Tristan Roberts: The Small Town Kid Who Became World Champion

Seamus Mc Goldrick

by on

Updated 48d ago

Tristan Roberts, 22, is the latest South African superstar to follow in the footsteps of world champions Andre Botha, Jared Houston and Iain Campbell. Battling wild southern swells, cold water and great white sharks, Tristan spent 15 years dedicating himself to becoming a high level athlete and now he is the hottest property in the bodyboarding universe.

On October 21, his hard work paid off when he hoisted the APB world tour champion's trophy over his head after a dramatic win at the Fronton King event in Galdar, Gran Canaria.

Forecast: Gran Canaria

The Beginning
Tristan grew up at Onrus Beach, an incredible beachbreak surrounded by good reefs about 120kms from Cape Town and a breeding ground for new bodyboarding talent.

“When I was growing up I was convinced we would have a world champion out of Onrus. The level of riding here is definitely what has encouraged me to push myself.” says Tristan.

“When we were younger there was massive localism here. I grew up among some of the most hardcore guys I’ve ever come across. Everyone knew about the tough crowd they had to deal with at Onrus. There were a lot of rebels to grow up out here. They have moved on from that and have all grown up but they still have that proud feeling of growing up in Onrus.”

Tristan grew up watching older world-class bodyboarders like Mark McCarthy, Iain Campbell, Daniel Wolsley, Henk Esterhyzen and Hanukus Lobster. And, like virtually every bodyboarder in South Africa, Andre Botha was a big inspiration.

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“Sometimes I wondered if he was even human. I wish I knew how he is as fit as he is. Andre is an absolute animal and I’ve never in my life experienced anyone else to be able to do what he does, to surf the waves he surfs. When the beachbreaks here are like 10 feet and everyone is struggling to get out, Andre is just paddling through like it’s nothing.

“I’ve seen him in situations where it’s so scary and he is stuck against a cliff with massive waves and I’m floating out the back watching him asking how is he going to get out of there and he’s just subbing under these massive sets and paddling with one arm like it’s nothing. I’m out the back staring at him in awe.

“I’m so mind blown by his ability. He has got so much mind power and that is something that I looked up to. Then I love his fluid style. When you watch Andre, it seems like he is riding waves with pure passion, not forcing anything, trying to enjoy every single wave. Many times the new generation is trying to go too big all the time and rushing moves whereas Andre is super relaxed and it shows in his riding. Andre set the path for his world titles and winning them so young.

“I remember when I was a little kid and seeing those write ups [on Andre's world title]. I was like, wow, I’ve got a few years to get there, I need to buckle myself up and get to work. Andre really helped us. When you see Andre, you respect what he has done for the sport and what he has accomplished.”

From an early age, Tristan competed on the South African tour and watched people like Jared Houston, Mark McCarthy and Sasha Specker move on and compete internationally, chasing the tour and chasing world titles.

"Jared and Sasha always spoke words of wisdom to me.” says Tristan.

“Trying to become a professional bodyboarder from South Africa is so difficult. You never get any financial backing out of South Africa. If you manage to find an international sponsor with a good board brand, that in itself is something to be so grateful for. Those guys have experienced the road to achieving that. So it was great having them around while I was growing up to give me advice, to get overseas as early as possible.”

Tristan's first overseas trip was to Venezuela with the South Africa team in 2012 for the the ISA world bodyboard games. Tristan ended up coming second in the junior division. Tristan also went on a winning competitive streak at home becoming the first person to win both the boys u15 and the men's pro division on the 2012 South African tour.

“That is when everything kicked off for me. I went to Canary Islands to the Fronton Pro 2012. It was the first pro event I saw live. Jared and Mark McCarthy were going crazy. I was completely mind blown. I had no idea that is what bodyboarding was all about.

“I surfed the trials that year and I was so light. I was trying to do airs at Fronton and was just getting thrown out of control. I remember being about to paddle out at Fronton and speaking to Jared and McCarthy about being so scared and they were just amping me up to give me confidence to send the biggest sections.

“I still remember to this day seeing Pierre and Jared in that final. It was absolutely incredible. When I came home I was super rattled thinking, 'holy shit, that level of riding was something else. How am I ever going to compete against that?'. I was just 15-years-old just trying to process what I had learned.

"I came back frothing and telling all my friends about Jared Houston; that we have got one of the best riders in the world coming out of South Africa. We knew Jerry was good but seeing how good he was at that event was mind blowing at because I’d never seen waves like that before in real life.”

