Luke Swanson / Air Apparent

The Freesurf Interview

By Andrew Oliver

When new faces come onto the scene it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made to well-established talent. While North Shore resident, 16yrs old Luke Swanson, has been turning heads in Hawai’i’s lineups for some time now, it’s safe to say that 2021 was the year that Luke went global. Luke dropped two significant video parts, produced by Rip Curl and Channel Islands respectively, along with being heralded as the World’s Best Junior by 2x World Champion John John Florence in Stab’s peer poll – all during the lockdown of a global pandemic.

Coincidentally, it was John John, the surfer who gave him the golden stamp of approval, who was also his main source of comparison. Luke’s preternatural ability in the air, and his increasing ease in waves of consequence, follow a similar arc of John John’s rise in the surf world. It should be no surprise that Luke trains in the same hyper-elite camp as John John under the tutelage of super-surfer whisperer Ross Williams. We caught up with Luke to talk about working with Ross and John, dropping breakthrough video parts, and bursting onto the world stage.

In the span of a few years, your career has really taken off. What has this journey been like for you?
I’ve always felt like I’ve always kind of kept my momentum pretty consistent over the years. I don’t feel like there was a one point in time where it kind of took off or slowed down too much. It’s always been pretty consistent, definitely there’s been certain moments that have just kind of allowed me to thrive in the past years. Signing with Rip Curl for sure was one, and then around the same time I started working with Ross Williams, which has been amazing. We started really working on the fundamentals – simple technique things – from speed generation, to working on my rail game, and just things that I could always be focusing on in my free surfs. Also, balancing it out with heat strategy and contest performance.

All things that sound fairly simple, but are a lot harder to achieve in practice. But, mainly, going out and having a really clear, simple structure to work on. And, I think that’s definitely influenced my progression.

At the end of 2019, I was able to do the Quiksilver, Young Guns Event in Portugal, and that was a big milestone for me, to win that event. And, I followed up with some wins in a few different regional events here at home. So, that was a pretty big jump forward for me.

Let’s talk a little more about working with Ross Williams. What an incredible mentor to have. He has all the experience and credibility in his own right. And, he’s a really astute and analytical person. Add to that, he has this long working relationship with John John Florence, who’s not only the best surfer in the world, but also another incredibly astute athlete.

John John and Ross are really at the pinnacle of performance surfing, and continue to push the boundaries on what’s possible. So, without much exaggeration, by working with Ross, you are tapping into one of the most finely tuned surfing minds in the world.

100%. It’s crazy. I can’t even wrap my head around it sometimes. These two guys are both so amazing at what they do and they feed into each other. Then, here I am, being advised by Ross. I’m third wheel to the best duo in surfing. Haha

In all seriousness, Ross is amazing at clearly defining the relationships he has with the different athletes he works with. He’s really good at analyzing people. He understands the way I see and analyze things. It’s super cool, because instead of having to adjust my entire view of surfing, he’s just introducing me to these ideas that he has, and fitting them to my surfing. And, I know he does that with John because you can see everything that John does, since he’s worked with Ross, his best things are better, and those things that he wasn’t so good at, now, he’s excelling extremely well at. Ross is just incredible at working on those little in-between things and without having to change an entire surfer. He’s made that really clear for me.

I can have these super in-depth conversations with him, and when we speak, we totally have the same terms in our head. They’re the same ideas. I don’t have to like to explain myself when I get some weird idea about the way to do something. He’s right on track with me. I couldn’t do that with anyone else. I feel really lucky to be in this situation for sure.

It’s funny, when I was little, I wouldn’t even say hi to him. I was so shy and I respected him so much. And then, all of a sudden, he was inviting me to go surfing and I was like, “Okay, this is crazy.” And then eventually he was offering to coach me. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so down.”

Also it’s cool that you get to share the experience with Bettylou Sakura Johnson, someone who’s your age, is a friend, but she’s not a direct competitor. But, you guys are both in very similar stages in your respective careers, so it must be cool to share that experience with someone who can relate to you?

