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World-champion surfer Shaun Tomson shares his inspiration in 'The Code'

Shaun Tomson is a former World Surfing Champion who became a businessman and inspirational speaker. In "The Code," Tomson reveals his methods for self-improvement, motivated by the simple, driving power of "I Will." Here's an excerpt.I WILL BE MYSELF Chasing the dragon sounds exciting. It conjures up adventure in far-off places and the chance to experience something new. I didn’t know about the

Shaun Tomson is a former World Surfing Champion who became a businessman and inspirational speaker. In "The Code," Tomson reveals his methods for self-improvement, motivated by the simple, driving power of "I Will." Here's an excerpt.

Chasing the dragon sounds exciting. It conjures up adventure in far-off places and the chance to experience something new. I didn’t know about the drug references. I didn’t know the chase could involve addiction and sudden death. My new friend—I’ll call him John—sat on the edge of his bed moving a lighter under some aluminum foil. When it started to smoke he leaned over with a straw and inhaled the fumes.

“Hey, Shaun,” he said. “You gotta try this. All the guys at Pipeline are doing it.”

“What is it?” I’d just come up to his room from downstairs.

“China white.”

I’d never seen someone use heroin up close. There were guys back home in South Africa who took drugs on the beach in Durban where I grew up, but my father kept us away from them.

A well-known surfer of the time—the first South African to win a contest in Hawai‘i—ended up getting arrested for smuggling drugs, so he became an example for us of what not to do. Overall I had a pretty sheltered upbringing. I knew about drugs, but I’d never tried them. I was nineteen years old when John asked me to chase the dragon—to sit down next to him and try what all his friends were trying. I was in Hawai‘i, on the North Shore of O‘ahu, 12,000 miles from my parents and my home. I’d just finished my first year at the University of Natal and would be surfing for the next three months with John and his friends. We were all about the same age, and I wanted to make a good impression on them. I wanted to fit in.

I’d been to Hawai‘i before—the first time back in 1969, a bar mitzvah present from my dad—but this was my first chance to spend the whole winter season there. It was November 1974, and if you wanted to make your mark in the surf world at that time, you had to come to the North Shore and take on the biggest waves at places like Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Pipeline. That’s where John and his friends surfed. I’d just met John—I’d rented a little room off his parents’ main house in Pupukea—but I wanted to know him better because he was a good surfer at a break where I wanted to be a good surfer. 

'The Code'

You have to understand: you don’t just drive up to these beaches, paddle out, and surf the waves. You have to get to know the people who live and surf there. They have local knowledge, stuff you can’t read about in books or magazines—when to paddle out, where to sit in the lineup, how to avoid riptides that will suck you out to sea or the shallow parts of the coral reef that will give you a potentially fatal head wound. People still die surfing Pipeline today. It’s one of the world’s most dangerous waves, and the best way not to get hurt is to talk to the locals and show them you respect all the knowledge that’s taken them years to learn the hard way. So obviously that’s what I wanted to do with John. He’d grown up there and had all the inside knowledge.

But I wanted even more: not just to survive those waves, but to charge them. To be the best. There was no real money in surfing back in 1974. We had individual contests around the world—in Australia, California, Hawai‘i, and my home in South Africa—but you couldn’t make a living at it. Not like today. Professional surfers can now make millions of dollars through contests on the World Tour and sponsorship with companies like Nike, Quiksilver, Billabong, and O’Neill. They’re finally making the kind of money they deserve, because they put their lives on the line in those waves. Forty years ago that wasn’t the case. Those of us who entered contests paddled out for two things: notoriety and prestige. We wanted to be the best and get our pictures in the magazines, and that meant going to Hawai‘i for three months and showing the whole surf world that we belonged. If you want to take the ultimate climb, you go to Mount Everest. If you want to be the best in sports, you go to the Olympics. Our Mount Everest, our Olympics, was Hawai‘i. 

I was a nobody when I arrived. Or almost nobody. I’d finished my first year of college in Durban—our school year runs February to November—taking classes in accounting, business administration, mathematics, and Roman Dutch law. I wasn’t really sure what field I wanted to get into, but I’d made a good start in my classes. I also grew up surfing. My father had always encouraged me in that area, and I’d won a pro contest that gave me enough money to travel to Hawai‘i as soon as classes were done and rent a cheap room from John’s parents. I bought a rusted-out car for $150 when I got there so I could travel the seven miles between Haleiwa and Sunset Beach. These were the proving grounds on the North Shore, the home of all the famous breaks I’d read about in the magazines and watched in the surf movies. 

