Pritamo Ahrendt: Confessions Of A Head Judge - Part 2
Today we have the second part of our interview with Pritamo Ahrendt. Having described his decades-long path towards the Head Judge role, here Pritamo covers what it is the Head Judge does, the anxiety that came with a starring role on 'Make or Break', and the events that brought his career undone.
During that COVID period we had the Apple series Make or Break. For a lot of people, that was their first behind the scenes look at head judging. You had quite a prominent role. What was it like to have all that extra scrutiny on your role?
The thing with the TV series which worried me was I knew that there were a lot of people that probably weren't understanding what was happening in the tower. The vision and cutting of conversations can really misconstrue what's happening in an area, like in the judging tower. There were moments where I could be talking about something different, and all of a sudden I could lose my job because somebody's saying, ‘Oh you just dictated that whole score’ when I wasn't even talking about that wave at all.
I had no say in how I'm portrayed in that. They literally had a GoPro on me from the start of the day to the end of the day, every single day mic'd up, and I didn't feel like I had anything to hide but I felt that it could make me vulnerable.
Overall, I think the show was good and I don't think their goal was to try and make me seem like I was doing anything wrong, but just because they don't have the real understanding of the nitty-gritty of the sport, it could easily be portrayed the wrong way.
It did bring up some controversy about the role of the Head Judge, and maybe a lot of people weren't quite sure of what that role is. So now's probably a good time to clarify what the role of the Head Judge is in ascertaining the scores?
It's probably changed a little over the years, but definitely from well before I was the Head Judge or co-Head Judge, the Head Judge's role is to get the panel ready in the morning. Like really discuss the conditions, what's going on, what I feel is the standard of the day, what the expectations are. Then, in the first heat of the day, giving a bit of an opinion on the first wave, maybe the first exchange, setting my team up so that they’re on the same page, not straying from each other. You want them to start with confidence, get in the swing of that heat.
After that, I step back and I manage the replay system basically. My role was to show red’s seven-point ride from the start of the heat. ‘Now this is this wave, which wave's better?’
‘Okay, here's an eight. Where do you feel that it fits in between those two waves?’
And 90% of the time, you show the replay of a couple of different waves and it either builds the confidence of the panel that they're all stoked with their score, or you might have one person that's like, ‘Oh shit, I was obviously too close to that, I'm going to change my 7.5 to a 7.’
It's kind of directing the judging, but through the replay and the waves that I feel are important in the heat to the judges scoring it. And the talking is really minimal up there. Even before the TV show and stuff, my main role, I felt, as a Head Judge was to pick the best team to represent the top level of judging. So my goal is to pick the right people and then let them go to work and make the decisions.
There's been heaps of times that I didn't agree with decisions or scores, or a whole range of things, priority for example. You know what I mean? But you pick the right people to do the job and then you’ve got to step back and allow them to do it.
There's obviously times where stuff goes astray and you've got to bring your team back in and realign the scoring within a heat, but that's not to dictate scoring or results or anything, it's just to get your team seeing the same thing again.
Make or Break also showed a few epic tantrums and tower stormings, which we thought were a thing of the past. How challenging is it to deal with a surfer who storms a tower thinking he or she has been wronged?
Basically, when I started, Perry Hatchett would just say to me, ‘Go talk to Peterson Rosa, he wants to ask about his heat.’
And I was like 20, 21-years old, You’re going to send me out to talk to the gnarliest dude on tour? But he told me to do it so I'd go out there and the guy would have saliva coming out of his mouth, just flexing at me.
But I was kind of naive too, I was just, ‘Oh, this is what I saw and this is why it is and here's the answer.’
So by the time I was Head Judge, I’d dealt with so many of the gnarly people coming through the early 2000s, like Sunny and Renan Rocha, all really full-on people, really passionate, and they're not going to take just a simple answer. So by the time I became Head Judge, I was confident that I could tell them how I saw a heat. The only way you're going to get respect from surfers is to tell them why you believe they were scored that way and why they lost the heat.
Italo looked pretty hopping mad a couple of times.
Yeah, Italo, I've had a few situations with him. And he's such a cool dude; he’s a legend of the sport and a nice guy - I've had plenty of good interactions with him also. Yet there are heated moments in sport and you cannot take them personally. I get it, you want to win so badly and things go against you and you're furious, and I'm the person that has to stand in against it.
But yeah, it's been interesting [laughs]. It's good, in my role, to be able to deal with those. You deal with them and then you learn from them as well. It builds your confidence to not be pushed around. And I'm not an alpha male that wants to necessarily have those kinds of battles, but that was my role and I didn't shirk it.
Is that stressful? Do you go to sleep with that at night or do you just shut the door and you're done with the day?
No, those things aren't the big factors that stress me out. I kind of get it. Unless somebody's threatening me with violence, which Italo, in that situation, definitely wasn't. He was more sad than anything. He was on the verge of crying, he cares that much.
People were like, ‘He's going to hit you!’ And I was like, ‘He's not going to hit me! He's upset!’
So I'm never worried about those moments. I lose more sleep over results that I don't believe in or things that I question after the fact, like, ‘Fuck, maybe so-and-so should have won that heat?’ Those are the things that I lose sleep over.
From my honest perspective, and I've written about pro surfing for a long period of time, it always amazes me how you guys get it right so often and there's only a tiny sliver of controversial cases. Are there any cases that stand out where you wonder if you got it right?
Not off the top of my head, but in the moment, there's been many. There's definitely been a few where a majority of us were like, ‘Fuck, how did that happen?’
