Welcome to the 22nd episode of our podcast!
Today with us, from California, former professional surfer, surf coach and entrepreneur Sean Mattison.
We discussed with him about surf, innovation, Von Sol Surfboards and much more!
You can find the episode on all major podcast platforms or read the transcribed version below while forgiving us of spelling mistakes or missing parts versus the original audio version
TTOS: Aloha Sean, welcome to the show! Where are you today?
I'm in Oceanside, California, and I'm a little bit overcast, we have swell in the water, everything is calmed down quite a bit, even though California has a lot of restrictions on what you can do, you know, like going into restaurants. It's interesting when COVID first hit, I don't think anybody really knew what extreme, you know, every state or every government was going to take to our freedoms, you know, to be able to go and enjoy what we like to do, whether it's going out to eat or walking down the street or going into the ocean. And you know, so I remember, in March last year (2020) when we first started getting the restrictions, literally they started closing down all the beaches. It was one beach and then that beach, then that'd be in some of the beaches stayed open because some of the beaches are city run instead of state run. So you saw like Huntington beach being open still and it was the craziest thing.
Let me tell you, to see the beach all blocked off and you couldn't go in the water and, well, it was driving us crazy and I'm like, literally a couple of times my wife and I drove up down Huntington, which is about an hour drive just to be in the ocean just to get in the salt water, because it was so mentally tough, but for a little bit of time, you know, they closed off parking, you know, before they closed the beach entirely you could surf, but it was like you had to spread out.
I think now people understand, you know, with the virus, all has changed, still people are precautionary, but you know, you have surf contests resuming….yesterday I saw a WSL event at the beach and it was so nice to see that to a certain degree, trying to get back to normal. We've out to a restaurant last night eat, and we could sit outside, but you cannot still sit inside. I think everybody has sort of their own opinion about how dangerous this is. It's a real, real virus, but I think it's always sort of like a risk versus reward, how damaging it is to whether it's an economy or a business….it's a real tough thing to see a lot of businesses go out of business because of the restrictions….I just saw a lot of contradictions.
There is no lightweight approach, we never experienced ourselves in these kinds of situations…I get pragmatism and it's the only way of dealing with it.
TTOS: What, in your opinion, the most important thing in surfing?
Oh, I think that's an interesting question because I think that answer can change what it means to you from the beginning to the end. I started surfing in 1974 and my mom would go and lay it out in the sun to get a suntan. I just saw people surfing and this was in Florida, it's in Atlantic beach and it just looked fun, I was five years old when I started, it was about really having fun and then I met my first friends that surfed and I started competing and while competing, it changed the whole direction of what I wanted to do was to surf and build friendships. It became like a lifestyle and what I liked to do. Surf it's more than just a sport, you know, it's revolving around your identity and your connection to the ocean and I think that's kind of a common thread. I moved on from being a little kid, to being a surfer, a competitive surfer into all different aspects of surfing, I've tried to do everything I could to enjoy the sport, just to be able to get the endorphins, just to ride a wave.
Lately, I just went through a total hip replacement and I was out of the water again for three months, I'm just getting back into the water, but now, it is just to get up and ride the waves now it's not about necessarily ripping away, it's still being able to go and do what I love to do. That feeling that is so important in every life of surfing and surfers….. That's why I said it's a hard question to answer, there are a lot of layers there….
TTOS: What was your first proper surfboard?
I bought my first surfboard from my sister for three bucks and it was a board out of Australia, it had a big logo said Shane on it.
