by Jed Smith June 18, 2022 8 min read
It’s 2011 and Dom Walsh is about to make his first-grade National Rugby League (NRL) debut for competition heavyweights, the North Queensland Cowboys. It’s a baptism of fire.
The Cowboys are up against interstate rivals the Brisbane Broncos in a Queensland derby, held in front of a big crowd at the iconic Dairy Farmers stadium, in Townsville. Dom is sick to the stomach with nerves. He’ll be marking the infamous rugby league bad boy, Queensland and Australian representative, Justin Hodges. He looks at his teammates, among them Johnathan Thurston and Matty Bowen, two of the best to ever play the game, and takes a deep breath.
“I was super nervous, super agitated,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to screw up, I wanted to make an impression and a name for myself,” he says.
It was a dream he’d been working towards his whole life. In recent years, however, it had begun to lose its lustre. “I started surfing at ten or 11. Surfing was something I loved to do but I knew it was something I was never going to make it in professionally so I stuck to rugby league because I knew I had a shot at that,” he says.
For most of his life, it had been too difficult to imagine a future without football in it. Dom was among the greatest talents of his generation as a teenager, earning selection in both the Australian Schoolboys and Junior Kangaroos teams alongside future NRL stars William Hopoate, Boyd Cordner, Adam Reynolds, and Dane Gagai, among others. He had beaten thousands of footballers to reach this place.
“It was a really hard situation I was in because everyone who knew me knew me as ‘Dom the rugby league player.’ I put that much time and effort into making it in that, to detach yourself from something you think you’re about and what everyone thinks you’re about, it’s not an easy place to be, it’s a very lonely place to be,” he says.
In his spare time, Dom would clock up countless hours on the points of the Gold Coast. Over time, the salt water proved corrosive to his rugby league dreams.
“As I grew older, I knew my love for surfing was a lot greater than Rugby league but I just put it at the back of my mind and pursued rugby league because I knew it was a ticket to success,” he says. “By the time I got to my late teens and early 20s, I started to realise rugby league isn’t really fun anymore. I wanna surf, I wanna chase swells, I wanna get barrelled. That’s what I really wanted.”
He’s not the first to grapple with this decision, particularly on Australia’s wave-rich east coast, which is famous for cross-pollinating meatheads and waxheads. A quick skim through the list reveals some impressive names. Prior to coughing up four-straight world titles to Mark Richards, Cheyne Horan was a damaging ball-runner for Bondi United. Morning of the Earth star, Chris Brock, also from Bondi, went one better, representing the Eastern Suburbs Roosters at Jersey Flegg level before moving to a nudist treehouse colony in Kauai, and, later, the north coast of NSW. Both of World Tour stalwart Tom Whitaker’s brothers — Chris and Ben — were professional footballers. Former South Sydney Rabbitohs captain and premiership winner, John Sutton has surfed most of his life. Ditto former Australia and NSW rugby league representative, Reni Maitua. Current Eastern Suburbs Roosters hitman, Victor ‘The Inflictor’ Radley, spends his off-seasons at Lakey Peak. Melbourne Storm and Queensland Rugby League superstar, Harry Grant (Sunshine Coast) surfed most of his life prior to moving to Melbourne to play professionally. Leading Australian World Tour rookie, Callum Robson, was a gun rugby league player in his youth — his cousin, Reece, is one of the form players in the NRL with the North Queensland Cowboys. Gold Coast-raised former NSW and Australian representative, Michael ‘The Flash’ Gordon, has a mean frontside swerve on him. Rugby League immortal, Newcastle demigod and Matt Hoy confidant, Andrew Johns, has surfed since his youth. I’ve packed South Coast slabs alongside Illawarra Steelers icon, Rod Wishart, whose son Tyrone currently plays for the Melbourne Storm and other son, Callum, just got back from a boat trip to the Mentawais. Your humble author, who attended the same high school as Dom and played for the same junior club as Radley, was also touted as a future NRL player before I fractured my skull surfing as a teenager (fun fact: I was still playing A-Grade rugby league for Bondi United while serving as Stab’s inaugural web editor). Of all these names, however, only one has managed to get blown out of an eight foot west bowl at Teahupoo, and that’s Dom.
Despite making a successful NRL debut for the Cowboys, four weeks later he quite the sport altogether to launch an epic tube quest that has lasted ten years and counting. “I was so happy because all this weight was off my shoulders,” he says, adding, “I was so homesick and depressed up there (in Townsville).”
