Being the world’s best surfer is no easy feat. It involves an almost 24/7 training schedule, being continuously pummeled by waves, and having to hop back on the board to risk taking a hit all over again. Hawaii native Makua Rothman, who was recently crowned the 2015 Big Wave World Champion in the World Surf League‘s first officially sanctioned Big Wave Tour, is no stranger to the grind. We caught up with the all-star athlete to discuss what goes through his head before taking on a big wave, having his face ripped off by the sea (literally) in Tahiti, how he trains with chronic asthma, and his mastery of the art of time management.
How does it feel to be the No. 1 surfer in the world?
It feels amazing. Growing up in Hawaii, especially where surfing started and being Hawaiian, it’s so wonderful to be able to become World Champion and represent for our nation and for all of Hawaii. It feels amazing to accomplish my lifelong goal.
You started surfing when you were 2.
That’s what my dad said. My name, Makua, means “father of the sea,” so it was only right that I gravitated towards surfing. From two years old till now, it’s been a lifelong journey. It’s been a way of life, not just a profession. It’s who I am. I am a professional surfer. Just the other day I had the chance to make it to the awards where I was to be crowned world champion, but because of the waves happening in Chile, they decided to start one of my competitions early, and I ultimately made the decision of waves trump all. When the waves are 20 feet, it’s time to work, and nothing else will stand in the way of me doing what I love to do.
What’s your earliest memory of surfing?
I remember this thing called a Menehune contest. It’s for the kids under six years old. I remember my first board. My jersey was too big, so I had to criss-cross it across my neck twice so it would say on. I remember those days quite vividly. It was such a wonderful life growing up in Hawaii and being able to choose my path in life instead of wondering what I was going to do. I saw it at a young age, I’m a surfer.
Was there a time where you got absolutely destroyed by a wave and had to force yourself to get back in the saddle?
I had to make a decision just the other day in my contest. I got absolutely annihilated. A rescue guy came to get me on a jet ski and he’s like, “Get back up there.” And I said, “No. Let’s just watch a little bit. Let me catch my breath and re-evaluate where I’m going to sit, and I’ll get back out there.” As a kid, it was just what I did. I went from the shore break in the sand, I moved to the next break and got pounded there, and then I moved to the outside and then ultimately to the outer reef. It’s just been a gradual transition of having fun, getting pounded like, “Yeah. That was radical.” That’s kind of always been my reaction to getting worked or pounded, “Wow! That was so cool.” But now that the waves are as big as they ever get, it’s like, “Let me take five and then I’ll get back up there.”
What goes through your head before you take on a huge wave?
Not too much goes through my head besides “This is the one” and “I’m going.” I don’t really think about too many things. It’s more of a reaction. I’ve been doing it for so long. When I get up, I balance, I try and get my feet in the right spot, choose the right line, and just surf the wave. And once you do get like that, it’s like, “Ah. There you go.” But I try to leave all my thoughts about the rest of my life and everything else that goes on back on the beach when I get into the water. When I get into the water, it’s time to start thinking of the task at hand. When I’m in the paddle, sometimes it’s like “Come on, baby! Come on, please!” You’re just thinking, “Come on. Make this!” Sometimes you do and you’re like, “Ah!” Sometimes you don’t and it’s like, “Ahhhh.”
How much of it at this point is mental for you?
A lot of it is mental. We are competing. It’s not just a free surf. You gotta get out there and you gotta remember that you don’t need the biggest wave. You need enough points to make it to the next round. And then when you get to the finals, it’s all or nothing. You gotta set yourself in the competitive mode, into that mental mind of making sure you get the job done, one wave at a time. You get to the finals, and it’s all or nothing.
Do you have a surf spot or a wave that is your nemesis?