I can't think of his last name at the moment, but as soon as we're done with the article or the podcast, I know I'll remember, but he's an Australian guy and it was a whatever board. I think that kind of stood out to me the most it was my first custom board, I think it was about 1976 when I got my first surprise custom board….it was made by a guy Roger Woods out of Florida, he made me this board and I got it for Christmas, it had a rainbow bottom kind of like this Lopez behind me, it was a single fin glass on and it just stood out to me like that was my board, it was probably a five foot or a five/two or something like that in with the glass on, fin on. I have pictures of me riding that board with Mike Pooka, shell necklace and the early Quicksilver board shorts, you know, the scalp legs, you see in all the famous pitchers that Mark Richards and all those guys were wearing…it's just fond memories. I would say, that's my first real board. The end of that board,it's a sad story, actually, we had this little pickup, yellow pickup truck, and I was putting it in the back of the truck and I saw all the other surfers with the tailgate, lean the board up with the fin out like this on the tailgate, but my board was too short to do that, I couldn't fit just perfectly in the bed of the truck, but I was telling my mom…”this is how you do it” and she goes “okay, if that's what you want to do, that's fine”. We started driving and I'm watching my board out the back window of the truck and I watched this thing while starting levitating and then the next thing, it just started spinning in the air and it was demolished on the road, broke off.
TTOS: Sad story indeed…. What was the defining moment of your career?
I go all the way back to some of the beginnings, I remember, you know, I surfed my first contest in 76 or 77, something like that and I won my first contest and went to the awards banquet, it was the first time I'd ever seen like surf culture, the rock band, they played surf movies behind the rock band.
I didn't even know that any of that existed and getting all kinds of goodies for winning a contest with a big trophy….you see this whole new lifestyle and even after that contest, I had what became my sponsor, this guy, Dave Kart that came over to me and said “Hey, I want to sponsor you”….
I didn't even know what that was like, what is a sponsor? and I said to him, “look, I don't know what that is, you need to talk to my mom and dad. I don't even know what that is.” I ended up getting sponsored and moving on doing more contests and I won my first East Coast title in 1978, in that same year, I made the finals of the United States surfing championships and I got third. All of a sudden, I started being thrust into a surf culture and this becomes the new you, this is what your life revolving around and you start building relationships and building friends. The next thing you know, you surf contest every weekend and that, I guess that's what you're, you're supposed to do. I think these are some of the defining moments in my career because, you know, you want to see how that's gonna all work out….as you start to world travel and compete you have the highs and the lows, and then you have your dreams and some of your dreams come true. while some others don't. I had big aspirations to be a pro surfer, but it's really hard for you to get there without major support or mentoring, how to get there.
I had a lot of success and a lot of failures and I lacked confidence in somethings and I lacked discipline in some areas. I feel like, some of the highlights of my career, is I remember when I was a little kid going into a surf shop and seeing a picture of Larry Bertlemann while he was doing a big laid-back snap and he had a yellow board and I remember saying “gosh, that would be a train to be on the cover of Surfer magazine….”
Back then, I built a relationship with a guy named Rob Ke an incredible water photographer and, in the nineties, I started to see how that sort of business works. He has taken a lot of pictures of you so you can sell it to your sponsors or he'll get photos run in the editorial and that's how he gets paid, he was on salary from the magazine…. One day he goes “Hey, why don't we go down to Baja? We can try to get some photos for the California issue…” and I'm like “okay, cool”. You know, you gotta realize usually when he would go and shoot photos, it'd be like eight pros with you and when photographers are there you're trying to get that one good wave and trying to line up with the photographer…. I was then thinking “oh my gosh, I get to go with a Surfer Magazine photographer by myself”… we go down into Mexico, which is about, you know, an hour and a half drive and we get there and it's cloudy and it's on shore winds and it's not very good conditions for photos. I remember we checked Baja Malibu first, and then it wasn't very good at all, so we decided that we would go over to the power plant in Rosarito and we get there and it's just had morning sickness and I said to Rob “Hey, why don't we just go out there and try, you know, even with the clouds or whatever “… I didn't want to miss that opportunity….and he says to me, he goes, “nah, why don't we just bail and go back, because there's a border between Mexico and the U S and usually there's like a long wait, here it's not very good to shoot” I said, dude, let's just, let's just try, I badgered him so much until he said, okay, just go out and I'll meet you out there. I paddle out and at that time, you put film in your camera housing, and there are only 32 shots.
