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b e n e a t h t h e

A Different
Kind Of Stardom
Profile by Shaun Wallbank

James Hollmer-Cross has

never been much of a talker.
His reticence to engage with
others might be explained through
understanding the energy and
focus he puts into his surfing.
James’ shyness has been mistaken
for arrogance, vagueness or even
intoxication, but beneath the
sometimes cold veneer there’s a
feeling something’s burning deep
down below, making him tick.

Comments From The Couch

ASL asked surf psychologist Richard
Bennett to comment on the role childhood
adversity may play in the development of a
big-wave rider, and the mentality required
to put oneself in life-threatening situations
on a regular basis.
(Richard Bennett is author of The Surfer’s Mind
and has worked closely with dozens of big-wave
surfers. The Surfer’s Mind is all about mastering
your mind for peak performance in free surfing,
competition, big wave-riding and wider life. For
more information about Richard’s book and services
go to

A number of factors contribute to the shaping of

a big-wave rider, such as genetics, personality,
learning and observation among big-wave
riding peers and how one interprets heavy
ocean experiences. While the experience of early
James Hollmer-Cross seeks solace in the childhood adversity may not directly shape a big-
ocean and this is how it treats him back. wave rider, adversity and risk events can play
Strapped in at Shipstern Bluff, gunning for
glory on one of the biggest waves ridden in
a role in developing psychological “resilience”,
Australia this year. photo: Gibson
which is an important capacity for success in
big-wave riding.

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It ain’t all mondo extreme madness in Tasmania.
There’s thousands of miles of coastal wilderness
offering up empty, perfect barrels for you and
the birds to enjoy. photo: Chisholm

b e n e a t h t h e

Looking back, Mum’s woes

made me realise that life’s
short, and it also showed home in the Ash Wednesday fires and, an ensuing double-lung transplant was no doubt that the absence submerged by constant battles with
me it’s possible to overcome despite a series of on-again, off-again and a host of associated chronic of the fundamentals in James’ isolation, cold weather and tall poppy
anything. Even cancer. attempts to make things work, finally health problems. “Looking back, childhood had a major impact on syndrome. To make matters worse,
separated soon after James’ brother Mum’s woes made me realise that his behaviour. In his early teens, Park Beach, James’ local, was rated
Tyler was born. life’s short,” says James. “And it also under the influence of guys much Australia’s shittest beach break by
The boys did the mum’s place/ showed me it’s possible to overcome older, James mastered the art of a magazine in the ’90s. Yet time and
As a whole, surfers are appreciative he could escape the turbulence and their young child. Hodgeman surfmat and dad, Mike, dad’s place shuffle for a while before anything. Even cancer.” James still cat burglary, sneaking into holiday time again James turned to the ocean
of the gifts the ocean throws us. of a childhood fraught with family Hollmer-Cross has early memories surfed the length of the Great Ocean they were rocked with the news had a ways to go, but watching his homes to steal booze, or sometimes for clarity. The tide was turning in the
We’re thankful; it’s an escape from instability, and the spectre of losing of being set up in a makeshift bed in Road. James’ early years were beach- Sonya had leukemia and wasn’t mother overcome adversity sowed just to sleep. local surf scene, and James found
a range of complications and offers his mother long before he was ready the back of an old VW, parked outside based, surrounded by surf. expected to make it through. James personal seeds of determination. The situation was far from the himself competing with those around
clarity. Many of us use surfing as a to face such grief. the coastal pub where his parents Mike, still young and unsettled, was eight, Tyler just two. James’ James’ tough times were often ideal foundation for a career in him in a bid to find joy in among the
retreat when the chips are down and James was born in Victoria, lived in would party. His folks, entrenched could never hold a job for long and sense of security, almost solely overwhelming, and he tried to cope professional surfing. Tasmania is no fear and confusion. “There were
know one good wave can change four different States by age six. The in ’70s Victorian surf culture, met in was easily drawn to partying, and based around his connection with his by retreating into himself, shutting farm for pro surfers, with few older good people around me,” he says.
your mood, your self-esteem, your nomadic lifestyle was the result of two their teens and found themselves any surf that was on. Sonya kept mum, was under attack. This threat out the world or by disappearing into guys to look to for inspiration. People “Park Beach developed a strong
perception on life. You leave your young parents struggling to negotiate living together before they even things together as best she could on of loss remained in the balance for drug and alcohol benders. He could of the Apple Isle know too well surfing community. A lot of us had
troubles in the shorebreak. For a rollercoaster relationship, and thought about where they were the homefront. The family moved to years while Sonya bravely took on often be found staring blankly into there’s been plenty of talent bred in rocky backgrounds and connected
James the sea was a place where struggling to look after themselves headed. James’ mum, Sonya, rode a Tasmania after being burnt out of the cancer, the transplant rejection, the void, not quite present. There the State that has come and gone, through surfing.”

