Exclusive: Clint Kimmins Tells All!

– From child prodigy to prison inmate to triathlete & big wave charger

Clint “Clipper” Kimmins is living free since he switched the WQS jersey for a triathlete bib. These days the natural footer from Palm Beach, Queensland, lives and trains in Southern California where he prepares for his next race on the pro circuit. But Clipper also has his eye on a different circuit – the Big Wave World Tour – where he plans to push his fitness to new extremes in the heavy water arena. This year alone, he’s tackled the outer reefs of WA, Jaws, and Mavericks, making his intentions clear. And it’s no surprise from a guy who’s scored more magazine covers than any big wave rider his peer. But life wasn’t always this peachy. In 2004, at 22 years of age, Clipper was accused of unlawful wounding during a brawl at birthday party at Tugun Surf Club. When most young surfers are just hitting the prime of their careers, Clint was instead convicted and sent to the maximum-security Borallon Prison, where he did six months of hard time. Yet Clipper used this time wisely, training both body and mind. Planning his return from exile…

SW: You burst out of Palm Beach onto the pro junior circuit at 14 years of age. How did that transition affect life at home?
CK: Mum and Dad were definitely supportive of the career move. I was always fairly independent because I had the luxury of being paid good money from my sponsors. I was an under-16 Junior World Champion and finished in the top five on the Australian junior circuit.

Do you think it was tough for your folks to see their teenage son walk out the door?
We never saw eye-to-eye, but they were fine with it. Home life wasn’t all that good for me. Both my parents were drinkers and it was pretty rough at times. I just wanted to get out of there, and my family did encourage me to travel. I think they were happy to see me break the cycle, from a normal kid to a little surf rat.

When did you discover you had a thirst for big waves?
I was always trying to push myself in Hawaii. I wanted to be a standout so I could make more money to stay away from home. A lot of kids get really homesick on the road, but all I wanted to do was travel. Those early surf trips taught me a lot about work ethic.

Who were your big wave heroes?
Obviously the Hawaiian guys at Pipe, Backdoor, and Off The Wall. Guys like Braden Dias, Sunny Garcia, and Sean Riley. I hung with guys like Kieren Perrow, Koby Abberton, and Mark Matthews. They were like big brothers to me. We’d always be battling it out, pushing each other into the closeouts nobody wanted.

And you were the youngest of this mob?
Yeah, Jamie O’Brien and I always seemed to be the youngest. I used to stay at his house at Pipe for three months over the winter.

The 2000s were a golden age for the surf industry. Did the pro surfer lifestyle exceed your expectations?
Mate, it was unreal. Some of the times we used to have in Hawaii with Darren O’Rafferty, Zane Harrison, Mick Fanning… all those guys were my second family. And I’d be sharing a dinner table with them every night, cooking meals.

You were stablemates with Mick prior to his first World Title. Watching him qualify so young and take on the role as a marquee rider must have been inspiring?
It was really motivating to watch Mick do what he did in that short amount of time. As soon as he got on the QS he dominated, and then dealing with the hardships of his family. Losing Sean. The hamstring injury. The way he handles himself is incredible, and to share trips with that guy at his professional best was simply awesome. But in saying that, the WQS blew my mind, just how big of a shit show it actually was, and still is. It drove me insane because it actually does ruin your surfing. You’ve got this passion to go and get barrelled, to go on photo trips all around the world, but at the same time you want to get on tour. Everyone does. So you’re forced to go surf Newquay or Huntington where the waves are downright diabolical.

Do you think you were mentally prepared at such a young age to handle the life of a travelling pro surfer?
I wouldn’t say I had a big ego or anything as a kid, but I was pretty determined. No matter what it took, I was going to be a professional surfer. It sounds trippy, but it felt like I was meant to be there. After my career ended prematurely the desire to get there one day continued to stay with me. It’s still there now. I’m not finished with it yet.

High rolling, hard charging grom on the rise, Clip was always a standout in Hawaii. (Bosko)

So at 22 you’re a highly paid sponsored pro scoring plenty of media attention and then one night everything turns to shit and you get in a fight at the local surf club. Can you tell us a bit about the incident?
I just remember getting beaten up. I was on the ground getting my head kicked in by these guys. My instinct at the time was to try and fight my way out of that situation. There was a broken bottle lying on the ground, so I picked it up, closed my eyes, and started waving it. I was defending myself from a group of people laying into me. I wasn’t blind drunk or anything like that, because I knew the waves would be pumping at Cudgen reef the next day. The actual fight kicked off as I was leaving the party, but long story short, I injured this guy pretty bad and he had to go to hospital. The next day we went out to Cudgen reef, and I couldn’t even get off the ski. I felt so sick to my stomach because the whole thing had spiralled out of control. It was never premeditated. The guy actually rang me when he was in hospital, admitting to starting the fight and basically apologising to me. It seemed like we had sorted it all out but then two years later I was charged for unlawful wounding. I pled not guilty. I did not unlawfully wound him – I was defending myself. Then six weeks before it went to trial my lawyers dropped me. They said, “We don’t believe you’re going to win the case, we’re pulling out.” That totally ruined me. My girlfriend at the time and her dad got involved and hired a highly regarded solicitor on my behalf. He took one look at the case and said, “This is just bullshit.” If I’d gone to him at the start, I don’t think it would have seen the light of day in the courtroom.