Jared Houston was another inspirational figure for Tristan. It was quite a realisation for Tristan that the best bodyboarder in the world at that moment was South African.

“I’ve watched a lot of Jerry growing up. I’ve tried to implement a lot of Jerry to my life.”

Jared Houston spearheaded the new school bodyboarding movement in South Africa, which meant going big and hitting any section that presented itself. And El Fronton was a big influence in defining that classic Houston style.

“He was ripping and felt so comfortable and was going so big. I think Jerry’s always had that explosive side to him and that is something I fed off as well.

“That is how I like to surf events. Every heat I surf like a free surf. If I get a big section on my first wave, I’m not playing safe. I think that is the mindset you’ve got to have to have in order to beat the world’s best. You don’t want to have any doubts in your ability.”

It was through a strong performance in the Fronton 2012 trials that Tristan got picked up by his sponsors Pride Bodyboards.

“Pride’s pretty much been the foundation of my career. I’ve been riding for them for eight years now and they are the ones that helped me afford to do the world tour.”

Gyroll, Body Board Centre and Red Bull South Africa also helped fund Tristan's 2019 world title campaign.

Tristan traveled to Iquique, Chile to compete in the 2014 World Bodyboard Games where he showed his true potential by winning first place in the men's division. Tristan also put in a stellar performance to win the APB junior world title at Praia do Sintra in Portugal. This makes Tristan the only APB athlete to win both a junior and senior world title.

“It feels good to go down in the history books of the sport I love so much.”

Tristan spent the early part of 2016 in the Canaries where his world was turned upside down when his father passed away.

“I found out the news while I was there. The locals really took me in and I decided that it would probably be easy to deal with the bad news while I’m over there and away from all the chaos back home and sort of clear my mind before coming back home. The locals really helped me. They took me on free surfing trips and Amaury and all the boys were really supportive. It really helped me through some of the toughest times.

“I was a special trip that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. That is also why I think winning the world title in Canaries was so special because of the tough times I dealt with there and all the locals who were so supportive of me. Coming up to the event they gave me words of hope. To see all those faces that helped me through the tough times, smiling and so happy, was just an incredible feeling. I couldn’t have struck a better first world title win.”

Tristan still had to finish his schooling back in South Africa and try and keep his feet on the ground while the inspiration for becoming a professional bodyboarder was buzzing in his brain. In 2016, Tristan was fresh out of high school and did his first full year on the APB world tour. He started in the trails at each event and made it to the main round every time finishing eight place over all. Not bad for his rookie year.

“That’s when my world tour journey started.”

The Journey
Tristan started off his momentous 2019 season with a free surfing trip to Portugal in February and March. Even though he missed the Pipeline event, Tristan reckons it was one of the best trips he has ever done.

“I went there for more than a month. There were good waves almost every single day, which helped me prepare so much. I was surfing so many beach breaks coming up to Brazil that I was pretty confident. I also decided to not put as much pressure on myself at the beginning of the year. I have always been really hard on myself for not achieving what I want to achieve. I have started to grow up out of that and just try to take everything for what it is and give everything my best and just enjoy it more.”

This mindset must have worked because Tristan won the contest in Itacoatiara. With his world title campaign off to the best possible start in Brazil, a relaxed and confident Tristan Roberts made his way to the Bellavista Pro in Iquique, Chile. He was the standout rider in the early rounds and surfed comfortably into the semifinals.

© 2020 - Josh Tabone.

Roberts was feeling in sync with the conditions and produced a perfect 10 on his first wave for two perfect barrels followed by a backflip. Later in the heat, when Brazilian rider David Barbosa held priority, a wave arrived with a split peak. As Barbosa moved to take the left, Tristan paddled to the right and committed to the wave. Barbosa changed tack just at the last moment and went right in order to call a controversial interference on Tristan. It was a sly move by the Brazilian but according to the rule book, it was Roberts who was in the wrong. Shit happens.

“It was so brutal. I went from so much positivity to just trying to comprehend what had just happened. After that interference I was so angry. I thought that another event had just been ripped out of my hands. It was out of my control you know. So, it was pretty difficult to come back from that mental state.”

The Bellavista Pro event was finally won by Chilean superstar Alan Munoz. Tristan had another tough heat in Antofagasta against Canarian rider Diego Cabrera.

