For most surfers, losing a main sponsor typically triggers the beginning of the end of their professional career. In today's competitive action sports market, sponsorship dollars are becoming increasingly hard to come by, and major surf brands we thought would be around forever are being bought up, restructured, or on the verge of shutting their doors.
As a result, big-wave surfers' road to financial stability has been challenging, even for the best of them. But newly crowned Big Wave World Tour champ Grant "Twiggy" Baker never let a few nickels come between himself and his goals.
In July of 2013, longtime sponsor and employer Billabong unceremoniously dropped Baker from their roster. Although the Billabong blindside hit hard, he took it in stride, opting not to be bitter but to challenge himself both physically and mentally.
"Losing one's income and having to fight for your professional life definitely gives you an extra boost," said Baker. "How can I complain when even [Kelly] Slater is not good enough for the major corporations?"
The scruffy haired, brash 34-year-old South African broke onto the scene in 2003 by making the podium at Red Bull's Big Wave Africa, held at the infamous Dungeons. He followed up that performance by winning the 2006 Maverick's Surf Contest as a virtual unknown in the big-wave world. After 12 years on the circuit, he's won nearly every major big wave award, as well as paddled and been towed into some of the biggest surf on the planet.
Shane Dorian, pound for pound one of the most talented surfers in any genre, considers Baker to be one of the most talented big-wave surfers out there.
"I love surfing big waves with Twiggy," says Dorian. "He is such a little frother. He is super competitive and brings out the good energy in all of us."
The Big Wave World Tour (BWWT) doesn't boast the lengthy schedule that the premier ASP World Tour does (the ASP was recently announced as the new owner of the BWWT), yet modern day big-wave surfing receives far more airtime on major networks than traditional competitive surfing. Look no further than the mainstream press' coverage of Northern California's Maverick's contest or the freakishly giant break off the coast of Nazare, Portugal. Considering the number of eyeballs paying attention to the pursuit, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense that companies are not focusing more of their support efforts in this direction, but as Baker can attest, life's not always fair.
After getting axed by Billabong, Baker looked inward, overly critical of himself. Leaning on the support of friends like [Greg] Long and Dorian, and fiancé, Kate Lovermore, he soon realized there was no time for self-loathing. He refocused and came up with a new strategy, setting new goals that would place him back on the top of the pro heap.
The first step in his new regiment was to ride nothing but big boards. For nine months, that's all he did. The idea was to eliminate the need for the acclimatization process that goes along with switching back and forth from a shortboard to a big-wave gun. He reevaluated his training regimen and pushed himself harder both mentally and physically. He also put his personal life on hold for the 2013/14 season.
For his efforts, he ended up winning two of the six BWWT events and ran away with the title. Along the way he also rode some of the biggest swells of the year, earning him the Surfline Performer of the Year award at the Billabong XXL Global Big Awards, as well as nominations in two other categories.
"I'm feeling more competitive than ever. I'd love to have a heat with Kelly Slater in 25-foot plus waves. He'd probably still beat me but at least I'd have a chance," said Baker from the podium at the awards on Friday night.
And while Baker's 2013/14 campaign was self-funded, it didn't go unnoticed. Since his Maverick's win back in January, he's picked up a pair of new sponsors in startup surf brand Vissla and Isurus wetsuits. It very much appears that the world is about to witness Baker 2.0. He's fit, he's focused, and he's motivated by the lessons he's been forced to learn over the last 18 months.
"All I ever wanted to do is travel and surf and that's what this World Title means to me," said Baker.
From where we're sitting, he's well positioned to keep the momentum going.