Every year a new crop of rookies joins the ASP Tour. It's a daunting time. Unless they're Gabriel Medina, they get shelled pretty hard in those initial outings. But in the first few events, Aussie Mitch Crews, who is quickly becoming known around the world as smooth regular-foot "Crewsy," bested John John Florence, Kelly Slater, and Julian Wilson.
Last year Crews aced the Quiksilver Japan Open 4-Star and took third places at the prime-rated Mr. Price Pro and SATA Airlines Pro to secure his spot on the 2014 tour. He is currently ranked ahead of a dozen or so vets.
But there's more to the story than that. Mitch Crews' surfing campaign was almost over before it began. While enjoying the spoils of his junior career -- travel, sponsorship, and the occasional party -- Crews was struck down with a rare form of chronic arthritis. Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS for short) in November of 2009, doctors said it would end his career and possibly even keep him from surfing, period. But thanks to some experimental treatment and a ton of hard work, Crews is now ranked among the world's most elite surfers. He spoke to ESPN while preparing for his first-ever J-Bay Open (which ultimately didn't go his way as he bowed out in Round 2).
X Games Surfing: So far, your life on tour must feel like a whirlwind. Tell us about that.
Mitch Crews: Yeah, I guess, I mean it's not too hectic in comparison to some other jobs in the world -- like I'm sure big-time lawyers in New York would have some crazy stuff going on, but it definitely has changed a lot this year for me compared for the previous years.
You actually beat Slater in Round 1 of the Rio Pro. Was that surreal or what?
It was pretty cool for sure. He has dominated over generations, and to watch him from when I was a little kid to actually being in a heat against him and getting the better of him, that was a very strange feeling. But when you have made it to this level I guess you have to get used to coming up against your heroes and having the confidence to beat them on the reg.
Overall, how does it feel to beat some of these tour stars?
I didn't think it would happen this fast, like to beat Julian in my first world tour event ever at Snapper was amazing. I thought that to beat guys with a lot more experience would take time, but I think now that I understand that if I put the right tactics into place, anyone is beatable. It's juts a matter of being disciplined, being on the best waves and surfing them the best I can.
You just inked a head-to-toe deal with Reef in the middle of your rookie year. How is that relationship working out?
To be with Reef is epic. I've always liked Reef's vibe, and their laid back surfer gypsy lifestyle is super cool. I like how they're trying to go a lot more fashion forward and support the busy travelling schedule all of us surfers live, with their "Just Passing Through" campaign. It's so sick and I'm stoked to be able to grow my brand alongside with the Reef brand.
You've been hitting the High Performance Centre (a surf training facility in Northern New South Wales, Australia) pretty hard. What do they have you doing there?
I've been trying to focus on a lot of conditioning and mobility exercises. I feel like I'm already strong now. I don't really care to getting all big and ripped, more just overall physically fit, lean, and flexible. You don't want to look like 'The Rock' or anything being a surfer. You would probably sink.
Now that people are getting to know your name at each tour stop, are they starting to hear the story of your arthritis battle?
Yeah sort of, I would like them to know of me as a great surfer and their favorite, not as the kid with arthritis. Although it has made me who I am today and got me here, I still hope that I can compare myself to the best in the world and not have that as a hindrance to my career or ability.
Does it affect you at all now?
Sometimes it does for sure, but I'm working really hard to maintain it and look after myself. For now, I feel like I'm just as fit as anyone I know and it's not stopping me from achieving anything, so that's good.
You've already competed in eight events this year. That's probably easier than just doing the 'QS, but do you have to watch that you don't get run down?
Yeah, It's been pretty stressful, especially being a rookie. I really want to do good, and I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself, but I definitely have learn how to just shut down and take a break to recharge. Sometimes with all the travel and attention you just need to stop, come back down to earth, be a normal dude and do the things that anyone else would. It can be a really good thing, I reckon.