THE THUNDER DOWN UNDER : In Last Two Years, No One Has Done More for Surfing Than Tom Carroll

Times Staff Writer

The surfers, their dates and assorted hangers-on had begun to gather maybe a half-hour earlier in the tropical and extremely upper-class setting that surrounds The Newporter.

This is not the type of place high school kids or anyone else who budgets his finances stops for a bite to eat on the way home from the beach. On this particular evening, it was not the place for anyone not on the reservations list for Surfer magazine’s annual reader’s poll awards extravaganza.

Dress was formal, though not in the normal sense. New-wave fashion, taken to the point of the ridiculous, predominated. Black was the most popular color. Punk boots, skinny leather ties, absurd hairstyles--they were all gloriously on display.

The scenario could just as easily have been lifted from the pages of a British rock magazine encouraging anarchy as it could have from GQ. The Sex Pistols would not have felt out of place here, especially considering the accents of the many Australian and South African surfers in attendance. And the alcohol flowed, very freely.

In walked 27-year-old Peter Mansted, fashionably late, followed by several of the 10 surfers he manages. One of them was his fellow Aussie, Tom Carroll, the best in the world the last two years.


“We think it’s fixed,” Mansted cautiously whispers.

He assumes the most-popular-surfer award automatically will be handed to Tom Curren, the hot young Californian who single-handedly has changed American surfing the last couple of years. It doesn’t matter what the readers want, Mansted says, perhaps sarcastically, perhaps not. Surfer magazine is an American publication, based in Dana Point. Tom Curren is an American surfer, based in Santa Barbara. Enough said.

Three hours later, Tom Curren had, indeed, captured first place. Carroll was second.

Curren is adorned with flowers, receives a kiss from a striking blonde and is handed a large, framed photograph of himself slashing his way through a menacing wave. With sincere modesty, he approaches the microphone.

“Frankly,” he begins, “I’m surprised to win. Tom Carroll has done more for the sport than I have . . . “

Tom Carroll has done more for the sport than Tom Curren, or anyone else in the last two years for that matter, partly because of his remarkable ability in the water.

He is the most consistent surfer since Mark Richards, the world champion from 1979-82 who is considered by virtually all accounts to be the best ever. When the history of the sport is told one day, Richards undoubtedly will be mentioned prominently, but Tom Carroll may be mentioned first. The phenomenal power he generates from his 5-foot 5-inch, 140-pound frame, the strict training schedule he adheres to and the uncommon daring with which he regularly conquers waves, big and small, may earn him that place.

But Carroll has done more for the sport than Curren not merely because of his athletic excellence. He has done more for surfing almost to an equal extent because of Peter Mansted.

Given the slightest opportunity, Mansted would try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, and before you knew what happened, it would be yours. He has sold Tom Carroll to an entire continent. And he is only beginning.

Because of Mansted, Carroll, at age 23, is a national hero in his homeland.

He has become in Australia what Mary Lou Retton, Dale Murphy and Michael Jordan have become in America.

He appears on every major TV talk show, is heard on radio, has been featured in nearly every important newspaper and magazine, including Playboy twice and the Australian editions of Cosmopolitan, People, Woman’s Day and Australian Business. He wears the trendiest clothes, and recently, in an eight-page spread in Vogue (again, the Aussie version), modeled the latest styles of menswear.

“After I’d done all that,” Mansted says, “I had a product to sell.”

So a month ago, Mansted got his big breakthrough. He got Carroll a commercial on Australian TV, endorsing yogurt.

And there is no telling what is next or where it all will end. Mansted estimates Carroll’s annual income to be $150,000 in American dollars, which comes mostly from endorsements and sponsorships for surfing products, and to a much lesser degree from contest earnings. The winner of today’s Ocean Pacific Pro title, for example, will take home $6,500. Not bad for less than a week’s work, but a far cry from tennis and golf and nowhere near baseball, basketball and football.

But that’s the price you pay when you’re in a sport that gets almost zero recognition and few people either understand or want to understand.