Clearly big waves can present high stress and potential catastrophe, although resilient surfers are good at creating success in these high-risk situations, can manage the stress well, recover quickly Resilience may be defined as the positive capacity to deal with stress and catastrophe. Resilient individuals have high ability to create good outcomes regardless of risk, demonstrate competence under
from intense wipe-outs and mindfully utilise heavy ocean experiences for ongoing enhancement of their big-wave riding performance. stress, recover well from trauma and use challenges for personal growth, thus ensuring better adaptation and management of future hardships.

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b e n e a t h t h e
Compulsory 1000-yard-stare-
waterman portrait. photo: gibson

I realised I had the capacity to become a

pro surfer, but I had to go above and beyond
to get noticed by people in the right places.
It’s not just about the talent, there are so
many more factors these days.

“I’m frothing on this joint, the wave goes seriously dry on so many
waves. I reckon the one of Jimmy is epic, it’d be good to see him get
rewarded with some shots. He goes so hard, probably the hardest out
of all the Tassie lads and really hasn’t had the recognition he deserves.”
- Email from photographer Stu Gibson in May, accompanying this shot
from a newly surfed Tassie slab.

Around the time James realised that on went out of his way to get his boys stepping up came at just the time it out of surfing I had to make it work so many more factors these days.” gave him techniques on everything There was also one other, unex- into the mix at that time, but Sarah
surfing could possibly be his lifeline, in the water. “I remember Dad didn’t was most needed. “If I could pinpoint by the time I was 25.” James focused During this period of self-discovery from how to deal with feeling self- pected but cheerier, hurdle to has always supported what I do, and
his father vaulted back into action. have much money, but he made the moment where the wheels were his attention on gathering as much James began to appreciate that the conscious to being down about overcome. “Well, yeah, my time frame helped me through tough times. She’s
“Mum’s sickness was a blessing in sure we had a roof over our heads,” set in motion for me becoming a pro media attention as possible and soon lack of direction and instability he things not turning out as planned. It’s did get pushed back a year,” laughs a pillar of strength.”
disguise,” says Hollmer-Cross. “Dad recounts James with pride. “He even surfer, that was it.” learnt his talent and courage alone had encountered in his younger funny to think that a man who rides a happy Hollmer-Cross. James got Harry was born in January
realised the severity of the situation took us to Indonesia once.” His mother, As modern technology brought the were not going to get him to the level years were having a profound effect waves that require making split- together with his girlfriend, Sarah 2004, and James now had all the
and did everything he could to look although sick, realised that James’ sixth State closer to the mainland, he dreamt of. “I realised I had the on his personal skills. “I had to second decisions so as to avoid lethal Hawson, and after a whirlwind romance motivation he needed to chase his
after Tyler and me, including taking surfing was his ticket and got behind James was one of the first Taswegian capacity to become a pro surfer, but work really hard to communicate consequences could be anxious a bub was on its way. “There was three dream career. “I was young, but I had
us surfing.” Hollmer-Cross senior him 100 percent. “She was really ill, surfers to grab the opportunities I had to go above and beyond to get and trust people,” he says. With about whether a photo of it ends up months of passion before we found out the responsibilities of being a father
recognised that his sons had a passion but I knew all she wanted was for me presented by the balls. “I set myself noticed by people in the right places. encouragement from his parents on a magazine cover, but that’s what Sarah was pregnant. It was really hard and partner and wasn’t going to blow
for wave riding and from that moment was to make it,” says James. Mike’s a goal. If I was going to make a living It’s not just about the talent, there are James talked to a lot of people, who makes James different. to imagine throwing another person it completely.”