I go out and as I'm paddling out, like it was like the hand of God, just like the wind turned off shore, the clouds went away, the waves stood up. I mean, it was just like a switch got turned off and it was mine and he slams out the way of that….I just took off and I did a bottom turn and I did a layback snap.
We were just kind of blown away that the conditions came together so fast and I didn't even hear anything for months that we even got photos, he wouldn't even tell me. About two months later, I get a phone call from Jeff Divine from Surfer Magazine and, you know, I've always looked at surfer magazine as sort of like the nucleus of the surf world at least it was like that, when we were kids.
He said “Hey, I want you to come down to Surfer, I need to talk to you…. I didn't even know what it was about. I'm like, okay….I’m walking up and the front receptionist says “Hey, go upstairs, Jeff Divine wants to talk to you” . I walk up the stairs snd as soon as I walk upstairs, Jeff divine holds up the magazine cover and said “you're on the cover of Surfer!” That was a dream come true in my career and no one can take that away from me, you know, the kids nowadays, they don't even understand.
TTOS: In your career you met a lot of surfer and surfer personalities, was there a meeting with somebody, a surfer that particularly impressed you?
I think that I would have a lot of answers to that because I think, you know, you watch people's careers and you're inspired, you see a lot of people that have molded and shaped our world as surfers, their contribution, as we talk about Kelly, I remember when I first met Kelly, as an example, or Mike Tabeling has passed away, but he's an east coast hall of famer, he was a sponsor of mine in the early eighties and I remember we went to cocoa beach while he was doing a team tryout, I saw this little kid with a Dick Katri board with little footprints all over it… that was the first time I met Kelly and then, as kind of years evolved, we saw us competing together also with his brother.
We were friends and rivals, and that's sort of what happens, you know, as first becoming like this sort of family, when you compete, even though you compete against each other, you have these relationships and you make, go down and stay at their house and then they'll come up and stay at your house and that kind of a thing and you start traveling together. I've known Kelly for a long time, and, you know, it's, it's sort of like just how that happens. You're sort of part of that nucleus of that generation.
We would watch always Kelly and just go “oh my gosh, he's going to be amazing, he surpassed everything that we ever imagined”, there will never be anybody like him. I have huge, huge admiration for him….
Same thing working with Myke Hynson, the star of the endless summer and how much influence he's had, I was lucky just to pick up these nuggets and gems of wisdom in board design and concept, and working with him for 10 years was, you know, was priceless because I couldn't be doing my own Von Sol brand and building boards if it wasn't for that relationship of spending time with Hynson. Let me say clear, instant was not an easy person to hang with all the time, but, we broke the mold when he came along.
He was not only a super influential surfer that built boards for Skip Frye and Billy Hamilton… he made Pipeline possible with his down rails. Lopez gives credit to him! You kind of see how each person has sort of like their influence and then they're influenced by others, it's just a evolution….I will say that they're all interconnected….
TTOS: Thank you for sharing these two memories. In effect, lately, I read in some articles about the winning of Kelly's 11th title and they are saying that you were the “mastermind behind this winning”, do you agree with that?
No, I think, Kelly's the mastermind of his owns winning…. As an example, when I got Kelly that fin in New York for that New York event, he sent me an email saying that it affected him emotionally and gave him confidence. He felt like that fin made his board just a little bit better. And, you know, it's just a kind of an emotion when you get a board and, all of a sudden, you have the confidence in how you ride it, and it's such a good board….it does everything you want it to do.
I can't say I was the mastermind of him winning his world title, but, you know, sometimes it's those little things that make a difference, I think some athletes are that way, you know, they need to believe in something or, if there's something that affects them mentally, that gives them the whole purpose or mindset to do incredible things, whether it's pain or whether it's a death, whether it's revenge or whatever, the notion to the psyche of an incredible athlete.