Getting to work alongside Sakura is super cool because we can progress together and see the way that Ross’ coaching influences us and see how we’re progressing as surfers. We’re not just on our own, we are in this process together.

I get super inspired by the way she surfs and she is such a force in women’s surfing in general. Ross has totally maximized that and together they’ve developed this awesome workflow and she’s just constantly getting better.

We obviously get competitive, neither of us ever want to lose to each other in our mock heats. But then at the same time, we both are progressing along in our different ways. So we can totally be more chill about the way we work with Ross, and we don’t have to be competitive in that aspect at all. We can all work together, as we’re both getting better independently.

I’m sure a lot of the attention you’ve garnered, especially beyond Hawai’i, via Stab and all the videos, has a lot to do with the type of surfing you’re doing – super technical high-risk aerial surfing. And, the fact that you’re doing it here in Hawaii, where the consequence can be pretty gnarly. You’re flying out into the flats over really shallow reef, dealing with strong winds and powerful waves. What’s the process like working on those types of maneuvers, in our typical Hawai’i conditions?

I grew up skating and so I was really into just going for big airs when I was little in the skate park. Trying to tweak things out and do different technical things. I was always really into showing up, thinking of something, and then just doing it. Not really thinking about how long it’s going to take to land it, but saying, “All right, here’s a new trick, I want to do this. Let’s see how quickly we can get it done.”

Transitioning into surfing, that approach was already there for me. “Let’s work on this maneuver, and see if we can get it done really fast.” Then making that move, going on to the next one, and having that steady progression. At the same time, you realize the waves on the North Shore are way more powerful and way more unforgiving than anywhere else. Which can be a bad thing because you could get super injured. On the flipside, there’s so much power here. If you get the right section, you can do a bigger air than you could anywhere else. Of course it might be a lot harder to land it, but being able to experience it on a daily basis, you eventually adapt to it.

With everything that’s been going on in the world I know you haven’t really had the opportunity to pursue competitive accomplishments. But, it must be pretty amazing to have your hard work rewarded in this other way. And, the public feedback has been pretty remarkable.

We are in an age where everyone is constantly putting out their own media, little edits, and the like. But, I think it’s really the dream of any young pro to have a part put out by their sponsor. You have some fairly elite sponsors, what was it like to have them put together these big video projects and really get behind them and promote them worldwide? And, what was it like, getting the incredible response and exposure you’ve received from it?

Like I said, it wasn’t like all of a sudden I started surfing better. I just felt like I started getting all these super cool opportunities, which was kind of interesting looking back, seeing that it was right when COVID hit that my exposure kind of skyrocketed. It was probably the best spring I’ve ever had on the North Shore.

My dad was so dedicated – haha. At the time, they weren’t allowing people to sit on the beach unless you were fishing. So he would drag a fishing pole from home, cast it out in the water, with just a weight on the line. He’d be posted up on the beach with the camera and the cops would roll by, and they would just keep on driving cause he had his fishing pole.

We went to Rocky Point every afternoon for the entire spring of 2020. And, there were just some incredible sessions. The wind was good, the size of the waves were just perfect, and there was nobody around. So, I just got tons of reps in and I was able to stack a bunch of clips. Some different projects came up with Channel Islands, Rip Curl, and a few of my other sponsors to get the ball rolling on putting out media. And, they were like, “Hey, can we get some of your video and start working on different things?”

In the moment, I’m always just head down, I gotta keep working, and never be satisfied. I definitely celebrate all the different little things that come along, but again, I never take too much time to think about it. But, there’s definitely been some moments this year where I’ve just kind of looked back and gone, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe all these different things have happened.”

And, I am just tripping out, “Like wow, a lot of people are actually starting to hear about me and I never thought that would be the case.” Because I just didn’t really think about it. But, now that it’s here, it’s a really cool thing. And, I’m really grateful for it. And I just want to make the most out of all those different opportunities of exposure I get. So, to look back and be like, “All right, I guess hard work does pay off and keeping my head down does pay off.” And, that’s really cool. That’s just inspiration for moving forward.