But instead it went to trial.
I spent three weeks in trial sitting there in the box every day listening to people describe me as an absolute monster. They do everything in their power to annhilate your character. Their job is to win the case, no matter what. It was sickening. I was found guilty. They sentenced me to two years in gaol, suspended after six months, so long as nothing happened while I was inside, no violence or any trouble, which is actually hard to avoid. And that was basically that.

What was running through your mind when they passed down the verdict?
I just looked over to my girlfriend. They literally handcuffed me, took me through a door, which is right behind the box where you have to sit, and into this little room. In that instant you go from being someone who’s a law abiding citizen who tries to do good things by other people to being a convicted criminal and instantly treated like one. That was the biggest shock in the world.

Describe day one in prison.
Mate, it was gnarly, because I spent over a week in the holding cell down at the courthouse before I was sent off. It was a very small room, that held ten prisoners. Some of them were waiting to go to gaol because they need beds to open up. So I was downstairs in a holding cell that whole time. No house arrest, you’re thrown straight into it. I remember getting thrown in through this door and everyone comes straight up to you saying, “You got anything? You got anything?” Because normally when someone gets knicked, they stash tobacco or drugs up their arse or in their jocks. Obviously I had no clue what I was doing, just this blonde surfy kid and everyone kinda… not jumped me… but came up to me because they were clucky coming down from drugs. There was blood on the walls. Guys were scraping paint off with their fingernails and rolling it up and smoking it.

Were you scared?
Imagine being underground. You have no idea what time it is. You have no idea where you’re going. The cleaners come in and bang trays to wake you up. You’re in this tiny little room with ten gnarly people for eight days… Yeah, you’re scared. Those first eight days were bad, and I wasn’t even in prison yet.

What was prison life like?
They throw you into the bus, you’re either in chains or shackled, just like the movies. You’re sitting in this tiny little box with some guy’s knee pretty much in your crotch, and your knee in his crotch. You’re chained together. It’s so heavy. I remember the bus ride took three hours because they don’t take regular highways. They take all the winding back roads, for breakout purposes. I remember getting there and you have to get processed. They ask you, “Are you in fear of your life?” And you always say ‘no’ because otherwise they’ll think you’re going to kill yourself. They test you for HIV. You get tested for Hep B and C because people need to be classified. I remember walking into the yard when I was waiting to get another test, and it was the first time I’d been outside in over a week. It was winter, and I remember looking up to the stars. I dunno, it was a weird surreal moment where I was so thankful to be able to see the sky. Considering everything I was about to go through, I remember looking up and just being thankful. The first week in gaol was really heavy. The first day, a guy was stabbed. Word got around to us a few days later that another guy had hung himself. This was all within four days. I thought, “Here we go, gaol’s going to be like this everyday.”

Clipper today, at home in California. (Patrick Evans)

At what point in your sentence did you start training?
Mate, the second I got there. That’s what brought about the whole triathlon thing. Training in gaol.

Were there gangs and clicks?
Yes, there were gangs, but I just wanted to do my own time and train. I definitely didn’t want to get caught up in any politics. I wanted to get through the time trouble free because if I had laid a finger on anyone, I’d be looking at 18 months. And there was no fucking way I’d let that happen.

Was this the moment you decided to turn your life around?
I wouldn’t say turn it around, because I’m still the same person. But it did give me an inner hunger. I wanted to prove it to everyone that I wasn’t a bad person. You shouldn’t have to prove yourself to anyone, but I did because I’d been labelled by society as a criminal.

How hard was it to stay out of trouble in that kind of environment?
You had to be smart. I figured out who the psychos were. They’re the guys who push in the queue and things like that. So whenever those guys would come, I’d say, “I’ve forgotten something,” and go back to my cell and leave the line. If it wasn’t your life on the line it would almost be like a game of Big Brother. Who can survive the longest. The second you wake up, till the second you go to bed, it’s literally tactics. You have to watch your back, make decisions where you go and at what times, who you talk to, and even what you say. I’ve always called people mate, and I remember at the start, I said, “Thanks mate,” to one of the screws (one of the officers), and I nearly got my head knocked off just for saying that. They’ve got their own culture in there.

Did you meet any interesting characters on the inside?
Some, but it’s hard too because you don’t want friends in there. Friends do you a favour, then you owe them a favour. In a place like that, they could lend you a pen and you might have to jump in and stab someone. You know what I mean? You’ve got to be really careful who you associate with. Some people knew me as a surfer. I remember getting a walkman with some techno on it, which has always been my music of choice, so yeah, some guys help you out. The two guys I ate dinner with were doing life. They were both convicted of murder. I watched what those guys who had been in for a long time did.

