries who you really look up to and think these are the ones to watch?
K: Jack Robinson, who’s older than me, is a really good up-and-coming guy to watch at the moment. He’s from where I’m from as well. Ethan Ewing as well, who’s probably going to qualify this year.
All those guys have got hell distinctive styles, like Andy Irons sort of style. Ethan’s really good on his rail, and Jack’s really good in the barrel, so I kind of look up to them and the way they compete, and the way Jack charges.
WL: So they’ve kept the kind of classic, powerful approach, but it’s also really modern the way you guys surf. I was watching you surf the other day; the sections you do airs off are not standard air sections, whereas the old school guys need a really perfect section to do an air.
Do you think it’s moving more in that direction? Where an air can be a functional first maneuver, and it can be done off just about anything, including mental heavy sections?
K: Yeah, a hundred percent. Now airs have got to be on big, heavy waves to make it onto clips. They’ve got to be gnarly, and they’ve got to look scary, because if you’re doing airs or tricks you know you’re going to make, how’s that fun for anyone, if they know you’re going to make the air? It’s got to be radical in a way.
WL: Is the entertainment value of your surfing something you consider when you’re flying at a section? Do you want it to be a manoeuvre that people want to watch?
K: A hundred percent. Like if it’s a small section I want to rotate as fast as I can, and if it’s a big section I want to go as high as I can.
WL: In terms of the progression of aerial surfing in general, do you think there’s going to be more spins added? More flips?
K: 720s and stuff like that are definitely coming [ed. he was right!], as well as more flips and different flips, but the only way more standard airs are going to progress is if you start doing them on bigger sections and bigger and gnarlier waves.
WL: What are your future career plans in terms of trying to get on the world tour or free surfing?
K: Right now I’m leaning towards free surfing a little bit because I’m trying to build my profile before I go on the qualifying series. There are so many guys on the qualifying series who are just labelled as QS surfers.
They just get gobbled up and disappear, and everyone forgets about them, and then they’re not worth any money. I want to do it more like Mikey Wright. He’s done all those huge clips and made a name for himself, and I think he’s going to try and qualify next year, so I’m kind of like feeling like that’s a good plan and that I want to do a similar thing to that.
WL: So what’s your strategy for building that free surfer profile over the next couple of years?
K: Well, one my best mates is getting a RED camera next year so we’re just going to travel round and make sick clips together, and then maybe the year after try and go on the QS once we’ve made some rad clips.
WL: Do you have any pressure from the brand to get on the comps, or lay off the comps? Are you left to manage your own career trajectory at this age, or do you have a manager making those decisions?
“I feel like losing’s a worse feeling than what winning gives you – so you know I hate losing more than I like winning”
K: I’ve got Sam, who is the Quiksilver team manager, and I tell him what I feel like doing. It’s up to me, and they’re kind of supporting me, but they definitely would like me to do contests, but only if my heart’s in it, you know? I’m not going to force myself to grind out heats and stuff. Like I said, what’s the point in grinding out heats and not having a following, not having people to support you in those heats?
WL: Yeah, I covered some of the QS Europe comps, and to be honest it looked like no fun at all at times. There were heats where the ocean would go flat, and the best guy definitely wouldn’t win. Why would you want to put yourself through it. Do you have that competitive fire? Is it a big enough rush when you win to justify what is essentially quite an arduous process?
K: I feel like losing’s a worse feeling than what winning gives you – so you know I hate losing more than I like winning – so I don’t want to start the QS unless I feel like my surfing is ready to blow people out of the water. I don’t feel like I’ve stopped growing. I don’t feel like my boards are right at the moment to just go jump on the QS.
That’s what everyone’s doing. They finish the Pro Junior, and they just jump straight on the QS and try to grind out heats to get on the world tour. But why get on the QS if you’re not ready for the tour? I beat myself up about losing so much, and I don’t want to go surfing after I lose. It sort of wrecks it for me, but I love competing, and I’m always going to compete.
WL: From watching you surf the other day, it looks like every single air you do you shatter your ankles. Have you been hurt yet?
K: I haven’t. I feel like I kind of know when I’m going to fuck myself up, but I kind of bounce. I’ve torn my calf, but nothing that has put me out for ages.
WL: Do you worry about it?
K: Well, I am at the moment, because 16, 17 is when you pop your knees out and shit, and I know so many people who’ve done that. So I’m scared of that, but I’m kind of cautious in a way.
WL: So you’ve just learned to fall like a skater?
K: I feel like if you know you’re going to land really badly you straighten your knees and kind of take the impact and bounce, but I don’t think many people do that. I feel like I can kind of jolt, and that’s what’s been working.
WL: I hope it continues to work for you mate! Thanks for talking to us.
This article was originally published in Wavelength issue 248. Be the first to get our articles in print and online by subscribing here.
Cover photo: Lewis Harrison-Pinder