His strong accent and large smile leave no doubt about it, he’s a local. Originally from Parempuyre in the Médoc, Thierry’s passion for the ocean and surfing eventually led him to settle in Hossegor. From his years as an elite swimmer, he learned all about willpower and discipline. When as a kid, you grow up swimming in a 25 meter tiled pool with the objective of an Olympic medal, suddenly the ocean becomes an environment without boundaries representing both freedom and adventure.
Thierry, what were you like as a kid?
I was an only child and spent my time with my cousins. I’ve always been attracted to water and was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside. I’d go around running errands on my bike and was always outdoors. I’m not a city kid.
Where did you get your passion for the ocean?
When I was a kid, my parents would take us to Saint-Jean-de-Luz on vacation. My dad would go spear fishing or scuba diving, he did his own thing while we were in the waves. I’ve got old pictures of myself as just a tiny blond kid body surfing in the water.
And when did you start surfing?
I started riding a board around the age of 14 or 15. At first, I went to Hourtin in the Médoc, but I really discovered surfing in Lacanau. The old guys taught me how to surf and I moved there before I came down here.
You got to see the first editions of the Lacanau Pro. What was it like?
That’s where it was all going on. You were right there with the pros. Today, it’s become sterile. They all go to hotels. Back in those days, the pros would come stay with you. Gary Elkerton, Barton Lynch… those guys were buddies because they slept at your house. When they left, they’d leave you with boardshorts and you could keep broken boards. They’d even leave you a board if they had one to spare. There was a genuine exchange. That’s just how it was. Go try and get a pro’s board or even a lycra nowadays! You haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell.
“I wanted to win an Olympic medal. But two months a year, when I wasn’t swimming, riding gave me freedom and another lifestyle.”
Did it help you realise the dimension of surfing?
Surfing is freedom. For me, it was a whole new playground. I was a swimmer and my playground was a 25 to 50 meter pool with eight swim lanes and tiny, medium and large square tiles. I wanted to win an Olympic medal. But two months a year, when I wasn’t swimming, riding gave me freedom and another lifestyle. That said, after the two month break, I’d go right back into the pool to try and reach my objective.
OK, so you love the ocean but why did you go into lifesaving?
I was the best French swimmer in the 50 meter butterfly. I had a shot at the Barcelona Olympic Games, but I didn’t cut it in the 50 meter. I didn’t go to the Olympics. When you miss out on the Olympics, it creates a giant hole. Not to mention that there is no “pro tour” of any kind in swimming. Swimming is a sport in which athletes are very young. You win an Olympic medal at 16 and by the age of 25, generally your career is pretty much done. That’s when lifesaving arrived in Europe. The guys in the La Jenny Club in Le Porge asked me to join the team given my swimming skills and that’s how it all started. I saw this new dimension with both the physical and riding sides. It had the freedom of surfing and the discipline and demanding efforts of swimming, I knew I’d found my place.
“Any time I practice a sport, I look at where the best are doing it, to go and train with them.”
You went to Australia? What were you looking for over there?
Lifesaving as a sport comes from Australia, and whenever I practice a sport, I look at where the best are doing it to go train with them. I went to the USA for swimming and for surf lifesaving I looked into where it was going on so I went to train in Australia.
How long did you stay there?
I went there 6 times for 6 months each time. I didn’t have a visa, so I’d go there for 6 months, then come back to Hossegor for 6 months to train at home, then I’d go back there in winter. I did all kinds of competitions in France, Europe and World Championships. I even took part in circuits in South Africa.
What is your best memory in the water?
It was at “La Nord” surfing a wave in 2007. I got a double page in Surfer magazine with that wave, which also appeared in other magazines. It was a great memory. There was an incredible feeling of speed, of being on the edge the entire time, right up until the end. I’ve taken big waves before and since, but that feeling was a once in a lifetime. I was on the edge of falling, almost engulfed. I was on a 9 foot texalium, shaped by my South-African friends to surf Dungeons in Cape Town. A pin tail like that is impossible to control.
Your best experience as a waterman?
The Molokai-Oahu in 2001. It was a purely emotional moment. I went there on my own because initially Quiksilver was supposed to support me and then it didn’t happen so I decided to go there on my own. So I got to Oahu like a loser with no one there to pick me up at the airport. In the end, my friend Jamie Mitchell came to get me at the airport. I didn’t even have a ticket to get to Molokai. I wound up passing out the day before the race and the organisers didn’t want to let me do the race. My board was still stuck in transit in Japan, so I borrowed one from a Hawaiian. I did the race and finished 3rd in my category. I finished the 7h30, got out and went to find a place to be alone. I just sat there and cried for a quarter of an hour. Totally unbelievable.