“Speaking with Jared before the heat, I was like, 'I’m just going to target the biggest ones and just send it and pretty much go for tens'. I went up to the biggest close out and went for this massive backflip. The landing was so brutal. I hit my face so hard on my board and then got washed under water for so long. When I came up I was seeing little white stars.” I went up to the biggest close out and went for this massive backflip. The landing was so brutal. I hit my face so hard on my board and then got washed under water for so long. When I came up I was seeing little white stars...I try to entertain

“I had to paddle back out and my nose was bleeding and I had the biggest headache. I was fighting an uphill battle from there. Every flip I was doing, I was just getting so brutally destroyed on the landings. Diego had a good heat but I was still looking for a better score. I was trying to send it on all these waves but, honestly, that first backflip just drained all the energy out of me. Although, I was pretty stoked when I walked up the beach. I felt like I literally tried everything I could and losing like that is so much more acceptable. You’re like, 'ok, sweet. People enjoyed watching it'. I try to entertain.”

These professional APB competitions around the world are an important demonstration of performance bodyboarding, a global showcase. World champions like Jared Houston, Iain Campbell and now Tristan Roberts demonstrate clearly that safe surfing does not win world titles.

The Antofagasta Bodyboard festival was eventually won my Sammy Morrentino turning him in to a world title contender. Tristan set off for Arica where he eventually met Hawaiian Tanner McDaniel in the quarter finals. Sparks are always expected to fly when these two young professionals end up in a heat together.

“I think Tanner and I have something super special. We are competitive in heats but we’re actually really good friends outside of water and super stoked for each other to achieve. I think we’re both super grateful to have that.”

Tristan had a tricky heat in tough conditions against an in-form McDaniel. Tristan managed to score a wave with a great barrel section but as he tried a roll out of the barrel to improve his score, he blew the section.

“I got an 8 but I needed an 8.5 so I was short by .5. If I had rolled that section coming out of the barrel on the left, that was it. So, I came back home pretty frustrated just going, 'you’ve made this title so difficult for yourself'.”

“I had the opportunity to just run away with this title if I had made another podium in South America. I was pretty frustrated but at the same time happy with my first grand slam event win.

“When I came back from Arica, the charts were so sick for the west coast. I met up with Iain [Campbell] and another guy, Henk Esterhyzen, one of the underground guys from Onrus. We had three days of bliss camping up the west coast in the middle of nowhere. The first day we got four feet, perfect off shore. The next day was six to eight feet and pumping. The best beachbreak you could ever, ever imagine. It was perfect A frames just off loading.

“We were camping in the open nothingness, two hours from the nearest town with no light pollution and no mobile phone reception. The stars at night are incredible. Just the boys sitting around the fire talking shit, putting some meat on the braai and talking stories. Everyone is all crusty, you can’t shower anywhere and we’re all surfed out.

“Those moments right there are what fills me with pure happiness and why I bodyboard. Even winning a world title this year, if someone had asked me what’s one of your greatest memories this year, it would be that trip to the west coast with the boys.

The session in question.

“Straight after that I went to Namibia and just surfed long barrels. It is pretty hard to describe your best barrel there because you get so many in a day that it is very difficult to remember your best one. You’re so confused, every time you try to think of the best barrel you are thinking of maybe four or five different waves and try to remember what happened. I was in the water for 12 hours in Namibia.

"I literally put my wetsuit on at sunrise and took my wetsuit off at sunset. I was wearing my Garmin watch and it read that I’d burnt close to 6000 calories running up and down the beach in one day. You ride one wave and then you have a 2 kilometre walk back up to the point. Your feet start aching from just the walk in the sand. You’re walking close to 40 kilometres in a day besides surfing, fighting the current and then riding these intense waves. You can’t stop. My body was in complete overdrive. I was so tired and so sore and so content at the same time.”

According to Tristan, Andre Botha is a stand out at Skeleton Bay both for his fitness on the beach and his performance in the water.

“[Andre] doesn’t stop. He’s racing up and down the beach, head down, running and he still picks out the best ones and rides the barrel like no one else there. You can’t believe what you’re seeing.

“I was only home for a month between South America and Australia and I did these two trips that were absolutely thrilling, some of the biggest highs of this year for me. My froth levels were through the roof before leaving to Australia. I was so content with the free surfing I had done at home.”

Arriving in Australia, Tristan knew the title race was going to be close between him, Pierre and Sammy. But when he lost his heat with Ben Player in the dying minutes he was left feeling he could have got further in the last two events.

Roberts arrived in Sintra, Portugal, jet lagged. “I was so tired.” says Tristan, “I couldn’t get my sleeping pattern back to normal. I was killing myself, staying awake from 3am just to surf in the mornings.”

