Jake Howard on 'First Priority'

Alex Workman
Talking Heads

It wasn't so many years ago that fledgling pro surfers were left to their own devices when they embarked on the World Tour, however a quick scan of any webcast tells us that's no longer the case. Those backstage shots reveal that pro surfers now have their own travelling entourage of coaches, filmers, handlers, and in some cases, parents.

The last one is a product of surfing's maturity - second generation surfers are increasingly common - but also the money in professional surfing. Savvy navigation can set a pro surfer up for life, and no-one amongst the entourage is as invested in success as the parent.

Recently Jake Howard and Chris Moore, father to Carissa Moore, released 'First Priority'. Jake and Chris wanted to describe the reality of raising a World Champion for every parent who's pushed their kids into the shorebreak and wondered if.

Jake Howard spoke to Alex Workman about the project.

Swellnet: When did you first meet Carissa and did you have any idea she would be a future world champion?
Jake Howard: I first met Carissa when she was 12. She was winning some events in Hawaii and had just upset some girls in a contest on the North Shore. I met up with her and her dad in Town one day for her first interview for Surfer Magazine.

I don’t think I really realised it at the time, but after seeing her surf a few times and getting to know her a little more it was pretty clear she was pretty special. There was a whole crew of really talented kids at the time and it was a little hard to figure out who was going to do what. Kohone Andino, John John Florence, Coco and Mason Ho and Carissa, they were all about the same age but already doing some pretty impressive stuff. 

Tell me a little about Carissa’s Dad, Chris. Does he come from a surfing or sporting background?
Chris comes from a swimming/lifeguarding/surfing background. I don’t think he spent much time as a competitive surfer, but he was a competitive swimmer in college. From my understanding, he got Carissa into surfing just because he enjoyed it. Then she kind of just took to it and he had to figure out how to nurture her talent.

Chris and Carissa Moore

When did you first have the idea for the book?
Chris reached out to me before the Snapper contest in 2015. We talked about it on the Gold Coast and decided to put something together there. He wanted to tell his side of the story and share with other parents the experiences he’s had. He had already done some pre-writing before we sat down, but at Snapper we decided he should keep a journal from each tour stop. Carissa won that contest, then she won Bells, and the story kind of evolved from there. By the end of the year, with some mid-season struggles and her performance at Honolua to seal the title, it made for a really nice story arc. It’s kind of got that Hollywood thing going for it.

What sort of insights did you unearth about the role of being a father to a professional athlete as well as a coach?
Yeah, don’t do it! Being a dad is hard enough. Being a coach is hard enough. I don’t know how parents do it. My daughter’s super into ballet and violin, I can’t dance a lick and only know three chords on a guitar, I’m not going to pretend I can help her. I can support her. And I can love her. But I’m not throwing on a leotard and leg warmers and dancing…as fun as that sounds.

The Moores use a number of different coaches, but Chris is always there in her corner. I think he’s more supportive than technical now, he leaves that up to guys like Pancho Sullivan and other people that Hurley and Red Bull put them in contact with.

Originally it was going to be all about Carissa’s upbringing but you changed course as it looked like she would clinch the 2015 world title.
Yeah, it was just going to be about Chris raising a freak talent, but as we went along she was on point to win the title and it seemed like a really compelling story. We decided to weave flashbacks from her childhood into the story of the chase for the title. She was still a grom when she was getting perfect 10s in Men’s QS contests, and I think the part about when she won the King of the Groms and beat Albee Layer and all the top boys in Hawaii, those were important because I think people forget how impactful and barrier-breaking Carissa’s career has been.

When she won the King of the Groms all the boys were super bummed, they didn’t even have an awards ceremony, and everybody just kind of shuffled away to lick their wounds. It was a pretty pathetic response. And Carissa just kept going. She was beating John John when they were kids. In my mind she really blurs the line between male and female surfing. Her surfing’s just rad. Her style and technique are impeccable. I’m going to sound like a bit of an asshole here, but compare Carissa’s style to Tyler Wright or Sally Fitzgibbons'. It’s not even close. Steph Gilmore is in the same category…which might be why they have nine of the last ten world titles, or something like that.

It must have been a cathartic process for Chris to document the highs and lows of being a father as well as coaching Carissa to a world title.
No, it probably wasn’t. I think it stressed him out even more. I love him and I’ve really enjoyed this process, but when we were just about done he sent me a panicked email that the book wasn’t as good as William Finnegan’s 'Barbarians...' I had to talk him off the ledge and remind him it took Finnegan over thirty years to write the book and he won a Pulitzer for it.

This was Chris’ first writing project and my first real book project, so I didn’t think a Pulitzer was on the horizon…but then that’s why Carissa has three world titles. I really appreciate that about him. He really wanted this to be as good as possible and pushed to get it as good as we could.

Writing’s a funny business, but it’s nice to have somebody to keep grinding through drafts and edits. 

Carissa is always smiling, upbeat, and positive, yet surely there were times when emotions boiled over between her and Chris?
For sure, Chris talks very openly about it in the book. He talks about things he gets right and things he doesn’t. He’s remarkably candid about it all, I think. The whole point of the book was based around the idea that no parent gets a manual on how to raise a freak talent. You do what you can, and you do the best you can, but you don’t always get it right. 

She is also a fierce competitor with unrelenting self-belief on top of her talent. How much of that do you think can be attributed to her Dad’s guidance?
Her and her dad are tight. I think the competitive bit comes from within her. It has to, right? If she didn’t want to chase titles she probably wouldn’t. That said, she’s her father’s daughter and he’s pretty competitive too.  

There is no shortage of parent/coach pairings in the sport these days. What do you make of the good, bad, and the ugly of sports parents?
I did an interview with Bobby Martinez for The Surfer’s Journal a couple months ago and we were talking about this. He was tripping. “I’d never do that to my kid,” he said. And I agree with that. There are a lot of parents that go all in with their kid’s surf careers and it’s such a mistake. There’s maybe one percent of kids that are even going to have a shot, but you have all this home schooling and almost no career guidance.

I’m old enough to see how many of these kids have been chewed up by the surf dream. It’s okay to have the dream, but be realistic about it. At least teach your kid to read…and capitalise the word “I” when you use it in a sentence. You gotta figure most 'surf careers' are blown out by the time somebody’s 25. If you make it to 30 you’re in the one percent. Then what do you do? You have all these kids that skipped high school and college to travel and surf, but even in today’s surf industry the top brands are big enough that they need people with a brain to make them run. The former pro kids are in the warehouse packing boxes while the kids that surfed on their college surf team are running the show. 

You chose to self-publish the book on Amazon. Why?
We reached out to a few agents and got weird vibes. They had some suggestions about story changes that we didn’t agree with. We wanted this to be Chris’s story without a publisher coming over the top and changing it. Amazon’s currently the largest book seller in the world and by publishing there we retain all the rights to the story. I felt like the only thing we were really missing out on was getting an advance to write it and some marketing help.

We’re gambling that Carissa’s got enough fans to help get things off the ground. And if people like it, we can still shop it around because we have the rights to it. 

So who's the book for, and what do you hope the reader will come away with after reading 'First Priority'?
I’d be stoked if somebody read it and got a good sense of how hard it really is to win a world title. A lot of times we just see it through the lens of WSL cameras and video highlights and surf stories, but you really have to go all in if you want a shot at a world title. Both Chris and Carissa have put everything else in their lives on hold to chase titles. That’s a huge commitment and I don’t know if there are that many people that can do it. To forsake everything to chase points around the world, it’s pretty gnarly when you think about it. 

To grab a copy of 'First Priority', click here.

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