Carroll will gladly pay the price, because Mansted is there to assure significant earnings from outside the actual competition.

“A million, easy,” is Mansted’s response when he is asked of Carroll’s fiscal potential. “He’s huge in Australia. And he’s gonna hit America big. Everybody wants to be James Dean. Tom Carroll’s gonna be Tom Carroll. He’s just got some magic about him. If he doesn’t do a movie, I’ll be surprised.”

Welcome to Madison Avenue Down Under.

Mansted refers to himself as “the pioneer of surfing management,” a title disputed by Ian Cairns, the executive director of the Association of Surfing Professionals.

With Mansted, disputes are hardly rare. The night before he suggested that the Surfer poll was fixed, he became embroiled in one of his typical surfing controversies that have become legendary on the world tour. “Surfergate” incidents seem to follow him everywhere.

Robert Page, one of the less-successful pro surfers he manages, missed his trial heat on Tuesday (in addition to Carroll, Mansted is in charge of the affairs of Martin Potter, No. 6 in the world last year; Glen Winton, No. 7; Richard Cram, No. 10; Simon Anderson, a former great; and several others).

Officials from Ocean Pacific, the sponsor of the Huntington Beach contest, told Mansted that Page was disqualified. Mansted promptly threatened to pull all of his surfers from the contest and ban all interviews if Page was not allowed to surf the next day.

In effect, the contest, the biggest in the United States and a huge moneymaker for Ocean Pacific, would have been ruined.

Robert Page competed the next morning, bright and early.

When Peter Mansted talks, people listen.

He is relentless in his persistence, yet he has honed his style to such a science that he is able to charm you with his Aussie elegance.

“How ya goin’, mate?” he’ll ask, smiling, and immediately he will be your friend. His personality is captivating, yet he knows what he wants. And inevitably, he gets it.

“A lot of people don’t like Mansted’s style, but from all indications, it seems that he’s doing a good job financially for Tom,” Cairns says. “There’s a big difference between being a manager and being an agent. Management is presenting the athlete in the best terms possible and steering clear of controversy. In this past year, Tom has been involved in more controversy than ever before.”

In June, Carroll boycotted the South African segment of the world tour, which included one contest in Cape Town and two in Durban.

Carroll maintains his decision was based on personal conviction, and when he tells you so in his innocent and unaffected manner, it is difficult not to believe him. Others contend his decision was Mansted’s, or that at least the controversy that resulted and became a national issue was perpetuated by Mansted, who was accused of seeking publicity for his surfer.

The popularity of Carroll and the weight Mansted throws around may have been evidenced by Australian Prime Minister Peter Hawkes’ support of Carroll. A letter from Hawkes to Carroll said: “In taking this courageous decision (to boycott), you are setting an inspiring example for millions of young Australians.”

The surfing world was not so sure. While the scandal did wonders for Carroll’s marketability, it did little for his camaraderie with his fellow competitors.

“Let’s face it,” Cairns says. “Any sport that is connected with South Africa is in hot water. Three of our major events are in South Africa, and he has made it extremely difficult for other professionals to compete there and earn a living. Tom’s initial motive for not going to South Africa is without blemish. Tom just got swept up in the whole thing, I think.”

Despite everything, Carroll remains firm that what he did was straight from the heart, a decision that came from his conscience. He does not appear troubled by the rumors that have been spread wildly throughout surfing circles.

“That’s all purely people just assuming, people who never knew the situation, people just blowing up the situation,” he says. “South Africa’s a place that I have enjoyed, surf-wise, and it has enabled me to become a world champion. But since the first time I went there, I noticed a certain wrongness in what their system of government does.

“I could’ve quite easily gone there and said, ‘I’m not a supporter of the country, but I’m going to compete as an individual.’ But somehow, that’s an excuse. I felt there was some sort of contradiction there, and I don’t want to contradict anything, especially with it being a moral decision.”