Kelly is one of those guys, he micro analyzed all the parts, his equipment, the location, how he competes offense, defense, you know, you think of all those parts and he has mastered it.
TTOS: let's talk about you as a coach, what is the most important thing in coaching?
I was with Joey Buran few weeks ago, and Joey for our country is the most decorated coach ever, I think second would be Ian Cairns, even though he's a transplant Aussie. Joey started his career coaching with me, but when I was a little kid, I remember when Joey was the top of the surfing world, I had never seen a person, a surfer like him in person, so, back in Florida, I ran on the beach five miles down the beach, as fast as I could just to see him. I got there and he was still surfing and I sat on the beach until he finished, then I would walk over and I introduced myself and he says, “Hey have you had lunch?” And I said, no, he goes “well, why don't we go get some pizza?”. I was starstruck, this was like in the early eighties, and this was before his Pipe Masters win, so we went to Mr. Gatti's pizza and it was the coolest thing because he reached out to me like “Hey let's go spend some time together” which was amazing.
This is like one of those relationships I just mentioned, over the years, every time he saw me, he always talked to me and he's always such a motivator, he just makes you feel like you're on a cloud. When I moved from Florida to California, I ran into him and he says, I want to coach you and I was like oh, okay!
So I started working with him and he was basically training me. And, you know, when he was working with me, I was making back-to-back finals on the bud pro surfing tour and it was a lot of hard work, but he eventually ended up moving away because he's in the ministry, you know, preaching the Gospel and he moved to the east coast, then he moved back for family reasons and I had moved out of pro surfing and into retail, working at stir fry, which is a retail store here in Southern California. While I was here, he started working, you know, working here at that store,I became the manager and I heard when he came back, he was working at a plant store and I was like, no way. I reached out to him, I hired him to be a sales associate over at the store, working on the floor….it was super funny, he was my coach and then I became his boss….
We decided “Hey, why don't we start getting into coaching kids for marketing purposes for the store?” We started working with a lot of the groms, you know, to give guidance and we got into coaching, both of us together, keep coaching these kids.
(discover the rest of Sean’s coaching career in our audio interview)
TTOS: We talked about you as a surfer, as a coach and now as a businessman… how the Von Sol project is going? Are you happy?
I never imagined to be in the circle of business. It's not an easy business and there's actually a lot of like jealousy and competition and all that kind of stuff, but I don't care about any of that. I just kind of do what I do and, you know, I felt like I didn't ever want to be a big business, I want to own my business. I want to be able to be in control, to have my board brand, you know, be sustainable and I still get to do what I like to do and then have my hands in it.
I'm blown away, I just came out with some t-shirts where I did my logo and they sold out…. people dig the art. I'll never be or want to be, you know, a big brand, but you know, every, every bit of success that I've had has been out of word of mouth, people ride my boards and dig what I'm doing, and they just turn on other people. That’s the success of my business because I don't have all the hype and all that, the marketing and nor do I want it, you know, it actually is a choice, you know, it's just matter of being patient.
TTOS: Let’s talk about your future projects….
(Are you curious to hear about Sean’s future projects? Just listen to the episode on all major podcast platforms….)
TTOS: We going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind.
The best surfboard that you have ridden
I can tell you, one of the most favorite boards I have now is that twin fins keel model .
TTOS: Favorite shaper
I don't know if I can answer that question right away. I have so many that's overwhelming… the most respect I have is Al Merrick for running a business and doing amazing things.
TTOS: your favorite song.
It’s really a mood thing, I go from reggae to jazz
TTOS: Favorite surf spot
I really like surfing the Oceanside Harbor north jetty only because it's convenient, for around here, it's one of my favorites…
TTOS: your favorite surfer
Kelly is one of my favorite surfers together with Tom Curren
TTOS: the last question we ask everybody on this show, we want to know your best relationship advice…
best relationship advice is to say you're sorry when you're wrong and own it, be kind and listen.