Sammy Morrentino made it to the quarter finals making winning a world title look even less likely for Roberts who exited in round 5 in a heat where conditions deteriorated and only a point separated the riders in first and third, who all scored in single digits.

Heavy tubes are a touch more accessible when you're going prone.

Heavy tubes are a touch more accessible when you're going prone.

© 2020 - Josh Tabone.

The Trophy
Tristan spent another month in Portugal at the Zulla surf village in Nazare. Tristan and his friend Iain Campbell sat down and did the math on Roberts' world title hopes and they figured he was out of the running.

“We were like, 'the title is over for this year so let’s just free surf hard and enjoy it'. We were surfing Nazare and staying in Zulla, which is the perfect place to cruise around there. We had a month of sick waves. Time went by so quick for me and then we were off to Canaries thinking I couldn’t win the world title anymore. Then, Craig Hadden sent me an email saying I could win the title race but Pierre and Sammy had to lose really early and I had to win the entire event. So I was like, well, it’s a shot but it’s not much of a shot really, to battle it out the whole way through at Fronton until the end. I couldn’t lose one heat.

“Pierre got knocked out and I was like, ok, well the door is open. Now I just need to take it heat by heat. But I still didn’t really think... I had pictures in my head of winning the world title but I didn’t want to get my hopes up because I knew how difficult the task was.”

The task was certainly made easier when Sammy Morrentino was knocked from the competition the the day before the finals. Tristan had to get the balance right between excitement and surefootedness. He couldn't sleep the night before the final day. He managed about two hours but when he woke up his stomach was in such a knot that he couldn't eat breakfast. He progressed through his first heat that fateful morning. Then the event was put on hold until high tide which meant had plenty of extra time to stress.

“I actually saw Jeff Hubbard in the break. I was saying to him I had been trying to nap but I couldn't. My mind was too crazy and I couldn’t sleep last night. He was telling me that it was normal. He said if you are sleeping something is wrong and that made me feel so much better. This is what every title contender goes through.”

Tristan ate dry bread just to get something in his stomach. His main fuel was mind power. He still potentially had three heats left to surf including the final. He entered the water for his four man quarter final heat.

“I came second so I was like, sweet, I survived and now I’m onto the podium. I’m in a semi-final and now the title shot is really right there. This is starting to get real. My semi-final was against Diego and I was like, well, here comes a repeat of Antofagasta.”

However, history did not repeat itself. Tristan had the stronger score in the opening wave exchange when he caught a wave with a good barrel section that seemed to come out of nowhere. The wind had come up and the conditions deteriorated. Tristan has priority with five minutes to go and needed a 2.5. He stroked into wave that wrapped on the reef and stuck a backflip to give him a 5.5. Diego caught a wave in the last minute but didn't get the score. Tristan had priority and held it to the end.

“That was like, ok, I’m through to the final, what the hell. I’m here! This is crazy. I’m still alive. Now I am just one heat away from becoming world champion and that was a lot for me to process in itself. I thought I was out of this world title before I got here. Now I’m one heat away from achieving that and I’m so tired. I’d already surfed three heats that day and my body is just running on mind power, not really any substantial fuel. So I just walked up the cliff, had something to drink quickly, saw Moz stretching and in the zone and I thought, here we go.

“Any scenario I pictured before, it was always going to be Moz and I in the final. If I was going to make the final, I saw Moz being in the final with me. I knew at some point he was going to be the man I had to beat if I wanted to win the world title.

“I had this weird feeling everything was going my way. It was weird to realise that while it’s happening. I had this feeling come over me where everything was happening for me and all I had to do was paddle out there and just surf. I was the most relaxed I’d ever been in the final and it was the most important final of my life.

“But it was a weird feeling that I can’t really explain. I was so calm in the final yet it was so big. Before the final, on the rocks, Moz and I were talking and he said to me, 'If you beat me in this final you deserve to be world champion'. I was like yeah, here it goes, he is not holding back so let’s do this.

“I knew he was going to be looking for those lefts that he reads so damn well. I knew I wasn’t going to beat him on those lefts because he knows which one exactly is the one. So my whole thing was to wait for the righthanders to wrap around the reef. There was one that came through that was almost too shallow on the reefs. I got onto it pretty late and just free fall into the barrel. While I was in the barrel, I was like I’m going to have to do something out of this. I kept watching the section and I flipped out of the barrel and I thought this is sweet. That should be a pretty good score for the conditions right now. The conditions kept changing in the final. The wind would swirl and there would be onshore and glass off. It kept changing.”

Tristan's wave selection was perfect for the final.

