The world's best commentator and his inspiring riches-to-rags-to-riches story!
Unless there’s a three in front of your age, Ross Williams is a name that rings no bells. But what a superstar he is, and for so many years, when he was consorting in that group called the Momentum Generation. There was Kelly Slater, Kalani Robb, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado and… Ross.
And then, ever-so-prematurely, his career wound up at the end of the 2000 season. Ross was 28. He’d always lived by the maxim that if you can’t cut it on the World Tour you shouldn’t be on it.
And so while others were affixing themselves to the teat of the qualifying series and competing in every bad-wave shithole from Brazil to Spain, Ross wasn’t. Beaten in his last-ever tour heat by Nathan Webster at Pipe, as if further insult was necessary. Rated 34th. Two spots off the game.
A circle on the qualifying carousel beckoned, he was too young to retire after all, but an air into the flats at home on the North Shore exploded every single tendon in bone in his foot. Three long screws held the foot together and Ross spent nine months in a cast. It was two years before he was jamming those playbacks again.
At 32, Ross found himself newly married, with a kid on the way and with only a modest income from “a couple of simple houses” on the North Shore and a small stipend from the surf brand Reef.
Now house husbandry ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Once you’ve attended to the occasional issue with your rentals, you’ve got all the time in the world to do… what exactly? No one can surf all day (except maybe John John) and one way to kill a love of surfing is to be granted the freedom to surf whenever you want.
And so Ross started hosting a little at the Reef event at Haleiwa around 2009. Five years later, when he heard the ASP was hiring, he threw his name out there. The ASP liked the way Ross added his expert colour to events, gave him a three-day crash course in broadcasting (how to hold a mic, how to project his voice, “The ABCs of broadcasting,” says Ross) in LA and he was put on the 2014 roster alongside Martin Potter, Joe Turpel, Ron Blakey, Todd Kline, Pat Parnell, Peter Mel, Striker Wasilewski and Rosy Hodge.
For Ross it came just as he was birthing his third kid. Finally, perhaps, a chance to get on the road and holster his baby-maker.
“It was perfect timing,” says Ross.
A few weeks away from turning 42 (Ross is from the class of ’73 like Rob Machado), Ross is now the WSL’s Colour commentator, a job BeachGrit believes he is very good at. Perhaps number one on tour!
“There are so many intricacies in surfing at this level and it’s really hard to be aware of them unless you’ve had years and years of being a tour surfer,” says Ross. “And I get really excited to relay all that information to people who might miss those nuances. I love to shed as much light on a heat – who’s surfing good, who’s not, who’s capitalising on a heavy wave – who’s not, that I can.”
Given Ross’s three children, it ain’t a surprise that “frisky” is one of his signature words, although Ross says he’ll gobble a word up at one event and bin it for the next.
“One thing I realised before I got this gig was we all have our favourite commentators and we all have those commentators we avoid for the dumbest reasons: we don’t like the tone of their voice, their accent or they keep repeating a word or a phrase. I’ll hang onto a phrase for an event and then get rid of it.”
Unlike most mainstream commentators, Ross doesn’t practise outside of events preferring, instead, to stay fresh, to put his faith in his native surf intelligence, that same knowledge that had him and his pals commentating events as they sat on their beachfront porches long before the webcasts came up.
And so, Ross is in an earthly heaven. He’s the colour guy, he travels and he’s made some real tight pals in Strider, Pottz and Joe and he even gets to style his own hair or at least the last stubborn follicles.
“I’m absolutely in love with what I do,” says Ross. “It’s a total privilege to be a retired pro surfer and, then, suddenly, be gifted the chance to relay all the information I have logged in my head. I love it. I love it. The trick is being able to deliver it in a way so everyone is entertained.”
Oh Ross. You succeed. And how!