An Overdue Chat With 2017 World Champ Iain Campbell

All images: APB

All images: APB

Iain Campbell is our new world champion. And while his world tour run might have seemed like an open-close case (the man scored more podium finishes this year than a ‘roid-fuelled Russian gymnast), there’s much more to the South African and his world title run than meets the eye. So we discovered when he spoke to us from his crib in sunny Cape Town.

MM: You’re home now, but you’re not actually home.

IC: Yeah, but I’m living in Cape Town now. So I am home, but I’m originally from Durban.

How have you been taking the win?

The response that I’ve received worldwide has been insane. I got so many messages and phone calls and Facebook messages. It just blew up for me for like, 3 or 4 days. I couldn’t even reply to all of them. That was nuts. I didn’t really expect that. You can’t anticipate the extent to which people will respond.

Have you drank it in at all?

Not once, bro. I wish I had though. Just seems like it’s kind of run away from me. But I will. At the end of this whole thing and when the edit’s done and I’ve got the video ready, at least I can sit back and focus on the next thing. Or at least soak up what I have done this year.

From the get-go, were you in the mindset that this was your year?

I was very much in the mindset. At the beginning of this year coming off Pipe – getting a second there in my first event I’ve ever done there – was quite a big thing for me. I’ve done five seasons on the North Shore, so it wasn’t like it was new to me riding Pipe, but it was the first event I had done there and I just really wanted to come off that momentum and set it for the rest of the year. And as it went, it just kept snowballing into this monster. I got a second, then a fourth, then two firsts…but then I got sick, and through Arica and Antofagasta I was really ill. I came back home and – I didn’t know how bad to the extent my sickness was. Turns out I actually picked up a disease.

What was it?

I had ulcerative colitis. These tiny ulcers form on your large intestine and it leads to bleeding in your intestine. You start shitting out blood; it’s heavy, man. The end of the Arica contest was when it started to get really bad. I had it all the way through Antofagasta, and then I got home and had to have colonoscopy, and all kinds of other shit too. People won’t understand what that win in Sintra meant to me – and then to back it up straight away into Viana was even better. Those are huge points for me this year that no one really knows about, and I kind of kept that to myself. But I’m perfectly fine now; it’s not even an issue.

Tell us about the moment you found out you had become world champ...

That was insane. Going into the last heat with Diego [Cabrera], knowing what I needed to do. We got in the water and he was questioning me and stuff, but I paddled away from him because I didn’t really want to talk about it.


What was he asking?

Terry McKenna announced on the live feed that if I won that heat, I would win the world title. So Diego was like, “What do you mean – how does this work?”. I just shut it off and paddled away, because he was playing mental games the whole day with everyone. Diego let one slip that I got under priority, backflipped and got a really good score. When the clock ticked down and went to the last minute, I looked back at the beach and my girlfriend was there with all the South African guys. I rode into the beach and they all ran down and jumped on me in the water. It was an insane moment. My girlfriend’s been here throughout the year and the whole of last year and she has been a really big motivating factor for me. She was bawling her eyes out, and we had a moment on the beach that was super special. I’ll never forget that for as long as I live.

How did it feel?

It was a dream run. You always want to get to this level, but you never really think that you’ll get there. And I think that belief that I could do it when I was going into the later part of the year really set in. But it’s nice to get home. I’ve got this project that I’ve been working on this year for a movie. Coming back and having my focus pulled away from the whole competition thing and set into a new goal; the world title is kind of sitting on the side at the moment. I’m sure it’ll be different when I go back to my hometown, but at the moment my main focus is straight off competition and straight into another project. Which is quite cool. I’m super keen to get this out there and show the world that it’s not just about my competition riding, that I can actually free-surf too.

Do you think there’s a question around your free-surfing abilities?

For sure. It really got to me at some stages. I think people just see me in competition; they don’t really see anything else, and that really got me frustrated. To do this movie and show people that I can still do some pretty crazy stuff in free-surfs. And that maybe my focus isn’t completely on the competition, but on other stuff too.

Was that the catalyst for making a movie?



How was the Premiere of the film in Durban? 

The Durban Premiere was insane. We had a small intimate area that was greeted by about 180 people from around Durban. It was so good to have everyone in the same place to enjoy the movie and to celebrate my world title in my home town. 

