Michael Novakov: The four time world champion you’ve never heard of
Michael Novakov is nothing if not tenacious. In the early 80s Michael won three kneeboard world titles on the trot, and 31 years later he's chalked up one more.
Between victories, Michael raised two sons, both of whom have won junior kneeboard world titles making the Novakov's one of Australia's the most succesful surfing families. Michael's other 'family' is North Narrabeen Boardriders, who awarded him with a life membership in 2014, the club's 50th year.
Now in his mid-fifties, Michael grabbed his most recent title at an age most kneelos are hanging up their flippers.
blindboy recently caught up with the four time world champion
Congratulations on your fourth world title.
Michael Novakov: Thanks, I won three world titles in a row: '82, '84 and '86. 1982 was the first ever World Kneeboard title and that was on the Gold Coast. Tom Curren won the Opens and Bryce Ellis won the juniors. Dougal Walker was the team Captain. In '84 we went to the US just before the Olympic Games, so it was touted as the surfing Olympics. That was a fun but tough contest as it was three full rounds with Grand Finals. We had Kong in the team with Robbie Bain and Simon Law. The third one was in England in '86 and a young Kelly Slater was in those World Titles. He made the junior final. Then life caught up with me, I met my wife and we had my son Matt who was born in 1988. So it was working, looking after a family, thinking about buying a home.
Michael at the '84 World Titles in Southern California (Sarge)
The boys started surfing probably early 2000s and Matt got interested in kneeboarding, so I drifted back into contest surfing, then Matt won the junior world title in 2004 and later Tom, my youngest son, backed it up with a junior title in 2011. In the meantime I had been going to contests here and there without being too much into it. This was kind of my last throw of the dice, so we had everything planned. Then two months before, my shoulder went on me, I had a big tear in my right shoulder and a damaged bursa. It was really painful and I was struggling to paddle. So I had a couple of cortisone shots before I left and somehow I got through.
It was one of the most perfect contests I have ever surfed in. It all just fell for me. I didn’t lose a heat through the entire contest. I won my age division as well, so I won the Open division and the Kahuna 55-60 division. It was great surfing in the contest as they had priority for the first time for the full event. It was the first contest I had ever surfed with priority and it was to my advantage. Over the years I have had them paddling past me with their flippers on [Michael has not used flippers for most of his career], straight up the inside. It was always a real struggle for me to get the best waves in contests, so priority in a contest just worked beautifully for me.
Late hit on the way to victory in Spain
What about the final?
In the final I caught two waves to the beach in the first seven minutes, the first was an 8.25 and the second 7.75 so I was 16 out of 20 right at the start. There was a bit of toing and froing in the middle of the final. Everyone was getting waves but I found out later on they were all 4s and 5s. The other surfers were getting closed out on, or the waves were petering out. It was pretty solid, 3-5 foot with a couple of 6 foot sets. With about eight minutes to go, I looked at the shore and could see that I had priority, so I did a bit of baulking. They were watching and wondering if I was going to go, so no-one ended up getting any waves. I really didn’t know where I stood in the contest. So there was a lull with a minute or so to go and they counted it down and called my name out. I couldn’t believe I had won a world title 31 years after the last one. It was just the biggest buzz - awesome.
Raising his hand in victory 35 years after first winning a world title and 31 years since the last one
So this was the ISA world titles?
Yes we are under the ISA umbrella. There is no professional kneeboarding, so no prize money.
Is there a separate kneeboard association?
We have a little circuit in Australia with four contests a year, but not really. Kneeboarding has been declining since the late 80s, since bodyboarding took off, but it’s quite surprising how many kneelos are still there around the world. It’s very big in Spain where they held the contest. There’s actually a kneeboard school over there in Somo, where we held the contest, that’s just out of Santander. There were over 90 competitors from 14 countries in the event with Gavin Coleman from Cronulla, who has won two world titles, Karl Ward the European champion who both made the Final. Karl has been living in Australia for several years now. 2002 World Champ Baden Smith from the Central Coast was also in the event. Triple World Champ Simon Farrer didn’t make it. He would have been very hard to beat.
Northside secret society, Michael, Simon Farrer, and Peter Crawford
Why do you think kneeboarding has become less popular?
To me it is just lack of equipment in surf shops right around the world. If you go into a surf shop, you never see a kneeboard. No-one can go into a surf shop and ask “What’s that?”. They can see various forms of surfing equipment bodyboards, longboards and stand up boards but there are no kneeboards for them to go, “Well that looks interesting, I might give it a go.” I really think that it is down to that, a lack of boards available to make people want to take it up. You have to go on the internet and order boards from manufacturers, like Bruce Hart with Flashpoint, Dave Parkes at Friar Tuck or Neil Luke Kneeboards or Dave Wood, who has been building my boards for many years.
There are guys in America who make kneeboards, there are European makers but they’re not displayed anywhere. So recently I started to produce a line of kneeboards with Terry Fitzgerald through Hot Buttered called Neevo and we are using his associations around the world to get them into the shops. It seems to be generating some sort of interest. You can go down to Wicks at Collaroy and see and feel a kneeboard!
In reality kneeboard surfing is very difficult, it’s a hard form of surfing to master and even harder to make it look good. Having said that, Kneeboard surfing is so much fun. The feeling of closeness of the breaking wave at top speed is totally different to other forms of surfing.
What about media coverage?
Not really, it’s more of a novelty thing these days, like look there are still a few kneeboarders around, we’ll do something on it. So there’s really no media coverage. But we are always thankful for any coverage that comes our way!
I did a piece on Peter Crawford being inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame.
Peter Crawford fully deserves his place in the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame. He was the best Kneeboarder through the 70’s, a master photographer and brought kneeboarding into Australian loungerooms in 1977 when he starred in the classic Pub Squash ad.
Peter was a great promoter of kneeboarding. Is there anyone out there doing similar things now?
Kneelos are still involved deeply in the sport. South African Gigs Celliers is a four time world champion and he comments on the WSL events, then there is Bill Sharp, an American kneelo, who runs the Billabong Big Wave tour and you’ve got Tim Bonython who has been producing movies around Australia and the world for a long time. He’s been a kneelo all his life. We’ve still got our fingers in the pie.