Where the writer discovers the true meaning of family…
“Bringing up a family should be an adventure,” wrote the psychiatrist Milton R Saperstein, “not an anxious discipline in which everybody is constantly graded for performance.”
Two days before Christmas, I drove to Newcastle to officially anoint my new favourite surfer with a documentary for our Like Bitchin’ series. I wasn’t going to see Craig Anderson, although he remains in my top six, tentatively given his recent limited output, Ryan Callinan, still top eleven despite discrediting my claim that he would win rookie of the year, nor Matt Hoy, the very first surfer I wrote a long-form profile on.
I’d become hooked on an eleven-year-old surfer/skater called Sabre Norris, dynamite on a board as you’ll see, frontside airs in surf, 540s on a ramp, but…even better… the owner of a punchy and brilliantly clear mind.
You remember this interview from November, yes?
The interview drove the internet nuts. Millions of views. Worldwide press.
Best of all, an invite to appear on the insanely popular Ellen show in Burbank, California, and gifts from Ms DeGeneres that included a trip to Las Vegas, five hundred American dollars and tickets to see Justin Bieber on his Australian tour.
In my story, I’d admitted that the kid had become my new favourite surfer and Sabre responded with a hand-written letter thanking me and inviting me to drive up and see ’em, “surf all day” and wrap it all up with dinner at Crinitis, an Italian restaurant famous for its crisp pizza bases and delicious toppings.
Sabre lives with her two younger sisters and little brother in an industrial estate called Thornton, thirty minutes drive inland from Newcastle. Their dad, the Olympian swimmer Justin Norris who beat Michael Phelps at the 2000 games, built a swim school out there and the family live in a two-bedroom apartment attached to the rear of the compound.
I meet ’em a little after dawn at a reef break called Cowrie Hole, just around from Newcastle Harbour. Mum is Brooke. The four children are Nazzie, who is six, Biggie (aka Coda), seven, Sockie (aka Cerrus), nine, and Sabre. They’re waiting outside of their black Volkswagen Caravelle, doors peeled open, wetsuits on, Gath helmets and little DHD surfboards lined up.
But first things first! Before I came, the kids drew up a list of ten questions about me that each answered. Could I mark ’em? Could I select the winner?
What sort of car does he drive?
“An Audi!” screams Biggie, punching the air.
“Show me your muscles!”
“Yes! Bigger than dad!”
(One of the questions: will he have bigger muscles than dad? Later, I’ll see the Olympian and realise the child has been more than a little generous.)
Biggest wave, favourite dinner, favourite dessert, and so on. Pretty sure Biggie wins with four. Maybe it was Sockie.
We surf. The three kids drop synchronised chop-hops. Sabre paddles hard and pushes Sockie into waves. Biggie is all elastic muscle, growling and flexing, plunging down waves, as ripe as a tropical mango. Sabre lines up the water filmer and brings her rail to the correct distance from his wide-angle lens.
After the surf, Brooke gathers everyone to the van and, from a cool box, reveals the ingredients for breakfast: berries, bananas, strawberries, granola, vanilla yoghurt. Brooke constructs each kid, each adult, a cafe-worthy bowl.
Earlier, Nazzie had asked me what my wife did for a living. I said she designed clothes. She runs over and gives me a handbag she’d spent the last couple of hours making with a letter inside. Meanwhile, the kids peel off their wetsuits and reveal suntan socks and gloves.
We drive back to the swim school. Sabre rides with me. Biggie’s in the back.
“Don’t put your feet up on the seat,” Sabre warns Biggie.
I tell ’em to do whatever they want.
Real early on, when I had sired a few kids, I realised I needed to make a decision. Keep my car looking good and be a pain in the ass or sacrifice the vehicle to the greater good of family harmony. Childhood’s too short to have it smashed by an eggy parent fizzing at sand in his car.
I explain this to Sabre, who, like the other three kids, has been throwing non-stop questions at me ever since I arrived, and she nods, smiles. I know she likes the theory, that kids are more important than a car, when she repeats the theory to her mum.