Ian Cairns, a well-known Australian surfer—he’d won contests in Hawai‘i and made the cover of Surfer magazine, which was a huge deal at the time—told me after my contest win in South Africa: “Shaun, you should come to Hawai‘i for the winter.” When someone you look up to and respect encourages you, it’s easy to be influenced by them. In Ian’s case it’s what I’d call positive peer pressure: we shared the same values and were working hard toward the same goal—to be the hottest surfer in the world. Ian knew there was only one place to go to make that happen, and he encouraged me. 

There’s also negative peer pressure, of course, and that can be just as powerful. But it’s easy to miss the danger hidden in negative peer pressure. Sometimes you don’t even see it coming. A few nice words from someone you’ve just met, a friendly person interested in the same things you are, who likes the same music, who likes to go new places. And it’s not that they mean you any harm. Their friends are doing it, and maybe they want to be cool. Or maybe they’re just curious and out to try something new. They’re not looking to get you into trouble, but they’re not necessarily looking out for your best interests either. Life gets boring sometimes, we all know it. You want to shake things up. You want to have an adventure.

John was being friendly that day. He was a good guy and a gifted surfer. I was a new face in the neighborhood, and he probably wanted me to feel welcome in his home and on the North Shore. His room was a normal teenager’s room. I’d walked up the stairs and noticed he had some pot plants growing outside on a patio, which caught my attention. But there was nothing evil about the place, nothing dark or scary. “Here’s something I’m digging,” John would’ve said in the slang of the day. “Maybe you’ll dig it too.” And he offered me the heroin. 

That was it. There was no group of people yelling at me, forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do, pushing me to act like them or to prove myself. This was just John and me in his room, a couple of teenagers hanging out together. It was an everyday moment, and what I did at that moment changed the rest of my life. Sometimes small decisions—choices you make in an instant—have such heavy consequences. I recognize that now. At the time it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I knew why I was in Hawai‘i. I knew what I wanted to achieve, and doing heroin wasn’t any part of that. I watched John inhaling fumes, and I turned away. 

It was easy to say no. I wanted John to like me. I wanted to be cool and fit in with him and his group of friends. My saying no didn’t bother him any, and we didn’t talk about it after that day. We surfed together a few times. A week or so later I found a new place to live, and I didn’t really see John around the rest of the winter, which was a little odd. But I was moving in a different direction. It was an amazing period of personal growth for me. I learned how to charge the most difficult waves in the world over the next three months. The experience also planted the initial seeds not only of the first professional surf tour that came into being two years later, but of my rise to world champion in 1977. I wouldn’t have experienced either of those if I hadn’t committed myself to spending the whole winter surfing on the North Shore.

After I got back to South Africa to start my second year at college, I heard John had died of an overdose. I felt terrible for him and his family—they’d taken me in when I’d first arrived and given me a place to stay. John had surfed so well the days we’d gone out together, and now he was gone. 

So that’s part of my story. As I say, at the time saying no didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. Taking drugs wasn’t a part of who I was, so it was easy to be myself and say no. But sometimes it can be really hard to say no in those circumstances. You have to think about who you are and what you stand for—what’s right and what’s wrong. These are the things parents and teachers and other people remind you of day in, day out. You probably agree with them most of the time and want to do the right thing.

What’s hard sometimes is recognizing which decisions can change your life. Or end it. These decisions come up every day, everywhere: at school and at home; on the beach, or hanging out with your friends. They never stop. You want to have fun, you want to try something new, you want people to like you. Who doesn’t? A lot of noise surrounds you in these situations, a kind of music that takes over, upbeat and exciting; it pumps you up and pulls you along, promises adventure. It’s easy to get distracted and not listen to yourself. 

My son Mathew died at home when he was fifteen, playing a dangerous game called the choking game. He was alone. He was a beautiful boy, and I’m sure he wanted to do the right thing and just didn’t realize the danger he was in. Mathew is a big reason why I tell these stories. I tell them not just for him, and for myself and my wife, but because what happened to him holds meaning for others. I speak to a lot of young people these days, and I tell them to think twice before they act. It’s something they’ve all heard before and sometimes they’ll roll their eyes, but I tell them anyway because it’s important. One day they’ll be faced with a moment like I was in Hawai‘i—or Mathew was at home—and that moment will change their lives. I tell them, “Take a moment to listen to yourself, to be yourself. Not what you think others may want you to be. Think about the repercussions. Think twice. If you do that, you’ll make the right decision.” 

Excerpted from The Code by Shaun Tomson. Copyright © 2013 by Shaun Tomson. Excerpted by permission of Gibbs Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.