Did you ever let your guard down?
I had two run-ins while I was there. The first was with this young guy who was stealing all my milk. At the time I was training my arse off. I remember eating 16 weetbix a day, and I was plowing through the milk, but this one junkie kept stealing it. I confronted him in his cell and he tried to arc up. It wasn’t a fight, but we had a wrestle and I ended up putting him in a hold, and he backed down. That was fine, but three days later he walked into the yard with two black eyes. Someone had touched him up pretty bad. My other run-in was with this behemoth, giant of a bloke. Who was about 6’7’’ and bald with tattoos. That was the worst. On the day my appeal was rejected, he tried to scab a can of Coke off me and I told him to ‘fuck off’. That was the one time I really exploded and it just happened to be at one of the scariest looking dudes in the gaol. This was in the spine of one of the blocks. But one of the guards put a stop to it. About a week went by and I thought for sure this guy was gonna kill me, but it turns out he did a dirty urine test and got sent to another gaol. I was pretty lucky to dodge that bullet.

Can you recall the worst thing about lock up?
The fear, because there’s a very real chance that something bad is going to happen to you. It happens in there all day, every day, it just depends on who. That, and being labelled as a monster. There was a lot of mainstream media that labelled me as that person. I was never the kid who caused trouble. Yes, I was the first to be a little smart arse, but for society to label me a criminal, it rips your soul out, you know? I’m just a normal person, but the world that we live in labelled me as this horrible convicted criminal. They tried to put me in a box, and I understand why guys stay in that box too because it’s so hard to get out. You need a strong enough mentality to convince yourself that this person is not you. It was never me, and it never will be me. It’s just something that I had to deal with.

Did your tolerance of fear change in any way from this ordeal?
There were a couple of guys in there who gave me books to read and I learnt that it’s all about the fear of ‘what if?’ Like those things you see on Instagram. Half of the things you worry about never actually happen to you, and it’s so damn true. You can spend half your life worrying or you can just get on with it. I’m still using those lessons to this day, for the better. You won’t learn those lessons anywhere else.

What kept you sane for those six months?
My girlfriend at the time and her family. She came to visit me anytime she could. My court fees went north of 200k. I had to borrow money from her family. I can’t even explain what she did for me and how strong she was through it. That, and I guess the passion to hit the ground running as soon as I got released. I wanted it back and I wanted it more. I was so motivated because I was so angry and frustrated about everything. I’m not gonna say I got a raw deal, but it spiralled out of control.

What was the first thing you wanted to do as soon as you got out?
I just wanted to be with my girlfriend and lay in a room and not feel scared anymore. To just be free, soak it in, and switch off.

What was that first surf like?
It was amazing. D’Bah was actually pretty good. Everyone was giving me waves, because the media had reported that I was getting released. Before that I went for a run and was in the water at dawn. I woke up super early because I wanted to be outside so bad. I remember so clearly that first duckdive was one of the best feelings of my life. It sounds corny, but it was that ultimate freedom of clean water washing over you.

What happened with Rip Curl?
They hung with me. In every endorsement agreement it states that if you bring the company’s name into disrepute through a legal matter that your contract will be torn up. They stuck by me until my appeal. They were paying me for the first three months that I was inside. It was only after the appeal didn’t go through that they terminated my contract. But it was all very professional. They reached out to me months afterwards, and offered me product. It wasn’t like they said, ‘See ya later.’ They were very supportive, and I understand. It would have been a great comeback story, but at the end of the day that was the decision in writing.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
The past eight months I’ve been chasing a tonne of swell. I went to Jaws, then to Mavericks. My plan is to qualify for the Big Wave World Tour. To do that, you have to be one of the top performers at the Big Wave Awards. So for me, it’s about chasing every single swell that I can, and being one of the standouts at every session. If I can keep improving, sky’s the limit!

How has the triathlon training influenced your approach to the big wave arena? Has it given you more confidence?
It totally has. I’ve never felt so confident out in the ocean, even when it’s super big. I’ve put a lot of thought into it. The key ingredients to making a Big Wave World Champion are; fitness, skill, ocean awareness, competitive experience… and balls. The only thing that’s missing is sponsors.

Are you still unsponsored for surfing at this stage?
Yeah mate, I’ve got nothing. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the business side of surfing now, and how guys go about marketing themselves. It’s not like the old days of show up, blow up, get the cover. I’m relearning all of that again. I don’t have a doubt in my mind that it’s all going to come together. It kinda has to. At the end of the day, I want to put a finishing chapter on my story. I think winning a Big Wave World Title would make the story complete.

Knowing what you know now, is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Yeah, don’t go to your friends 21st birthday party at the Tugun Surf Club.

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Hugh Wyllie