In the 1990s, a close-knit group of teenage surfer ratbags bonded in Hawaii and went from surfing big waves for fun to becoming professional competitors against each other. Dubbed the Momentum Generation, these high-profile athletes collectively put surf culture into the mainstream, but it came at a price.
Directed by brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, Momentum Generation plots the rise and fall of Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Shane Dorian among others who find themselves on the journey of their lifetime. They travel the world chasing waves, signing sponsorship deals and wrangling with the emotional rollercoaster of competing for world titles while friendships become strained.
The documentary is all it’s cracked up to be—with archival footage and interviews with Slater, Machado, Dorian, Taylor Steele, Kalani Robb and Pat O’Connell go from surf shack party tricks and punk rock shenanigans to chasing world titles competing against the very fabric that brought them together as friends.
Yet unlike other surf documentaries which stream hours of footage against a backdrop of crushing punk rock anthems, this one comes with a bed of emotional baggage and delves deeper into the dynamics of these complicated yet halcyon days in surf history. In fact, few surfing documentaries have dared map the road to success like Momentum Generation has managed— where macho, surfing bravado and good times are intercepted with tear-jerking moments—a reminder that even surfers get the blues.
The Zimbalist brothers spent hours interviewing each pro-surfer until they got what they needed. They dug deep beneath the surface to get them to open up about how they felt when friends were putting wins over camaraderie. This was the era when Slater was crowned World League Champion a record 11 times including five consecutive titles between 1994 and 1998.
“Personally, it was interesting to see how everybody else saw the events of the time and how it played out for them,” says Slater, speaking from New Smyrna Beach, Florida. “Seeing how they viewed me was interesting too. I initially thought the documentary would be about how our generation shaped and changed surfing, but they dived in a lot deeper into our personal stories and they got what they wanted because they had a lot of time to interview us.”
While competing in the semi-finals at the 1995 Pipe Masters, Kelly’s close friend Machado high-fived his mate in the ocean, which many critics later said enabled him to win the World Title. Whether it was a controversial moment in history or not is still debatable, but it becomes the turning point in the documentary when mateship is tested beyond the force of the waves they compete in.
“A few of us were trying to win a world title and feelings get hurt, but that’s the way it is when you are out there,” recalls Slater. “Looking back on that time we had to accept that the competition came first, but it did create a funny dynamic. I wasn’t always aware of how the competition was pulling us down instead of picking us up.”
Australian-American pro surfer Machado was born in Sydney and migrated to San Diego with his family in 1978 as a four-year-old. With a Mexican surname and Aussie accent, he recalls getting strange looks by the locals as a kid. Known for his laidback style [and bundle of dreadlocks that suit his chilled vibe], the 44-year-old was keen on competing, but it didn’t define his every move in and out of the surf. He might be retired from the World Championship Tour now, but finished in the top three of the world twice.
“I was scared to death of the ocean as a six-year-old—I still get scared,” reasons Machado, a passionate environmentalist, surf wear designer and father of three. “I was a slow learner, but once I started competing at pro-level in high school and had some success with it I thought to give it a go. But in the back on my mind I still thought I’d go to college. I couldn’t quite get my head around doing it for a living. It wasn’t until I was offered a lot of money to surf that I realised it was actually going to the next level. When someone is paying you to surf, it becomes more intense. I was also scared of surfing big waves in Hawaii and my counterparts like Shane Dorian, Ross Williams and Kelly Slater spent a lot of time there and were miles ahead of me. What I learned is that if I wanted to go on this journey I had to buckle down and learn. Stepping up my game meant I gave up going home for Christmas and birthdays in those momentum years, it was all or nothing.”
Slater, 46, looks back on the 1990s with mixed feelings. Sure he was leader of the pack, experiencing win after win; he even dated actress Pamela Anderson and got a spot on Baywatchalongside his babe. The documentary touches on the way the lads saw Slater embrace stardom and Hollywood outside of his surfing reputation.
“There are things I would change about myself looking back but it’s tough because I am who I am because of what got me here. But If I could change things from when I was one year old, I would,” he says, referring to an unstable home life where his loving mother raised him and his two brothers while avoiding an alcoholic and abusive husband. “I would give away a lot of my success to have a more stable family and to be more secure in who I was as a young guy. A lot of things that drove me to my success were personal and difficult things in my own life that no one knew about and I didn’t have a grasp on it. Even as a 46-year-old man today I am still trying to understand it.”
Slater saw the documentary in New York earlier this year with friends and his daughter Taylor.
“I cried a lot and didn’t think I would,” he says.
A difficult moment in the film is when their best mate Todd Chesser drowns.
“Losing Todd was a massive turning point,” says Slater. “Todd was invisible to us, physically nothing intimidated him. He had this drive to deal with big waves and was fit and willing to surf that day as anyone ever is and it killed him. It brought our mortality fresh into our conscious minds. At that time, we were all pushing ourselves trying to surf the big waves. It was all fun and a bit of a game for us until this tragedy struck.”
Momentum Generation won’t just appeal to the surfing fraternity. The human touch takes this beyond its sporting quarters. “For those who look at our surfing generation and think, oh, it’s just a bunch of surfers doing nothing too dramatic, they’re wrong,” says Slater. “There is this deep connection that I didn’t expect. It shows us in a different light and exposes each one of us in a way people didn’t think existed.”
Machado, who lives in Cardiff By The Sea in San Diego’s North County, says stepping away from the competitive world of surfing hasn’t bothered him. He’s found his own groove: collaborating with brands like Reef and Hurley for capsule collections, running the Rob Machado Foundation since 2004 and raising awareness about the environment.
“I will keep surfing for the rest of my life,” says Machado, who has 12 WCT victories under his belt and was ranked among the Top 10 surfers for 11 years in a row. “You can still make a living out of it, but it’s different now. I work with brands to insert myself into the sport but there are plenty of ways to still be relevant. Retirement doesn’t need to be as daunting as one might think. I guess if you play professional football taking off your helmet for the last time might be strange, but as a surfer you can always remain connected to the sport. Looking back at what I achieved was beyond my wildest dream. As a 20-year-old kid I had the coolest job in the world. I was travelling worldwide to compete and was making surf movies with my friends. You look back and pinch yourself. I feel so blessed to have had those opportunities. There are no regrets at all.”
Slater is equally as grateful for being part of Momentum Generation. “Competition is spiritually hard on a person,” he says. “You experience extreme highs and lows and life is easy when you’re winning. I had high expectations of myself. I was focused and didn’t like to lose. But I was drug- free and didn’t party hard. I liked to drink a little but I was crazy focused ever since I was a kid. That just boiled over into my surfing and here I am.”
The Momentum Generation documentary is available for download on iTunes from 5 November.
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