Your favorite spot?
“La Nord” in Hossegor.
Your biggest scare?
It was surf skiing at Manly in Australia during a team training session. The bay was closing and the waves were huge. It was all over the place from the wind and a 5 to 6 meter swell. The second we paddled out, we were at sea. We got to Hells Gate and the coach was in hysterics. You couldn’t see the other boats. We stayed for an hour and a half facing the wind and took fifteen minutes to make it back. I’ve never been so scared in my life. The area is full of sharks. If you break a boat, you have to swim back…Aussies are crazy. I learned so much over there. A guy like Jamie Mitchell becoming World Champion in huge waves makes total sense to me.
How did you transition from lifesaving to business?
In 2001, I thought to myself, OK, now you’re going to have to get a job. My first child was on the way and elite sports only lasts for so long. In Australia, to compete in lifesaving you have to do volunteer work as a life guard and that’s how I discovered the equipment they use over there: rescue boards, tube buoys and jet skis while we were still using ropes and flippers here in France. In 2001, David Dubes (whom I was training with in Australia) and I stopped at the same time and started importing that type of equipment to Europe.
How did the business develop over those 15 years?
It took time. We often had to do comparative demonstrations in front of an audience like institutions, CRS life guards and so on to prove that the rescue board really does go faster and that it isn’t just a gadget. Many slammed the door in our faces because they didn’t want to look silly with our equipment. Bringing the equipment over and reorganising how the job is done was the hardest part. And it was very hard.
What advice would you have to give someone who wants to get into lifesaving?
If you want to get into the sport, the best thing is to join a lifesaving club. There are quite a few and they are very well organised throughout France. You can start as early as 5 years old, just like surfing. They teach kids to swim and first aid. The kids learn to paddle on tiny paddle boards and nipper boards. At around 14 they move to a 10’6 and then they can gradually start doing surf skiing. They play in the ocean and learn to read the ocean and the beach.
You launched your business Watermansport Coaching, which prepares athletes to extreme conditions. What for?
5 or 6 years ago, Jérémy Flores got invited to surf at Waimea and he was looking to train in a pool. I started with him and there were press articles about it. The year after, I set up training slots at the pool and 7 or 8 people signed up. Today, there are around 80 guys calling me up to come swim. It’s still a preparation to surf big waves in winter swells. We start after the Quik Pro and it runs through the April school break. Of course the most important remains to go surfing.
“Swimming is the closest thing to the paddling movement in surfing.”
What are the training sessions like?
We don’t do any “static-work”. I work on the assumption that when you fall off a huge wave, you are already in the movement and you don’t have the time to take a breath. I work on alternatively empty lungs, full lungs. We always warm up, bring the heart rate up and then you go under water. Swimming under water with weights is not just a prop. There are two key elements in my training: apnea and catch. Swimming is the closest thing to the paddling movement in surfing.
Is there a person you admire or who inspired you?
Laird Hamilton, because he isn’t a champion in just one sport. And then when it comes to work, it’s guys who never give an inch like Michael Phelps. But in riding, Laird is an incredible pioneer in so many fields.
Have you tried all the board riding sports?
I’ve tried pretty much everything in the water except for sailing. I just don’t get the wind. I’m not a mountain guy but I ski a bit and I’ve done some snowboarding.
“Staying cool while doing business is a lifestyle.”
What do you like most about your job?
Managing my own business. The fact that if it works, it’s thanks to me and if it doesn’t it’s my own fault. The lifestyle. Having your office in Hossegor at the beach, staying in the field of board riding is great. On the business level, I was the first in the field, so being a reference when it comes to the equipment you sell is quite nice too. And of course meeting pioneers in the industry like Fred Basse, Pierre Agnès, François Payot, the guys who’ve made a business out of their passion and who made some cash along the way. Staying cool while doing business is a lifestyle.
Any new projects?
We have to evolve towards more connectivity to improve speed of rescues. It could be with drones, helmets or the life saver who is 300 meters away but still in communication with the tower to prepare the arrival of assistance. I think we have to continue improving the equipment with research and development.
Interview and images: Stéphane Robin