I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.” – James Salter, Burning the Days
CLASSICS is a new series that provides insight, life advice, and general words of wisdom from surfing’s most respected individuals.
To be honest, I never watched Shaun Tomson surf when I was a kid. Or anyone of his generation – the one that birthed pro surfing. But I’ve read about their accomplishments, seen videos and photos as an adult, and I’ve always respected what he and his peers achieved.
But the most recent chapter in Shaun’s life outshines all that came before it. After negotiating the death of his dear son Matthew, Tomson made a transformation from a public figure in the surf world into a source of inspiration and hope. He’s channelled the unthinkable pain of loss into something productive. He has a clear mission, and it’s of the most benevolent kind.
A few weeks ago, we shared a Margherita pizza, a Diet Coke, a water, and two caprese salads at Santino’s – a faux Mexican/Italian spot by our office in Venice, Ca. In that hour, he kindly shared some of the most profound moments of his life with me. The highlights are below.
Shaun’s an inspiration, and after reading his new book “The Code” I urge you to get a copy. This book and the conversation that follows aren’t about surfing. They’re about life. – Zach Weisberg

I retired in 1989 from competitive surfing, and I never looked over my shoulder again as a pro. When I was done, I was done. My life and my passion for surfing and what it meant in my life – it wasn’t just a way to make a living or to get a critical sensation…there was something deeper than that. And when I lost my son, surfing was my way forward. Surfing was my way back into the light. Surfing for me, while it’s been a constant, it’s been a changing constant. That connection to being in the ocean has been elemental to the core of my existence.
In 1979 I was on the North Shore. I won the World Championship about a year before, and the guys from Da Hui wanted to kill me. They told me they were going to kill me. I got hit with a bottle. I got punched. I got slapped. I got threatened. I went to Wahiawa to a gunsmith – to the gun store. I was 23, and I bought a Remington 12-gauge, and I loaded 10 shells into it. I was not going to leave that island. Because that was my life.
I was willing to die for surfing. I was. I was willing to die for it.
That was nothing compared to what it’s like to lose a child. That is absolute devastation. Your life is destroyed, it feels like. It feels like you’re destroyed as a person. There’s nothing you have to cling on to. I was lucky that I loved my wife and my wife needed me, and that’s something that helped me through the hard times, but fear is not a part of my life any more.
I had been in the South African military. If gang guys are coming for me, man, I was not stepping down for one moment. That’s the way it was. That’s the way I felt about my surfing. Surfing was everything to me. I was absolutely 100% committed, and it was like someone was coming to take my child away. Surfing was our child. All of us young guys who started out, pro surfing was our child. None of us ever left that island. We copped it. Some people think maybe it’s justified. Some people like you. Some people hate you. For what you stand for. I stood for surfing. And no one was going to take that from me.
That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. Kids, man, they don’t realize the enormity of their actions. 12,000 young people between the ages of 12 – 19 in the United States every year die of preventable accidents: drugs, suicide, homicide, dangerous drunken driving. 12,000 kids – that’s 24,000 moms and dads. That’s a lot of people devastated by that tragedy. Based on what I went through, and the mistake my boy made, I’m hoping that by speaking at schools, universities, business groups that those decisions in young people’s lives are so critical. When I speak to groups of young people, I say, “Please, just think twice.”
You suffer when you have a loss. You see life differently. You look at it differently. It’s not something you want to do. It just happens. It doesn’t make you better. It doesn’t make you worse. It just makes you different.
Stand up for what you believe in. All of us. Stand up, man, and be counted. The surf industry. It used to stand for something. It stands for profit, sales, and growth. The big brands need to look back at what made them what they are. They were fueled by stoke. Put that stoke back; give back.
We lived under apartheid, but we did lead a privileged life. I went to a Jewish school. My father used to pick me up from school if the surf was good. If the surf wasn’t good, I’d catch the bus home. But while I was living the good life, millions of other kids weren’t.
Just like the “n-” word was word in common usage back in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, in South Africa it was the “k-“word. One of my earliest memories of my mom…someone used that word in our house, and she said, “That word will never ever be spoken in this household.”
Eddie (Aikau) was denied entry to the hotel and needed a place to stay, and my dad said let’s go pick him up, so he came and stayed with us. And I had to take care of Eddie while he was there. I was just a young guy, but I could see this terrible pain that he was under.
Humility and confidence go hand in hand, and without that humility, you’re just arrogant.
I think back to the heats I used to surf. I was totally committed to winning those heats. From the moment the horn blew to 5 seconds after. I just had this absolute commitment where I put everything I had into it. I suppose it relates to not being afraid of failing. I think that came from my upbringing, from my father. He never ever chastised me or waved a finger at me if I lost. As long as I did my best. Even today, I put everything I have into a wave, and I then I kick out. Put all you have into it.
I was just watching an ASP event and you watch Mick Fanning, and you watch Joel, and you watch Kelly at 41 years old and he’s getting beaten by Filipe Toledo who’s a teenager – and [Kelly] grabs a board and smashes it into the scaffolding, because he’s committed. And Joel is committed. And Adriano De Souza. There are guys out there who are committed totally. They want to win. I love to see that in a person. You’ve got the talent, just use it. There are a lot of amazing surfers in the world today that have this God-given gift, and it’s like they’re not respecting it. Utilize this amazing gift. Just put it on the line. Stand for something.
The goal of a pro surfer is one thing: Inspiration. That’s it. Pro surfers don’t do anything other than inspire.
If losing doesn’t hurt, it just wasn’t that important to you. If you put everything you have into it, and you lose, it’s a punch to the guts.
My father said: “When you lose, lose like a man. When you win, win like a champion.”
I was so lucky that my father had been a great sportsman, but he had such a great perspective. Winning wasn’t everything. It wasn’t a Lombardi philosophy. It was about commitment. Do your best. If you lose, go home, get ready for the next one. I was lucky as a young person.
The famous poet/novelist Pablo Neruda wrote: “I need the sea, because it teaches me. I live in the university of the waves.” I love that.
I know in my heart that what I’m trying to do is inspire. That’s it. That has been my mission. If I’ve succeeded, great. If I haven’t, I have done my best. It’s a simple mission. I’m a simple guy.