Home » From remote dust bowls to the world stage, SA surfers on the long road to go pro

From remote dust bowls to the world stage, SA surfers on the long road to go pro

From remote dust bowls to the world stage, SA surfers on the long road to go pro

Drive over the headland on a day the swell’s up and chances are you’ll see a flash of white as a surfer launches an arc of sea spray into the sky.

Park and walk to where a jagged cliff gives way to the Southern Ocean and you may see another surfer backdoor his way into a barrel, before drawing off the bottom and hitting the lip with a crack.

This is South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, where the winds are relentless, dust permeates every crevice of your car, and the local surfers shred.

Among them is Luke Sykora, a 26-year-old Marion Bay electrician gearing up to compete in the national titles next month after a long list of surfing accolades and winning the state title in 2023.

Luke Sykora has been surfing the waves near Marion Bay since he was three.(ABC Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton )

Held at Sykora’s local break, where he has been surfing for most of his life, the Yorkes Classic saw him win the final against his former coach, legendary SA surfer Brian “Squizzy” Taylor, and Squizzy’s 19-year-old son, Corey, who’s also rising fast up the ranks.

“It was a big thing to win against Squiz,” Sykora said.

“Hearing his stories, listening to what he did … I looked up to Squiz and still do to this day.”

Man in wetsuit sends an arc of whitewater into the sky

Luke Sykora progresses his surfing when he is not working as a local electrician.(Supplied: Wendy Philip)

But while holding the state’s premier competition on Yorke Peninsula may be convenient for local surfers, any advantage at a national level ends there. It’s even harder for those wanting to give the World Surfing League (WSL) a crack.

A long road to go pro

Surfers wanting to compete at the highest level must climb the rankings in the WSL Qualifying Series (QS) before getting a chance at its Challenger Series and, if they are successful, making it onto the WSL Championship Tour with the likes of the Australian Olympic team’s Ethan Ewing, Jack Robinson, Molly Picklum and Tyler Wright.

But unlike the eastern states and Western Australia, there are no WSL events in SA, and only a limited number of competitions for surfers to practise competing in.

“I just drove to the east coast and went in a Qualifying Series,” Sykora said after spending upwards of $2,000 to drive a 40-hour round trip to compete earlier this year.

“And the waves were shocking … one foot, 20 knot onshore, and just a dead straight close-out.”

A surfer in the tube of a wave.

Luke Sykora is very much at home under the lip of barrelling waves.(Supplied: Neil McGlaughlin)

Corey Taylor, who in March won the Robe Easter Classic for the second consecutive year, recently came back from Indonesia where he competed in the WSL QS at both the Krui Pro and Nias Pro.

With travel and accommodation, it cost him about $6,000, and he has plans to compete again this year in the QS in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

“I’ve got an interstate comp in the next two weeks and it’s costing me personally $2,500,” Taylor said.

“That is everything from travel to staying and renting a car, to food and entry fees.”

A teenager holds a surfboard and a winner's cheque

In March, Corey Taylor won the Robe East Classic for the second consecutive year.(Supplied: Abby Ellis)

Taylor said he was “lucky” to be supported by people who sponsored him, but the high travel costs and lengthy travel times highlighted the price SA competitors had to pay.

A ‘massive sacrifice’

Surfing SA’s Craig Potgeiter said competing in the WSL QS took a “massive sacrifice, financially, from the parents of any aspiring surfer, regardless of what state they live in”.

“It you are from SA, it is even more challenging, so to be totally honest, at some stage relocation may need to be considered, or a commitment to travel to 10 to 15 events interstate per year,” he said.

Mr Potgeiter said that while Surfing SA ran plenty of open events, such as the Robe and Yorkes classics, the Hurley Classic on the South Coast and the King and Queen of the Bowl at Seaford, the state did not have enough competitors to expect to host WSL events.

a teenager on a surfboard crouches in a tube

Corey Taylor won the junior state titles six years in a row before he turned 18.(Supplied)

He added that the arena had changed from 15 years ago when “sponsored surfers got paid a fortune and were well supported by the surf brands”.

“That has now changed and there is very little support and certainly no cash support for WSL QS surfers,” Mr Potgeiter said.

Squizzy Taylor said competitive surfing over the past 10 years had followed a similar course to tennis, where the more events you could attend, the more points you could score to get a higher ranking.

That required more money, which benefited surfers from the United States where the dollar was stronger, enabling them to travel.

Surfer hits the top of a wave

Corey Taylor takes the top off a wave on Yorke Peninsula.(Supplied: Neil McGlaughlin)

Industry backing was also much higher in the US, from where the WSL is run.

“It’s all about the dollars now, not about the talent,” Squizzy said.

“Aussie kids are finding it a challenge, because Australia’s having to put more and more QS and Challenger Series on, just to hold up the Aussies’ side of it.”

Sykora concedes that a SA surfer who really wants to commit to the QS will more than likely have to pack up and leave for the eastern states.

For now, however, as well as progressing his surfing and competing where he can — including in the Australian Surf Championships in NSW during August — he is finding another outlet in surf films.

A poster of a film premiere for Three of Three

Three of Three was released earlier this year by Lyhk Media.(Supplied)

His biggest film to date, Three of Three, created by Khyl McIntosh, was released earlier this year and played to audiences at several showings in SA before being made available on YouTube.

Sykora says the surf films help to give him exposure, which is both good for him and his sponsors, seeing as he cannot travel interstate to compete as much as he would like.

“I’d love to give it up and go surfing, but I’ve got a house and mortgage and have to keep the balance between the two,” he said.

“I don’t get paid to go surfing, so I’ve got to make a living somehow.”

SA funding aimed at Olympic athletes

Mr Potgeiter said the organisation unfortunately did not have the funds to help its best surfers travel and compete, pointing out that while surfing had one of the highest participation rates in the country, in SA it was one of the lowest-funded and supported sports.

He said the sport was also at a disadvantage because it was “mobile”.

“Where other sports with fixed grounds and playing fields get funded to the hilt for facilities, we get no support because of outdated policies which apparently are difficult to review,” Mr Potgeiter said.

“I think other states are way ahead and have identified that the participation landscape has changed and they enjoy much better government support.”

A warning sign about people dying on the coast

Yorke Peninsula surfers hone their craft at remote locations that sometimes come with risks.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)

An Office for Recreation, Sport and Racing spokesperson said the SA government provided Surfing SA with more than $40,000 a year to support its core business activities, program and events.

She said it was eligible to receive more funding through the government’s Performance Pathways Program, although that only provided assistance for athletes striving to compete in the Olympic, Paralympic or Commonwealth Games events, where even the world’s best surfers on the WSL’s Championship Tour were not guaranteed a place.

The spokesperson said athletes were also encouraged to apply for the SA Sports Institute’s Individual Athletes Program, but again, that only provided scholarships for those training for Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games events. 

A surfer rides the top of a crashing wave

Corey Taylor finishes off a wave strongly during his second heat at the Krui Pro in Indonesia during May.(YouTube: WSL)

Meanwhile, Corey Taylor has launched a fundraising drive through the Australian Sports Foundation to help pursue his dream.

“It’s a funny one, surfing, as you’ve almost got to be a part of these comps to help build confidence and belief,” he said.

“That helps with your success in these comps, and if you get success in these comps, you’ve got brands helping you out.

“More recognition means more help and sponsors, and people will just want to help.”