There's something in the DNA of an elite athlete that helps him or her to not only push limits but exceed them. It's something that most of us could only imagine in our wildest dreams or nightmares. But for big wave surfers like Shawn Dollar, this could be the difference between life and death.
While the contestants of the 2010 Maverick's Surf Contest were pushing the limits in some of the biggest waves ever contested, a no-named surfer was about to paddle over to the line-up during a break in the event.
Between the semifinal and final, Dollar, a born and bred Santa Cruz surfer, made his way through the contest regatta and into the lineup. He saw his wave and spun around. In an instant, he'd changed his life and set the bar for big wave paddle surfing around the globe. That single wave earned him the coveted Billabong XXL Paddle Award in 2010 and etched his name in the Guinness book of world record (55 feet) for the biggest wave ever caught under human power at that time.
Dollar, who grew up on the East Side of Santa Cruz, surfing Pleasure Point since he was fifteen years old, had aspirations of someday surfing big waves. And when you grow up in a town that is home to Richard Schmidt, Peter Mel, Darryl 'Flea' Virostko, and a plethora of other big wave legends how could you not?
Although immersed the Santa Cruz surfing scene, he seemed to never get caught up in the troubles that had plagued his brethren during that era. A lot of that can be attributed to his upbringing. Dollar's dad was a surfer, and having involved parents helped keep him grounded during tumultuous times. Since his early teens, he would spend most summers on the job site working for his family's construction business, driving heavy equipment and slinging concrete. He still surfs with his dad today -- an avid shortboarder.
During the big El Nino season of 1998, while Pete Mel, Ken Collins, and Virostko were chasing giants up at Maverick's, Dollar was graduating high school and heading off to Cal Poly to study graphic design. No longer having Santa Cruz as his playground, he had to adjust his surfing skills to the much more rugged central coast big wave breaks. He traded in his 5'8" for a 9'8". And by the time he returned to Santa Cruz, he would be no stranger to heavy surf.
Fast forward a few years and Dollar is working as a sub-rep for good friend Ken "Skindog" Collins. Dollar paddled out as Collins' board caddy for the 2006 Maverick's Surf Contest. During the Expression Session, Collins turned to Dollar and said, "Since you like big waves, take my board and go catch one."
He caught one, then another, and then seven. At that moment his lifelong obsession with big wave surfing was peaking and he was now a man on a mission. From that point on, if it were up to him he would never miss another Maverick's swell, ever.
"You can never judge a book by its cover," says Collins, pro surfer and XXL Champion. "When Shawn first approached me and told me he wanted to surf Maverick's, I thought, 'This clean-cut kid from the East Side surfing big waves? There's just no way.' I guess I was wrong."
For the most part, that was the case and his word was money. You've probably never heard of most the Maverick's regulars because they are either too old, too burly, or not cool enough to grace the pages of the mags. It's a loyal, hard-charging crew, nonetheless. With his low-key demeanor and spirit, Dollar merged seamlessly and began to learn the ins-and-outs of the Maverick's lineup.
After four years of charging Maverick's, big Puerto Escondido, Waimea, and even a smaller day at Jaws, Dollar headed out to watch and caddy for Collins again. This time on his own equipment, he paddled out to catch a wave during the Expression Session break. The entire day had seen five and six-wave sets, all towering 50-foot plus. Grant "Twiggy" Baker earlier in the day caught one of those beasts and earned himself XXL Ride of the Year honors.
Dollar waited patiently for a makeable wave. Being cautious, he paddled into one that looked like it was breaking a mile across from end to end. While the contestants and crew were at the support boats taking a break and refueling for the finals, a huge cheer erupted from the line-up. Shawn Dollar had just caught the biggest wave ever paddled into, to that point. Within a few minutes everybody knew who Shawn Dollar was.
Although his record was bettered by Shane Dorian for a 58-foot Jaws beast, Dollar had earned his place as an invitee to the Mavericks Invitational, a spot on the Big Wave world tour, and as an alternate for the much-heralded Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau.
In late December of 2012, he got the call from Peter Mel to go on a stealth mission. Cortes Bank was the destination, and at first he wanted no part of it. 100 miles out to sea, sleeping on the deck of a small boat packed with a couple PWC's, a full crew and gear and being a long way from any help if needed, did not sound appealing.
"'Dial a Bomb' Dollar. He finds the best waves every session no matter what," says 2013 Mavericks champ and pro big wave surfer, Peter Mel, "He's our blue-collar guy who has always put his family first and just an all-around great human being in and out of the water."
Reluctantly, he accepted Mel's invitation. Turns out, this wasn't as stealthy as once thought. Three boatloads of some the world's best big wave surfers were about to converge on the Cortes Bank. The conditions were less than perfect with winds causing a side-chop to run up the face of the wave and creating huge steps to maneuver near the bottom. It was big and getting bigger.
Greg Long, Mark Healy, Shane Dorian, Dave Wassel, and Grant Baker had all gotten into some bombs already. Now it was Dollar's turn. He paddled over to the line-up and didn't have that long to wait. Being an open water break, the biggest sets at Cortes can be seen forming well out to sea ... from the boat.
A huge set was headed right for Dollar. He put himself into position, spun around, and went. It was giant and picking up steam, the biggest wave of the session -- the same session that would almost kill Greg Long. Understanding the consequences, he made the drop, out–ran the section, got barreled, and safely made it to the channel.
Back on the boats later that evening, after Greg Long was stabilized and sent back to the hospital via the US Coast Guard for observation, the photogs started sifting through the day's footage. Dollar's wave was the biggest so far. But would it be a record breaker? Rough estimates show it could beat Dorian's 58-footer. Could he have done it again?
Not to be bettered, Dorian and crew had paddled into a late fall session at Jaws. Some of the biggest waves ever paddled into -- again. It looked as though the XXL winners would be decided from that session. But with the Cortes Bank and Nazare, Portugal, sessions it's now too close to call.
"Its always a pleasure to surf with Shawn. Its pretty obvious who wants a macker and who doesn't," said Shane Dorian, "Dollar is always ready to step up for a big one. He has the unusual combination of technical ability and desire that it takes to set himself apart from most of the guys on any given day. More importantly, he is surfing big waves because he loves it not because he needs to, and you can see that when you watch him surf."
Receiving high praise from big wave surfing top players he's now a solid member of the same fraternity he once idolized, with the support of an amazing wife and family. He has already reached some lofty goals and this affords him to be more focused on safety and survival.
"What's more amazing to me is what you can do as human and not using a machine," says Dollar, speaking about the progression in the sport. "What the human body and spirit are capable of, we'll never know. But we just keep pushing. That to me is truly the progression of big wave surfing. The safety advances we're achieving now just help us to push the limits."
Catch Dollar and his mountain riding friends at this year's Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards on Friday, May 3.