Image by Duncan Macfarlane

It’s a Beautiful Life, Really

Ryan Callinan would wake early, sit on the balcony and just watch the ocean. Pipeline breaking to his right, Off The Wall out front, cup of vanilla macadamia coffee in his hands. He’d watch quietly for hours. Not brooding quiet – he’d been through that – but, you know, just taking a moment of gratitude. He’d walked through the fire and here he was. Having two years earlier lost both parents – one slowly, one suddenly – then in the wake of that, losing himself, he’d had to rebuild his life. Two years later, the Ryan Callinan sitting on the balcony in Hawaii saw the world very differently. There was a quiet wisdom that sat behind the contagious chuckle. It had taken a lot of tears, a lot of surfs, the love of friends and a little book left by his old man to get here, but here he was. He not only had his life back… he had a new appreciation for it as well.

SW: What are your first memories of surfing?
RC: I was around five and I’ve got a picture of myself at Rainbow Bay on a family holiday when I’m really little. That could have been one of my first waves, or it could have just been at Merewether.

Did you inherit a love of surfing from your Dad?
Yeah, he would surf every day. He loved it; it was his passion. He was a really early riser and he would go to bed really early, but he would always get up at five and do a bunch of work so he could come home mid-morning and go for a surf, he’d always make time for a wave.

When did the comps and the pro surf dream come into play?
I started competing nationally when I was like 13 or something, I didn’t really have any sponsors but I think Dad could see something in me. I hope that’s what happened, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have put as much effort in as he did, taking me to all the comps.

What sort of surf dad was he? Was he a hands-on, heat strategy type of character? 
I think the first couple of comps, he would help me, but it wouldn’t be super strategic or anything, it was more just a “Go out and have fun, that’s what you’re here for” kind of thing. The junior competitive scene wasn’t as intense as it is now. The whole experience I had growing up doing the comps with my dad was about making sure I was enjoying it. If I got too cocky or too ahead of myself, or upset after a loss, he would be pretty quick to put me back into line. In hindsight that was probably the best thing about the support I got from both my parents. Dad had really good ethics and morals and knew the right person that he wanted me to be and what I should be… but I didn’t know that at the time. I just wanted to be this little kid that was the best and threw tantrums because I saw other kids throw tantrums, that’s what I thought kids did when they lost. My tantrums usually didn’t last long and there’d be a long drive home with a good talking too.

Is there any in particular meltdowns that 
you remember?
I got second in the state titles one year and had a sook because I didn’t win. I did the splash the water thing and had a few tears. It was such a prima donna thing to do, and I just remember Dad telling me “second is incredible, you can’t be a bad sport.” It was more about being gracious in defeat and to be a good sport and be accepting of the situation. You’re not going to win every day and you’re going to lose a lot more than you’re going to win, so you’ve got to be able to get used to that and accept defeat. Being gracious in defeat and respectful of everyone, even the guys you beat and especially when you win, not to get a big head and don’t be cocky.

You’re really well known for your positivity and humility; do you see those as traits that you can directly trace back to your parents teaching you?
Definitely, both of them. Dad was very respectful and humble and gracious and just wanted everyone to have fun and the results didn’t really worry much. I used to actually get really angry at him because no matter what we were playing he would just let me win, and I could feel that he had let me win. He would do it to everyone and not everyone knew he was doing it, but I did. I knew how good he was at everything so I could see when he was slacking off a bit. There was a while there when I actually stopped playing stuff with him because I knew he was better than me and he was just letting me win. I’d be thinking, this isn’t right. His personality and morals around sport were not so much if you win or lose but how you act and perform during it and how you strive for excellence rather than results. I haven’t really understood that properly until the last few years. I didn’t even know that was what he was trying to instil in me at the time.

Where there any moments during your early development as a surfer that stand out?
In the developing years you think you’re a lot better than you are. You think you’re doing these roundhouses and you look like Parko but really, you’re a 10-year-old and your board’s barely moving. I think he was honest enough to tell me that when my turns weren’t that good. I just always remember… he was just so supportive of me. He was actually my biggest fan, which was I think was one of the most important things for me. To have someone that close that really believed in me and genuinely liked watching me surf and would always tell me how much he liked it.

So he would skip surfing to watch you surf? 
Yeah, I think that was monumental in my development. I would go run down to the beach, if it was in the afternoon, and 90 per cent of the time he would be up there watching. It was never a pressure thing; he just genuinely enjoyed watching me. That was from when I was really young all the way through and that was really special to me. Having someone that was that much of a fan of what I was doing. In the support that showed me, and belief, that was just awesome.

That support must have made a huge difference… 
Yeah, for sure. It wasn’t just me on the journey, it was both of us. (excerpt)


To read the full article, purchase Surfing World issue 406, available now from your local place that sells it, as well as here

Danny Johnson