WSL / KIRSTIN SCHOLTZ
“I was on the plane about to takeoff to Hawaii to compete for the last time and it felt like the right time to finish,” Joel Parkinson tells the WSL. “I was going out on my terms and although it was a sad and emotional moment, I had a smile on my face. I’ve had a good life and hopefully it’s only half done.”
Joel Parkinson indeed has a good life, as that ever present smile will attest. While the smile won’t be going anywhere, his competitive retirement has given him the chance to reflect.
“I’ve had time to look back at what I’ve achieved, the life I’ve built and the friends I’ve made,” Parkinson said. “Thinking back to my first ever surfs in Caloundra as a skinny kid with a big nose, I knew I would always love surfing, but there’s no way I could have dreamed of what it would give me.”
Parkinson grew up on the Sunshine Coast 120 miles north of the Gold Coast. The genetics were good; his dad Brian was a great surfer and his uncle Darryl gave up a promising professional career to learn a trade. Parko was sponsored by Billabong at age 11 and could have become a great surfer if he stayed on the Sunshine Coast (as Julian Wilson has proved), but a move to Coolangatta in 1992 at age 12 definitely accelerated his progress.
“Surfing the points helped my surfing for sure, but becoming mates with Mick Fanning, Dingo Morrison and Damon Harvey was maybe more crucial,” he says. “As teenagers we hunted as a pack and pushed each other every step of the way. We had no idea how good we all were.”
By 1996 “the Cooly Kids” as they were known were dominating the Australian Junior Series and by the time Parkinson was 18, his sponsors knew he was ready for the world stage. In July that year he was given his first CT wildcard for the 1999 Billabong J-Bay Open.
“It was six foot and perfect from Boneyards to Impossibles, I paddled out through the keyhole, caught my first wave and that was it. I was gone. I lost my mind,” recalls Parkinson. “Next thing I was standing there on stage holding the trophy, not sure what had just happened.”
The next year he won his first World Junior Title. In 2001 he hit the QS full-time, qualified for the CT and bagged a second World Junior Title. To say he was ready for the big leagues would be an understatement.
In 2002 he surfed his first CT event as a full-time rookie at Snapper and won it. Later in the year he would prove his Hawaiian pedigree with another CT win at Sunset. His runner-up finish remains the best ever finish for a rookie.
“2002 was a massive year for me and I finished second again in 2004, but really we were just watching the Kelly and Andy show,” says Parko. “Kelly had come back, we were great mates with Andy and he was in his pomp. Those two were at a different level and it was a privilege to be ringside to watch their rivalry.”
2005 though was perhaps the most pivotal year of Parkinson’s life after his wife Monica gave birth to their first child Evie. “People often ask how difficult it is to compete, travel and raise a family,” Parko said. “But I honestly don’t know any different way to do it. I was just 22 when Evie was born.” The couple would have two more kids, Macy and Mahli.
“I will say I have a switch. I can turn the competitive vibe on and turn it off,” he says. “You can’t be selfish with three kids, it’s impossible. But you need to pick the right time to focus on your surfing.”
The right time had seemingly come in 2009. Parkinson started the year in blistering form winning three of the first five events, before he broke his ankle attempting an air freesurfing in Bali. His good mate Fanning won the next two events upon his injury-affected return (beating Parko twice) and by Pipeline Parkinson’s lead had been reduced to nothing.
“It was a heavy situation,” Fanning recalled recently. “At Pipe it was weird when Joel lost and I was in the water in the next heat. I could now win, so I didn’t know whether to go and hug my mate or focus on the job.”
Joel was in a more difficult position. The injury had robbed him of a Title and that Title was taken by his best mate and childhood rival. “I went up and punched the shit out of a wall. I was so angry, in tears and distraught,” he said. “However I knew I had to go down and see Mick. He’s just won a World Title. After I’d done the right thing and chaired him up the beach everything felt better.”
Three years later at Pipe, Mick returned the favor when Joel won his World Title. Parko had spent the intervening years chasing that single goal. With trainer Wes Berg he became the fittest surfer on Tour. With coach Luke Egan he worked ceaselessly on his style, technique and heat strategy. He employed a sports psychologist to work on his mental approach.
“All the hard work, all the disappointment, all the hurt, it all paid off. To win a World Title showdown, against Kelly, the greatest surfer of all time, at Pipeline, the epicenter of our sport, it doesn’t get any better,” Joel said. “And to have come so close before … it made winning that much sweeter.”
Since that win it was perhaps inevitable that Parko couldn’t maintain the same selfish will-to-win level of intensity. He won another CT in 2013 at Keramas and while he remained consistent with the odd flashes of brilliance a slip down the rankings was evidence of a lack of desire rather a drop off in performance. Having toyed with calling it quits since 2015 he announced his retirement this year just before the J-Bay Open. “I have no more fire or desire to want to win,” he said. “I just want to surf.”
Going into Hawaii a few weeks ago Parko knew the time was right, but he also knew it wasn’t over just yet. His win at the Hawaiian Pro proved just what surfing will be missing next year and beyond. With Sunset and Pipe remaining, he’s now in pole position to add to his tally of three Vans Triple Crown Titles.
“If this is the last time I ever stand on stage, surfing has been amazing to me. I love it,” he said after the win. “Next year I’ll just be a surf fan like all you guys, can’t wait. I’ll always love surfing. It’s given me everything.”