Kyle Thiermann has spent the majority of his life in the water. He grew up in Santa Cruz, is dedicated to Maverick’s, spear fishes and open-water swims when the waves are flat, and has been a surfing ambassador for Patagonia since he was 18-years-old. But Kyle has been out of the ocean for more than two months now, and doesn’t expect to touch salt water again until October—pretty strange for someone who makes their living riding waves.
I’ve spent the past week with Kyle in Colorado, camped out at 9,000 feet above sea level, in mountains more than 1,000 miles from the coast. In between mountain biking, rock climbing, and learning how to fly-fish, we’ve discussed everything from politics and philosophy to relationships and pandemics—and of course, his extended, voluntary sabbatical from surfing.
Forecast: Santa Cruz
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I haven't surfed in over a month which is causing me to question my identity as a surfer, causing me to question my identity more broadly, thus spinning me into an existential crisis. This is an image of me inside a wave, it's meant to get a reaction from you which will surely reposition my ego back at the helm of this cosmic journey. Photo: @chachfiles
Let’s start with the obvious, Kyle. What the hell are you doing on an extended road trip through the Rocky Mountains?
I’m on my Eat, Pray, Love adventure [laughs]. I’m like Elizabeth Gilbert, except instead of eating linguini and meditating, I’m bow hunting and fly-fishing.
Searching for yourself?
Searching for divinity, man! Nah, I’ve lived in California my whole life, and have never explored Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana. But I have a good friend who was a hunting guide out in Montana for a number of years, and he always talked about how it was one of the most beautiful places in the US. I was stuck at home through COVID-19, and just decided to pack up my car and drive out here and do as much writing as possible.
So it’s been a couple months since you’ve surfed, then? And it’s going to be a couple more months till you surf again. How are you coping with that?
That’s not true! I surfed a river wave in Salida, Colorado, which was the first one I’ve ever surfed. And it was really surprising because it was only a two-foot wave, but the water moves really quickly beneath you. I got really worked!
So even though it was a little wave, I got quite flogged It made me realise that when you are under water, it’s not actually the size of the wave that determines the beating, but how quickly you move under water. So even though it was a little wave, I got quite flogged.
Before this trip you were in a whole different world, working on a big production in Los Angeles. Tell us about that.
Well I co-created a comedy award event called the Motherfucker Awards, where we “celebrated” evil corporations that have fucked Mother Earth, and then got professional comedians to “accept” the awards on behalf of the corporations.
The whole point was that instead of trying to directly shame the biggest polluters of our world, we were “celebrating them” satirically. So it was a really fun and entertaining way to talk about environmental issues in a way that got people to laugh and cheer instead of scream and shout. I feel like, right now, there’s so much going on, so much protesting and rage, and that rage can be a very draining emotion. If you can figure out a way to flip that into humour, it can be really powerful.
Your career as a professional surfer started when you were 18, largely because you were doing activism and non-profit work to inform people about what banks were doing with their money. This doesn’t sound like the normal trajectory of a pro surfer. What do you think the role is of a surf ambassador in this crazy world we are currently living in?
First of all, I think that specialisation is for insects. Which is to say, these days, if you only do one thing, you might get really good at it, but you won’t be that relevant to the world as a whole.
I want to lead a multi-dimensional, interesting life. And I think that our world is changing so quickly that it’s really important, even as a professional athlete, to learn how to learn—to figure out how to teach yourself new skills. I’m just trying to keep up with the world by flexing the curiosity muscle and becoming as capable of a learner as possible. The world is at our fingertips these days, and you can literally turn on a podcast and listen to some of the smartest people in the world discussing any subject that you want to learn more about.
I don’t know if I can speak to what the role of a surf ambassador should be, but I think that the role of a human should be to be a lifelong learner.
That’s a pretty introspective response—you obviously aren’t the typical “shred waves, post on IG, and sling t-shirts” pro athlete. But you do still have to consider your financial sustainability, just like the rest of us. You’ve been doing this for 12 year now, but eventually the pro surfer career is going to dry up for you, as it does for everybody. What happens when you are no longer getting paid to be a learner and traveller and adventurer?
Well, I actually make most of my income from my podcast now, which is my own business. I’m super fortunate to be sponsored by Patagonia, of course—they have supported me for the past 12 years, and have really allowed me to do my own thing.
I don't have to worry about talking about taking psychedelics on my podcast, or going off for three or four months into the American West, where I won’t be surfing. Patagonia has really been great, and supported me to just be myself.
No one can take their businesses away from them, no matter what. I think that if you do what you are told and you don’t ask questions, you are going to get left in the dust in a quickly changing world
But I also think that no athlete should rely only on companies for their income, because that is not very secure. The moment a recession hits, the first thing to get cut is going to be marketing budgets, and professional athletes are part of that marketing budget. So I have tried to have more and more of my income come from a business that I actually own, which is my podcast. No one can take that away from me.
I think some of the smartest pro surfers today are people like Mark Heaely, who started Healey Water Ops, which is a business that he owns; Albee Layer, who is a part owner in JuneShine, which is something that he now owns; or Jamie O’Brien, who has his own YouTube series. No one can take their businesses away from them, no matter what. I think that if you do what you are told and you don’t ask questions, you are going to get left in the dust in a quickly changing world.
Well, speaking of getting left in the dust, we just arrived at the trailhead and should get these mountain bikes unloaded. Is there anything else you want to add before we start pedalling and the thin air up here shuts down our conversation?
Just that not surfing for a while is one of the best ways to get psyched on surfing. My whole philosophy is to be a kook for life, so I’m out here being a kook, mountain biking and hunting and climbing, and so far it’s been the best summer ever.
Cover shot by Al McKinnon