Fair Game: Why Zeke Lau Did What It Takes To Win

by Rory Parker April 09, 2018 4 min read

I was a little bent out of shape over Zeke Lau’s tactics during his third round heat at Bells.

It all looked so mean, so unfair—skinny, blonde John getting bullied by a beefcake.

Bad sportsmanship, ugly tactics, a precedent which, now set, would ruin professional surfing, and so on. 

Like nearly everyone, I love John John Florence. He’s polite, he’sfriendly. He’s one of the best surfers to ever walk the earth.  

And so I think he deserves to win. Always.

Speaking with Jake Paterson, Lau’s coach, made me realize how emotionally biased I have become.

Because it is a game that’s being played, and I don’t really have problems with these kinds of tactics. I just don’t like them when they result in a loss for my favorite surfers.


How well planned out were Zeke’s tactics in the heat against John John?  Was the plan to just put pressure on him, or to sit on John to the extent Zeke did?

The tactic was just to put pressure on John. Because no one ever does.

Everyone kind of just lets John do what he wants, pretty much. It maybe wasn’t meant to go as far as Zeke did [laughs].

It was just like, kind of—put a lot of pressure on John. And [John] kind of cracked. He fell twice in that heat, and at Bells you can’t afford to fall, because it’s pretty inconsistent.

Do you guys take fan reaction, or public perception, into account when planning tactics? Or is it just about winning, getting through each heat?

Every heat is huge. Especially for Zeke at the moment, because his seed’s so low. That’s why he drew John. And he’s out of that seed now, because he beat him.

It’s a professional sport.  So many people are going, ‘It’s bad sportsmanship.’ I’ve read a whole bunch of that stuff on the forums, just people saying they want to see surfing and blah blah blah.

But there’s points and money and careers at stake. If someone like Gabby does it, they expect that kind of thing, so I don’t know what the fuss is about.

It’s like, everyone’s too nice these days in professional surfing.

What is it about surfing that creates this reaction, whereas in pretty much every sport this is what you’re supposed to do? To be aggressive, block your opponent.

Because it’s a leisure sport. It’s a relaxing pastime that everyone loves doing. That’s what I reckon.  They watch professional surfing because they want to see guys rip, obviously, so when tactics come in…

No one would have even thought twice if John had won the heat. It wouldn’t even be a conversation. It’s just that it was an upset, and affected John’s performance, maybe.

I don’t know. If John hadn’t fallen on those two waves, he had the waves to win that heat. He cracked.

As a coach, is it more important that your athletes put on a good show, or that they win?

It’s both. If you don’t surf well you’re not going to win anyway.  

I coach [surfers] to have a good start, and that’s what the whole thing was for Zeke. To put the pressure on [JJF], to make sure (Zeke) gets the first wave, and has the first exchange. To have the rotation with priority. The tactic was to put pressure on John, and that was how [Zeke] interpreted it.  

I think he maybe went a bit far [laughs], but John could have sat there, and not even budged and let Zeke have the first wave.

But [JJF] wanted the inside, so that’s when Zeke went, ‘You’re not getting the inside. I’m having the inside.”

I coach for performance and a good start.  And Zeke ripped in that heat.

It wasn’t just his imposing presence that carried Zeke Lau to his controversial Bells win against John John. Photo: WSL/Ed Sloane

That’s a good point.

If John just sat there and let Zeke have the first wave it would have never happened. But he tried to paddle battle him, and tried to get past, and Zeke said, “No, you’re not getting past.”

Because Zeke didn’t want to paddle up the point and be out of position, either. So he blocked him, and kept blocking him, so he couldn’t paddle past.

And that’s even a better way to do it, because then they paddle up the point, and they miss the sets, and then it’s boring to watch.

There’s an advantage to staying in the spot and keeping the inside at the same time.

Do you think the online criticism of Zeke is fair?

No way. It’s in no way fair.  

People need to realize that this is how he makes his living. It’s crazy that people can critique him for doing what it takes to win. No one has a problem with Gabby or Adriano or any of the Brazilians hassling their asses off, or sitting out of the lineup to get the inside, way up the point.  

And you know, that’s boring. I think it’s crazy that someone’s being pointed out, like Zeke has, as a “bad sportsman.” He did what it took to win, and it was all within the rules and .


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