"It's funny, way back in the day when I used to compete, you'd always partner up with a friend on Tour and you would coach each other," Luke Egan recently told the WSL. "You couldn't really afford to have people traveling with you. You were just a one-man band."
Those days of one-man bands are over. These days almost every surfer on tour has a support squad, led by coaches like Ross Williams, Mike Parsons, CJ Hobgood, Luke Egan and Glenn "Micro" Hall. Indeed, this year's Outerknown Fiji Pro finalists, Matt Wilkinson and Connor O'Leary, would be the first to tell you they didn't do it on their own. Every step of the way, from the pre-event training, to board choices, to heat strategy and beyond, they relied on their coaches, Hall and Egan, to provide a mix of advice, technical information, coordination and motivation.
Today's coaches are much more than tactical advisors. They're playing more active roles overseeing the entire team. They dial design details with shapers, design strength plans with trainers, act as gate keepers to publicists and managers and even play set itineraries and sleep schedules.
Egan had already coached Courtney Conlogue to victory in the women's event and his latest three weeks in Fiji added to the considerable time he had already spent there. He won the event here in 2000, the year he finished as World No. 2, and knows every piece of coral on the reef. "I've got the luxury of having Luke Egan in my corner at every event now," O'Leary said afterwards, "and his experience has been invaluable."
That was evident in O'Leary's Semifinal win over Parko, the man Egan had coached to a World Title win in 2012. Egan came up with the strategy for the rookie to switch focus to the inside reef. While the veteran was left stranded up the top corner, O'Leary was syphoning through crystal cylinders on the inside on the way to a commanding victory.
Apart from the tactical tweaks, it also helps that O'Leary and Egan share similar approaches to surfing and competing. Both are lead-footed goofies, with a natural tuberiding ability and a first impulse to attack. "Both Connor and Wilko have been hitting the lip harder than anyone all week," Egan said with obvious pride during the Final. Like Egan, O'Leary also has a calm demeanor that allows smart competitive choices, even under pressure. The dovetailing of their personalities and surfing styles led to O'Leary being the first ever rookie to make a Final in Fiji, as well as cementing a spot in the Top 10 on the rankings.
Wilkinson and Hall on the other hand, have been working together for two years and had been best mates for over a decade before that. They have managed to transition their friendship into a working relationship that has transformed Wilko from the Tour's most talented outlier into a genuine World Title contender. By finals Day, Hall was already confident they had done enough work.
"By now it is just about reinforcing the stuff we have already been through over the last two weeks," he said. "He's surfing well, his boards are great, he has is landmarks dialed and he's the form surfer. It is simply now a matter of sticking to the program."
Kelly Slater however, a man who must be said won 11 of his World Titles without a coach, downplayed Hall's influence. "The difference between Wilko this year and Wilko last year is that he now plays golf," he said. "And if he gets the job done, then Micro lets him play."
Now that might be simplifying matters a little -- and was said with a tongue wedged firmly in cheek. Wilko knows more than any other surfer just how integral to success at the highest level a coach can be. The days of the one-man bands are over and, in Hall and Egan, the two finalists have some of the best backup in the business.