You’re the third world champ to come from South Africa. It seems like a bit of a breeding ground for greatness.

I think it’s our national tour, it’s just so damn strong. I definitely think the breeding starts local. Everyone that I’ve ever competed against here could definitely be in the position that I am. It’s just maybe they didn’t take the chances when they had them, or they didn’t get to the point or get a break when I got a break.

Who was your fiercest rival on the tour this year?

Probably Pierre. He always had a shot at the world title after Arica. And he really backed it up throughout the year.

It seems an odd thing to ask a world champ, but would you say you’re competitive?

Extremely. Before bodyboarding, I did lifesaving as a kid, swam my whole life – my mum is a professional swimmer, multiple-time South African and even world champion swimmer – and my dad is a South African champion rower. And my brother is also super competitive, so I grew up in a family of athletes, of competitive people.

Does your brother surf? Are you guys competitive with each other?

Yeah, he still bodyboards a bit and surfs and skates – and does anything extremely well. He’s one of those guys who can just do anything. We used to be competitive, but it’s kind of mellowed out now. There’s always that older brother/younger brother factor – so there’s always going to be that competitive side.

What’s your favourite wave to surf in the world?

Pipe for sure. When it’s good and clean and you’re out there early. Some sessions I’ve had just with a few guys Tanner [McDaniel], Ben [Player] and a couple of the locals out there and it’s just firing. You can’t really put a price on that, even now when you look at how expensive it is getting to Hawaii. That place really stands out for me. I’ve spent a lot of time there and really love the place, and respect everyone that’s there.

Are you heading to Hawaii this winter?

Yeah, I’m pretty amped. I love going back there.

You must be pretty patient by now in the North Shore lineup.

I’ve got a spot there that I sit on and it seems to work.

Do you drink?

I actually had to stop drinking because of the illness.

So no boozing at the El Fronton after-party then?

I definitely did partake in that. It was nice to let loose and have a good time with everyone, have a couple beers and just talk shit. That was good, bro.


Who’s your wingman on the tour?

Maybe Jacob. When we’re travelling, he’s the guy that I really enjoy hanging out with and probably get up to the most shit with.

What kind of shit?

We got super hammered at Antofagasta a few years ago. Then we went out again in Arica and got super pumped. Just always a good time with him. Probably both of us. We kind of rile each other up. Next thing you know, you’re six beers down and both having a good time. He saved my life one night out – went to cross the road, didn’t look and walked right out in front of a speeding taxi. He pulled me back at the last minute.

What about in the water – do you guys push each other?

I went and stayed with Jacob for a bit in Maui in 2014. That really helped me and pushed me to try and hit anything. Because watching that guy is absolutely nuts.

Any good sessions out Honolua?

Some really good sessions out there, and other spots around the island too. But Honolua was nuts – and Jacob was doing crazy shit out there.

Hardest heat you had to surf this year?

Mentally, my hardest heat was the final in Arica. I’d surfed three 30-minute heats before that, which was in pumping waves, and by the time it got to the last heat I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was completely drained and not really there.

Was there ever a time this year that you were ready to pack it all in?

I wouldn’t say pack it all in, but there were definitely testing times. Dave Hubbard actually sent me a message that said, “Don’t think about the world title – all you’ve gotta do is just ride one heat at a time”. And that was probably the best advice I’d got the whole year. Because it changed my whole thinking like, OK, don’t worry about this or that; don’t focus on that end goal, just focus on the next thing.

What do you hate?

People that run their mouths; that really gets on my nerves. Everyone should stay humble and true to themselves and what they do.

What does the future hold for Iain Campbell?

I definitely want to chase another world title. This year really felt good and made me realise that if I can do it once, I can definitely do it again. Back home, I kind of want to discover something new. I’ve been in talks with a couple of guys here and there’s some interest in finding something up one of our coastlines. I’m putting a proposal together to get a cool team on it. I really don’t want to give too much away, that’s why I’m speaking in riddles.

A new wave?

Yeah, it’s going to be a new wave. We’ve got so much coastline that no one’s ever really surfed. We should be scouting and trying to find these waves and put South Africa on the map, and show there’s still places you can go to discover uncrowded slabs. I want to do something different, and focus not just on competition but adventure, too.