When it comes down to it, the man who has made so many waves out of the water must be considered the best in the world at his sport, for he makes count nearly every wave he catches when he is in the water.

That is the quality that makes his surfing so unique. Others are quite capable of performing maneuvers equally “radical,” a surfing term used to describe aggressive, thrilling moves displayed with spectacular courage. But Tom Carroll does so with regularity.

“One thing that really turns me on in surfing is using your potential, using the wave’s potential and using the equipment’s potential,” he says. “I like to do it with style and some sort of grace. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”

But usually it does.

His secret, hardly well-kept, is the power in his short legs and muscular thighs. And his rigorous training and self-discipline.

While other surfers gorge themselves on junk food, scattered about Carroll’s motel room are a bag of sunflower seeds and a box of fruit-and-nut breakfast cereal. Bottles of amino acids and minerals sit on the nightstand. He occasionally can be found eating figs upon returning to his room following a 7 a.m. session in the water.

While other surfers are less than diligent, Carroll runs on soft sand, lifts weights, cycles and practices aerobics.

While other surfers succumb to the temptations of the pro tour, which lasts 11 months each year, Carroll remains a homebody.

“A lot of guys like to get into it heavily, get all the girls that are available,” he says. “It’s always there, you know. Especially in a sport like this, where there are young, healthy males. I find I compete better by not going out and wasting my energy on all those things. All those things will come in time. There’s no use celebrating before you’ve succeeded.”

And these days, no one has been enjoying more success than Carroll, even if he is only ranked 17th in the current standings. Part of the reason for that was his absence from South Africa. The Huntington Beach contest is the eighth event of the tour, which has more than 20 events scheduled. Curren won the first two, missed the next three, then got a ninth and a 17th in the last two. Today he goes against Curren in the semifinals.

But as they say in Australia, “No worries.” Carroll is allowed to drop 25% of his contests, leaving him with his 75% best scores. Few doubt he can win the title for the third consecutive year. And maybe a fourth and fifth, as well.

“He’s very versatile,” Tomson says. “He’s able to surf radically and creatively even in the confines of competitive surfing. He’s very much a surfer of the ‘80s, and he carries through a tradition that’s been set down by the great surfers of the ‘70s.”

Ask the man who began that tradition of radicalness and creativity and in the process revolutionized surfing, and you’ll get a nod of agreement and an explanation for Carroll’s greatness.

“There’s a lot of guys on the circuit capable of surfing as well as Tom,” Richards says, “but at the moment, there’s no one who has his competitive consistency. A lot of guys run hot and cold. Tom’s pretty machine-like.”

For Tom Carroll, life has not always been the glorious proposition that it is now. From the very start, it was a battle.

He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and had to fight for his life. Family members later guessed that his earliest dilemma was the result of performing radical maneuvers before he was even born.

When he was 8, his mother died of diseases he still can’t pinpoint. “I never really found out,” he says. “I never really wanted to . . .

A year later, he began surfing. And his life officially began.

He left school at 16 and, already a professional, left home at 17, when his father, one of the nation’s most prominent journalists, moved from Newport Beach, Australia, to Sydney with his stepmother. Tom and his brother Nick, two years older and an excellent surfer himself, elected to stay nearer the waves.

And eventually, after an inconsistent beginning as a professional, he began to win. Again and again. And make money. And more money.

Today, he owns a cottage in Newport Beach, Australia, sharing it with an unmarried couple. Despite the wealth and the fame and his often turbulent relationship with Mansted over his future, he appears unchanged.

“It’s great, but at times you lose sight of it and think about what other people do,” he says. “It’s keeping in touch with what you’re doing, because it’s really an incredible thing to be where I am.”

And to this day, there is no place that gives him the satisfaction that envelops him when he finds himself in the middle of a wave.

“There are times, in the tube of the wave, where time all slows down for you,” he says. “You’re aware of every droplet of water and every little bit of everything that rolls around in the tube. You can come out of it and be in awe for several days and remember that time for the rest of your life, maybe. All the emotions of pleasure and fear come together.”