© 2020 - APB.

“It just felt like I couldn’t make a mistake. I paddled back and Moz looked at a wave and he couldn’t go because he was too deep so I just went and it was this sick little bowl and I flipped out of it and this is back to back. Ten minutes of the year that were just boom, boom, a 7.5 and a 7.25.”

Now the pressure is all on Amaury but with 15 minutes left in a final at Fronton with Laverhne it was far from over. Amaury paddled for a wave and when Tristan heard the crowd clapping on the cliff he had one of those 'oh no' moments. Then, Tristan saw a big righthander with potentially a big reverse ramp and flicked the switch to full send mode. Roberts boosted a big air reverse but got swallowed by the foam on the landing.

“Oh well, it was the right thought but it didn’t pay off.”

He paddled back out to where Amaury was sitting waiting in priority.

“With 10 minutes to go Amaury made the crucial mistake of paddling for a bad left and gave me priority. He was super rattled and was shouting and swearing at himself. Like, for him to make those mistakes just seemed too good to be true. Then I had priority and the ocean went flat for the last five minutes.”

“Counting down the clock, it was the longest minutes of my life. I was sitting there and then the nerves started setting in because I was so close. Under a minute left and I see sets start coming and I’m like, oh shit. It was like a black hole. Luckily, the first set that came through only arrived with ten seconds left. We both started scratching out and I was like I’m going on this because I know he’s going. I went left and he just rode behind me. Even when I pulled off into the channel, I was thinking it was too good to be true, like, did he do a back flip behind me and get the score?

“Amaury paddled over to me and said, 'you did it man'. I was like, did I really? I was waiting for the announcers to announce that it was official. I didn’t really believe it and then when they announced it I was an emotional wreck. The whole day I was just holding so much emotion and stress that it all just poured out of me and my body could finally shut down and not run on mind power anymore. Some of the hugs Iain, Pierre, Lewy, Jerry and Tanner gave me after the final was some of the purest hugs. I remember hugging Jerry and he said, 'you did it man'. Hearing those words, I still get goosebumps talking about it. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever experienced.

“[There are some] really good bodyboarders in the world that never become world champion. It is a feeling not many get to experience. Getting carried up those rocks, seeing the massive crowd, cheering and getting handed the trophy. I just feel so satisfied. When people pointed to me going, 'you will be world champion one day', all that pressure falls onto your shoulders and to get the monkey off your back is the greatest feeling.

“It was a year of making crucial mistakes, ups and downs, and beating myself up about them and then also learning from them. Now I can start putting what I’ve learned winning a world title to use and start competing more comfortably. Next year, I look forward to not having as much pressure created by myself. I feel so satisfied to win a world title that now anything from here is extra. I'll keep training really hard, just, I don’t even know if another world title could feel as good as this one. I couldn’t have written a better way to win my first world title, fighting it out until the end.”

The kid who became king.

The kid who became king.

© 2020 - APB.

For me, one of Tristan's greatest accomplishments was achieving that super zen head space for his final with Amaury. With everything that must have been happening in his life that day it was a remarkable feat. I also get a sense that Tristan also felt his dad's presence too, looking over him. Still, for a young man to win a major event while missing a parent is quite poignant. Of course, Tristan's mum witnessed first hand Tristan's hard work and dedication over the years.

“I think she felt like she won too, just sticking by me through thick or thin and always motivating me to keep going at the tour.”

And you can be sure that every bodyboarder in the small town of Onrus was super pumped. Everyone felt like they had won due to the long standing belief that Onrus would one day produce a world champion bodyboarder.

“The talent that came out of here, someone had to turn it into being world champion. It had to happen so to finally put that world title trophy on the table here was like, boys we did it.”

Onrus got behind their champion and held a big welcome home ceremony with massive signs saying ‘Welcome Home Tristan Roberts, Bodyboarding World Champion’ all over the town. Tristan went to schools to give talks and signed hundreds of autographs, which helped put his accomplishment in perspective. It is the old story of a small town kid who dreams big and achieves his goal against tremendous odds.

“You set hope for people that grow up in South Africa, with all the struggle. I think I’ve been so stoked to share the experience with all the frothing kids here and seeing all their smiles, whatever sport they do, even if they’re not bodyboarders. It’s been a rad experience, bringing so much hope to such a small town is so sick.

“I always knew a world title is not going to change your life. It’s yourself. You achieved that purely because of the last 15 years of hard work and dedication to my craft has paid off. I’ve lifted a world title trophy above my head and that measurement of success is so good to feel.”