I went to Tahiti a few years ago and tore my whole face off, so I’d say Teahupo’o would probably be the wave that dealt me the biggest blow of my career and could have ended my life. Fortunately I was looked over, and I got 80 stitches in my face. My whole lip was torn from my face. There was just teeth and jawbone. They grabbed my lip from the bottom lip down and sewed it all back on my face. There was a hole right down the middle of my chin, and I could stick my tongue through it. The whole lower part of my face was gone. They got me on a jet ski, then I got in a taxi, and from a taxi to a clinic. And when I let my face go and my face fell off, the doctor was like “Ahh! You need to go straight to surgery,” so straight to surgery on the plane. I recorded my debut album with stitches in my mouth.
How does your chronic asthma change the way you train?
My land training is a method called Braven Methodology. And that’s the science of timing, rhythm, speed, and balance all combined into your workouts. Because the platform that I perform on is unstable, it’s a surfboard on the water. When I’m at home in Hawaii, I’m with Robert Garcia, who’s my strength and conditioning coach that created Braven Methodology.
After waking up, the first thing I do is cardio. Then, we’ll go into more of a sports-specific training with a Bosu ball and one-legged pistols. And then it would be a rest or a surf, depending on how the day is going. I have to of course surf and practice surfing. In the evening times, I do more of a combat training with boxing and stretching. So everything to warm down and lengthen the muscles would all be the evening. The middle of the day is more explosive, getting every little muscle firing with the surfing. It depends on the waves, but if the waves are really good, I surf more, and I do a real light training. But if the waves aren’t good, then it’s really heavy training throughout the day.
How else do you stay in shape?
I do a lot of underwater workouts, which is ballistic training with weights underwater. So it’s simulating that feeling of no breath, coming up, doing 50 push-ups, diving straight into the pool as you let all your air out, and walking the weight to the other side. Then you jump each 50-pound weight up to the top, grab it, back down, walk it across the pool again, get back out, do 50 Hindu squats while you are catching your breath, and then jump right back in the pool with the weights. I do that a few times. That’s what is called “surf ‘n’ turf.” And that is a workout that is all credit due to Laird Hamilton. Everything that I do with Laird is in the water and often with weights. Sometimes he’ll have me do stand paddling, or I hold dumbbells, and I’ll swim across with one arm with no breath. Then I’ll go across, and I’ll take big breaths and try to go twice or three times across. Sometimes I’ll hold 50-pound dumbbells. Sometimes I’ll hold 10-pound dumbbells and do jumps. It’s a whole training scheme — him as the big-wave surfing king, and me as his underling, his prodigy.
What’s your diet like?
My diet is usually a lot of protein, vegetables, and fruits. I eat a lot of water-rich foods, and I try to stay away from the breads and grains. I try to eat organic, non-GMO, and I try and get as natural as possible when I eat. All of those protein bars and that stuff are good, but it takes a lot of water out of your body; it takes a lot of energy out of your body to break that stuff down. And if you eat clean, wholesome food, there’s no better way. I try and treat my body like a race car. I put the optimal fuel in my body, so when it’s time to perform, I burn at that optimum rate.
Tell us about making music as a side project to surfing.
I’ve become so fortunate to be able to do more than one thing in life and actually get good at it. I’ve always sang. My grandma taught me the ukulele at a young age, and my grandparents are musicians. I was fortunate enough to work with John Feldmann, who just produced 5 Seconds of Summer and all these huge albums. Nikki Sixx helped me work on part of my album. To be introduced to some of the people that I’ve only seen on TV or heard on the radio and actually work with them in music is just a bonus. It’s icing on the cake.
What’s your secret to balancing an intense training schedule with surf competitions, family, and music?
It’s time management. Like Ray Lewis said, how much time are you really wasting? It’s up to you to prioritize. You need to prioritize what is number one? What is number two? You have to stick to it, and once you make a decision, you stick with that decision and you run with it. There is actually a lot of time in the day. A lot of people procrastinate. You have to make sure to just hit the power points, make it efficient, and prioritize. I make sure that I have time for my family every day.
What do you love most about surfing?
What I love most about surfing is I get to get away and I get to be me. That’s who I am. In the water, I’m Makua Rothman 100 percent. And I don’t have to sugarcoat anything. It’s who I am. It’s what I love to do, and it’s my life. And I love every minute of it.