Research on resilience in children identifies good cognitive functioning in terms of self-regulation and intelligence, and positive relationships with competent adults as “protective factors” in situations The core mentality of big-wave riders is simple – they want it and they love it, and so they GO! To give a little more detail, in 2000 I conducted research with more than 30 big-wave riders and found they
of adversity. Living the surfing life and committing to the extreme pursuit of big-wave riding presents abundant opportunity to evolve the mind and cultivate meaningful relationships with family, the local shared a natural thrill-seeking, confident and goal-oriented personality, a high level of mental strength and control, a calm, confident and committed mindset in the moment when charging big waves, a
surfing community and the natural energy of the ocean. The positive feelings of freedom, exhilaration and joy experienced from regular wave riding also serve to cultivate a happy, resilient human being. deep desire to ride big waves and an intimate, personally meaningful relationship with the ocean.

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Every now and then a wave refuses to barrel,
and it makes James angry. Fighting the
face at one of Hobart’s rarely sighted rights.
photo: Chisholm

b e n e a t h t h e

Being nominated for

awards is great,” says James,
“but finding new waves is
just as important to me. JHX whips HHX into one.
photo: Chisholm

There’s no denying that a certain and that’s when I felt things were doing some other trips, maybe even the start. No matter what happens,
big wave under a certain cliff gave really progressing,” he says. “I’d been some contests.” Surely not the WQS? I want my family to be set up.”
James and his surfing compadres a surfing for Rip Curl for a few years, “Nah, no chance, but I just got back James and Sarah are now engaged.
leg up into the surfing industry. As but that moment validated their faith; from the Rip Curl Padang Padang Six-year-old Harry is riding waves
the surf world was consumed by slab they could see the value in having me Invitational in Bali and one day I’d at Park Beach and the couple are
fever, James, Tyler and lunatic mates onboard.” As Rip Curl’s investment love to do the trials at Chopes. If planning to add another member
including Marti Paradisis and Dustin in James began to reap dividends they ever invite me,” he laughs, with to the hyphen clan. He might not be
Hollick followed the bootie steps of more support was forthcoming. More a “hint hint, nudge nudge” glint in the typical nine-to-five family man,
Shipstern’s godfather Andy Campbell possibilities opened up, and as with his eye. but like his surfing, he’s giving it
into the surf world’s conscience. his surfing, James dived straight When discussing the early days everything he’s got.
You've got to hand it to them, if in. “Being nominated for awards is James doesn’t play down the hard James has made the most of
taking off on a wave at Shipstern great,” says James, “but finding new times. Without the financial support what he’s got, survived some hard
is the difference between celebrity waves is just as important to me.” With of his girlfriend, Sarah, he knows knocks and has been supported by
and hermitism, then a life of solitude continued support from his sponsors he wouldn’t have realised his goals. good people around him. He reckons
looks pretty damn attractive. James was realising his goals and, “I owe her a lot,” he says, “and my that’s what makes life challenging
In 2009 the hours spent floating slowly, his dreams. brother, Tyler, and parents too, and worth living. These days when he
in cold, dark water were starting to Dancing around watery graves is without them I’d be nowhere.” It’s gets driven deep down the mineshaft
pay off and James was spat on to still on the agenda these days, but clear that as James’ ambitions are of a collapsed slab, James is more
the lunatic-riddled big-wave stage. James is looking to branch out. “I’ll realised he won’t soon forget the relaxed than anyone. He knows if you
“I came third in the Ride Of The Year always love surfing the big stuff at people who helped him along the hang on long enough, you’ll eventually
section at the Billabong XXL Awards home,” he says, “but I wouldn’t mind way. “They’ve been my pillars from come back to the surface.

In terms of performance mindset, elite big-wave riders simply accept the risks, prepare well for the demands of the ocean and stay clearly focused on what they want – the big drop or massive barrel
– rather than what they don’t want.
And though extreme ocean conditions can present high stress and potential for catastrophe, for big-wave riders this place is viewed as a wonderful sanctuary that nurtures the soul and cultivates
many positive qualities for happiness and success in surfing and in wider life.

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