With the money earned during his playing career along with a new hustle selling solar panels over the phone, he set off. After warming up with a few dicey drainers at big Nokanduis, Dom stood tall at The Grower (Desert Point’s infamous end section), rinsed corn at serious Nias, packed cones at Cloudbreak, and put some serious time in along Oahu’s Seven Mile Miracle. All of it an entree for what he would attempt in 2016: Teahupoo.
“I went there for a swell, had never been there before, and got my arse absolutely handed to me,” he laughs of his first trip to the End of the Road.
“I wasn’t prepared for anything: the velocity of the wave, the drop — it’s so different to anywhere else on the planet. I didn’t realise how much water was in the wave, how far under it you have to be, and how technically challenging it was. I went home with my tail between my legs,” he says.
A year later and Dom was back. The lessons in physical and mental resilience learned playing elite football came in handy as he tried once more to get seriously tubed at Teahupoo.
“The biggest thing that it’s comparable to is being able to relax under pressure and perform under pressure. You’re out Teahupoo and you’ve been getting beatings all day, not making drops, nose diving, etcetera. You’ve got an hour to go before it gets dark and you’ve got an 8 to 10 foot set coming at you and you need to make the drop. It’s exactly the same thing,” he says.
Beyond boxing and mixed martial arts, rugby league might be the most brutal and injurious sport on earth (indeed, Australia’s top three combat sport exponents — UFC Champion Alex Volkanovski, Boxing World Title Holder, George Kambosos Jr, and Tai ‘Bam Bam’ Tuivasa (UFC) were all junior rugby league stars). Equal parts ballet, basketball and human demolition derby, it has all the collisions of American gridiron sans the padding and plus a grueling endurance component.
“Besides boxing and UFC, I think rugby league is the toughest sport on the planet. Not only do you have to be physically big and strong, and have size, you need to be so fit, agile and your endurance levels need to be through the roof. You can have as much size in the world but if your agility and endurance isn’t good you’re not gonna last. These guys are getting absolutely belted when they run the ball up, they’re getting winded, they get put to the ground on their backs, get up and play the ball,” says Dom.
In his second stint at Teahupoo, Dom arrived as prepared and determined as you could possible be. But whatever he was going to achieve at the wave he was going to do it according to the local customs.
“The locals are the best guys out there and I think from their perspective they don’t want guys rocking up trying to tow waves,” he says. “They want to see you paddling waves as well… I set myself a goal to try and get as many paddle waves as possible for the locals approval and send them a message that I’m just happy to be out there,” he says.
They got the message and Dom soon found himself on the inner sanctum of the core crew at the End of the Road. He was so enamored by what he saw, he never left.
“I said to myself, ‘This is not only the most amazing wave in the world, it’s also the most amazing place.’” he says. “It was everything I was about. I’m about living naturally, living off the land. I don’t like places that sell themselves out to big companies and corporations. Tahiti and Teahupoo were just perfect. Local people still living in their local village, local houses, no hotels, no restaurants, greenery, palm trees, looking after the land, and it had the best wave in the world right in front of it. So I said to myself, ‘This is where I want to be.’”
Dom has spent several years living in the village at Teahupoo, surfing the wave nearly every time it breaks. As much time as he’s put in, he concedes he still has a long way to go. “It’s still the most challenging wave I‘ve ever encountered,” he says, adding, “There’s nowhere you can compare a beating to Chopes. It’s ten times more violent than any other wave on the planet.”
While Dom refutes the tag of ‘elite surfer’ it cannot be denied he has achieved something very few surfers ever will by getting seriously barrelled at Teahupoo.
“I don’t see myself as an elite surfer at all compared to the other tube riders out there,” he says. “But in terms of being able to chase these swells and ride the waves I have gotten — I always loved surfing and getting barrelled was my favourite thing,” he says.
After years of putting his head down and going on whatever came his way, Dom was thrown the tow rope recently, with mixed results.
“I got towed in by (underground Chopes legend), Heiarii Williams… I didn’t make it. I just got torn to shreds, had cuts all over my leg, had to go in, shower in pain, and lime it all up, and ten seconds later I’m making solar calls to try and make sales to make a living,” he laughs.
Drawing on the resilience and work ethic of his footballing years, he persisted and got another chance. This time he executed. For a former professional footballer to surf the waves he has is something special. But don’t get it twisted. It took time and dedication of a sort not many people have.
“That tow wave that came through was five years of preparation; learning the waves, learning the spot, being in the right place at the right time, and earning it attempting to paddle some as well,” says Dom.
“I still haven’t had the paddle wave I really want out there but I’ll always try and I’ve stacked it on many. If I get waves, whether it’s a tow wave or a paddle wave, that’s just a bonus,” he says.