We talk about surfing in club contests (Biggie finished second, Sockie, second, Sabre won the open women’s), about travelling to Los Angeles, about eating, about surfing, about cars. Sabre wants a Lambo. I tell her I want a Porsche Macan.
“Sell BeachGrit and you’ll be able to buy the Porsche you want,” she says.
“Do you like Mitsubishis?” asks Biggie, so beautiful in his innocence.
Cough. Yup. Cough.
We arrive at the swim school, a handsome, low-slung building emblazoned with JUSTIN NORRIS SWIM ACADEMY, close to the arterial cord that connects Newcastle south and north. Eleven years ago, the family borrowed a million bucks to finance the dream. Be your own boss. Run your own school. No biz plan. A couple of mentors. They made it work. Had four kids. Brooke wants another. Nazzie records the pursuit of the fifth kid in an ongoing journal, documenting each pregnancy test.
The apartment attached to the swim academy is small, maybe fifty square metres. Two bedrooms. In the main, a mattress hits three of the four walls. In the kid’s room, it’s bumper to bumper. Nazzie against one wall, Sabre the other, Biggie and Sockie in the middle. When Sabre gets scared at night (it’s real quiet out here after dark) and she worries that someone’s gonna come in and kidnap ’em, she wraps her arms around her sister to keep her safe.
The main room is an open-plan kitchen and living room. There is one lounge chair, in red velvet, which I’m invited to occupy, rings hanging from the roof that Justin uses to train with, half-a-dozen guitars (the kids busk in Newcastle to raise cash) and the world’s tiniest Christmas tree. The one-foot high tree made of green tinsel delights the kids. It’s the first thing they show me. Then it’s the presents. Each kid has dropped a year’s worth of savings on a mountain of gifts. They grab ’em from the parent’s room, whisper in my ear what each one is, then pile ’em up around the tiny tree.
Time for a tour of the backyard. As we walk outside, I ask Sabre in which park did she nail the 540 two years ago?
“Park?” says Sabre.
We walk a corner to reveal a monster skate ramp the family had bought second hand. They were surprised at its size, too, when it arrived. Two smaller ramps are butted against it.
Sabre practised the 540 one hundred times a day for a month until she nailed it. She knows exactly how many attempts because after each one she’d line up a little rock to keep count.
Biggie’s debut on the ramp was less auspicious. He snapped his femur. Today, for the camera, he re-enacts the break by laying on the ground, leg bent under his back, weeping.
Under an umbrella on one of the smaller ramps, we interview Sabre for the mini-doc. I ask her what she thinks about when she’s riding waves and she riffs on the exquisite freedom she feels in the surf. No parents telling you what to do, where to be, where to go. An isolation that’s rare in a kid’s life. She’s good. More constrained and thoughtful that the fireworks of the Ellen show or the excited calls on Today.
We go back inside. We play guitar. Brooke makes toasted sandwiches for lunch. Biggie and Nazzie urge me to go and swim in the pools now all the classes have finished. Justin swings over with a pair of goggles. When I’d arrived I’d asked for tips on getting speed in the pool. Not every day you get to peel open the brain of an Olympian.
I jump in. We work on my stroke, my head position, the way I breathe. Justin videos me with his telephone and shows me how crooked my left arm is and the awkward way I lift my head when I breathe.
As I come in, Brooke thanks for listening to Justin. Sockie sits in the red velvet chair and says, “This is the best day of my life.”
I drive away with a sense of family I’ve never felt so acutely. The kids are practical dreamers with that playful sense of nature only a country childhood can give. There is no banality in their lives. There are no video games. Here are children who are inquisitive and blessed with curiosity, empty of any television-infused cool. Open books. Books you want to read.
Sabre tells me she wants to retire from the world tour at twenty-two, after two world titles, and have six kids. She wants to build a series of inter-connected houses for her brothers and sisters, mum and dad. Giant rooms for all the kids. She expects her and Sockie will take turns being pregnant so there’s always a baby around.
They never want to be apart. Family is family, afterall.
Watch One Day in the Life of Sabre Norris in two weeks!