Will Tant, 1st year MPhil in Theology, comes to Oriel after a career in pro-surfing and as a professional model | Interviewed by Jacob Warn | Photo by Seth Stafford
Will’s surfing career began in Florida, where he would surf with his brother. By his sophomore year in high school, Will had made the national team and began to compete seriously. He won the East Coast Championships in his senior year.
‘I would surf before school – before the sun had risen – then come home and surf after school, then go to the gym and train. I would compete every weekend.’
After high school, Will turned pro, heading across America and living for two years in California.
I asked Will what kind of money there’s to be had in the sport:
‘One of the best quotes I’ve heard about being a professional surfer is Being a professional surfer will make you rich, just not in dollars. It’s a different form of wealth, an appreciation for life and people and circumstances.’
The physical strain required of surfers is enormous. ‘It’s an interesting mix of fitness,’ he explains. ‘A lot of upper body – ninety percent of what we do is paddling. Then core strength, but, I think most importantly, a general love of what you do. If you love it, it helps out a lot with the pain that you’ll go through.’
During these years, Will travelled around the world, to the coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines, living on the edge of society, bartering with local tribes. ‘Bartering for what?’ I ask, ‘Bartering for fresh fish!’ he replies, laughing. ‘I basically traveled around the world every year for ten years’.
I asked him if he searches for waves or follows competitions when travelling around the globe? ‘For waves. My style of surfing lent itself to photography. I travelled with a photographer and a cinematographer and had companies pay me every month. It’s all based on your performance – on the size of the waves and moves you do.’
It’s like being Special Ops. You train your whole life for these moments.
‘It’s all about the weather patterns. You’re chasing storms. That’s what you get paid to do. You’re chasing hurricanes and typhoons. You try to surf the waves produced by the storm, and ideally it won’t hit you, but it can. It’s like being Special Ops. You train your whole life for these moments. It’s imprinted in your mind forever.’
You also get known for a certain style. ‘For me this was power-surfing, which is essentially a fundamental kind of surfing. It’s having good technique and power.’ But it’s all about pushing yourself and the sport in front of the camera: ‘if you can find new waves, that magazine is going to run the article quicker. If you get that wave and its ten feet bigger than anyone else has done it, that’s a story.’
Will describes the feeling: ‘Training your entire life to be in that one moment. When your dreams become reality. Surfing those iconic waves in Hawaii, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa…’
Help Me Rhonda!
Will reminds me that Florida is the shark-bite capital of the world. Hammerheads, bull sharks, tiger sharks, thresher sharks, and even great white sharks patrol Florida’s coast. ‘I’ve never been bitten, but I’ve been chased a number of times.’ When a fin pops up, he explains, you watch which direction they’re heading in. ‘If it turns towards you, then you’ve got to go. It’s every man for himself. It’s like lettering a tiger loose in a zoo.’ Will laughs and I can almost imagine the countless near-death scares he’s experienced.
But Will assures me that the shark danger isn’t half as bad as people think. ‘The rate of dying by selfie is greater than dying from shark attacks.’ How’s that? ‘Getting hit by a bus, eaten by an animal, just being stupid.’
Sharks aren’t the only worry out on the waves. There’s the jellyfish too. ‘Portuguese man-of-war are the worst kind,’ Will says. ‘They’ll send you into the beach crying.’ Then there are other kinds, those you can actually pick up and throw at the friends, without being stung yourself.
I Get Around
As his surfing career progressed, Will began modelling during those moments he wasn’t travelling. ‘I did all kinds of stuff,’ he says. ‘Everything from high fashion, editorials in Italian Vogue, right down to those daily catalogues you get every day in the mail.’
‘They treat you really well. Unlike surfing. When you’re surfing, you’re pioneering an expedition across the world where everything could and did happen. Modelling is a catered experience. All you do is sit there and someone takes a photo of you.’
I ask Will if he’s ever been on a catwalk. He erupts with laughter. ‘No! I’ve never been on a catwalk. I have to draw the line somewhere.’
Till I Die[?]
But being a pro-surfer also brings death right to the forefront. ‘I’ve seen surfers die right in front of me. I’ve almost died at least a handful of times myself.’ How do you cope with those moments? ‘It might be a day, an hour, ten minutes, but you need to get yourself back out there in the same situation and catch another wave- conquer it.’
At the age of thirty-two, Will was diagnosed with a heart condition that made him choose between his life as a professional athlete and his life. ‘It may seem like an obvious decision, but it wasn’t. My identity, my self-worth was all wrapped up with surfing. It was hard to find value in life without it.’
Choosing to give up surfing, Will underwent the second most invasive heart surgery possible.
God Only Knows
In the two years that followed, restricted from doing any form of physical activity, studying offered another outlet. ‘In surfing, like studying, there’s a lot of time spent isolated training. It’s hard work.’
‘Having to find value in life without doing what I loved to do made me ask some big questions about my own life.’
He made the decision to walk away from the surfing career and, finding himself in New York, applied for a BA in Religion at Columbia University, where he was accepted as a mature student.
‘For me, having all those experiences and travelling the world and spending time in the ocean, it always begged the question: why is this here? Everything is just too incredibly beautiful, whether it’s a sunset, or the waves, or just all that creation.’
What similarities are there between studying theology and surfing? ‘Well, you can’t compare the two. Surfing is kind of an interactive art, it’s about the experience.’ And the tutors? ‘Well, I have a natural anti-authority streak. I’m a surfer.’