Most of them were close heats that can be seen either way. But I'm sure there's a few, there'll definitely be a couple that I'm just not thinking about…I probably don't want to bring attention to them.
One of the common criticisms of the judging panel is that judges don't understand high performance surfing. I know that's not true in your case because I know you're a very highly skilled surfer. Could you defend that claim for me, that the judges don't understand high performance surfing?
Yeah, a big part of it is the idea that just because you're a high level surfer that you can also judge at a high level. Over the years, we've brought in CT surfers to sit on the panel, not with the scores counting, just throwing scores. Some of them were really good, some of them were absolutely hopeless.
So I think to be a high level surfer isn't necessarily the most important thing to be a high level judge, but having an understanding of high level surfing, it definitely helps if you've been at that level as it opens your eyes to knowing what is more difficult.
Most of the core judges on WSL judging panels rip. Luli that's coming in after me is one of the best surfers, he absolutely shreds, and Ben Lowe, Mike McCabe and Dunny. So people don't know who we are, and that's another thing that I changed when I became the Head Judge. I didn't want to be a focal point of the sport, I just didn't feel that judging needs to be the focus or the people that are doing it. So I really removed myself from the media attention and doing interviews and fronting to be the face of it. And I think, maybe people were wondering, ‘Who are those guys? What are their credentials?’
To get a high level surfer to be a judge, you need to pay them well, and you need to convince them to go on the road, back on tour, once they've finished their careers. Most of them think it's a good idea for a moment, and then they really think about what it takes to fall into a judging career, and it's just not appealing for them.
It has to be incredibly hard work.
Hard work. And it's satisfying for yourself, but the reward is rarely there. It's like you're never told that you're doing an excellent job, or you're never championed. You're always put down, and everyone's saying shit behind your back. There's always disagreement in judging, in nearly all sports that are judged in a similar way. Judging is never fully understood so it's easy for people to always question it.
Moving on to last year when we came to the wave pool event where there was a big controversy. I'll paraphrase Medina's words, but he thought, ‘style and seamless flow ‘was being advanced over innovation and progression.’ That caused a big meltdown, probably one of the biggest meltdowns we've had for a while. What is your response to that?
I'd say, where is his pushing of the progression? Like his airs, he's got some nice airs, but there's nothing we haven't seen beforehand. And Ethan's air [Medina was surfing against Ethan Ewing] that he did on the right, nosepick rotation out of the last section was as good as what Medina's did on his lefts.
It's such a long wave, you can't say progression is more important than the manoeuvres if one surfer’s manoeuvres are definitely better than the other surfer's manoeuvres, you can't just say progression is what's holding him back.
And I think when you watch it, that's almost like a dead even heat. If you tell me Medina wins, I'm okay with it. But do I think Medina wins? No I don't. I think Ethan wins, and the majority of my judges felt the same way. And after watching it multiple times, I think everyone's pretty much fine that Ethan won that heat.
If Medina was talking more about the direction of the sport, I think there are elements of it that are maybe correct. There is a part of surfing that is all about doing big turns, but connecting them well, looking good on a wave, that's your overall performance.
But to pinpoint progression as something that we've held back, I think would go against the judging throughout the year. Most of the tens and high-nines have been from single airs and big airs. So I think he jumped on an argument that he thought would bring a lot of opinions and a lot of people jumping on his thought process because everyone wants progression, everyone wants a sport to progress and aerial surfing is one of the easiest ways to say that it needs to progress.
But if you're a core surfer, the sport's progressing on the rail as well. And to not notice that people are now doing clearly better rail surfing or snaps and explosive turns in big critical sections is not really noticing what's happening in the sport.
Well, I'd say one of the biggest points of progression is big turns. If you look at the turns that are being done now, the speed, the power, and the torque through the turns, it's night and day compared to a decade ago.
That's what the judges are saying. And in all honesty, the surfers are saying it too. The surfers are noticing it, the judges are noticing it. And I believe a lot of the core surfers around the world know it and they're noticing it…but they're not the people that are writing messages online.
For their understanding, some people look to skateboarding, snowboarding, where it's all about the tricks in the air. They're the things that translate throughout all our sports. So you might be a surfer but you kind of skate or you snowboard, and you're like, ‘Oh, the person with the air has to be the best’ but it’s not necessarily the case. We've got a unique sport that has to encompass all those elements - air and rail - otherwise you're just going to end up with an air show and that's not going to be exciting for everyone.
Is it hard to deal with all that online stuff? Is that something that sort of draws you in and wears you down?
Most of the judges just don't even look at it, they just don't care. I look at it, and it's kind of entertainment. If I'm going to be offended or take it to heart, I wouldn't look at it. I've got pretty thick skin from what I've been doing for so long. You learn from things as well. There's people out there making legit comments and you can kind of take what you want and leave whatever else.
To be honest, none of that really hurts me. The only things that are going to hurt me is if the surfers don't believe in it, they don't think we're doing the right job or judging is going in the wrong direction. I'm not going to be bummed if a whole bunch of punters around the world tell me I'm shit. As long as the surfers were still backing it, then I'm all good.
Coming down from the fallout with the wave pool fiasco. Did you feel like that was maybe a factor in you leaving WSL in October?
I definitely think there's elements to the year that helped the decision-making. I think a big part of it was the conditions throughout the year, just tricky events, not a lot of clear results, and a lot of close heats happening.
But I think the biggest problem with the Surf Ranch and what happened there is the camera angles used. The camera feed the judges watch is never seen by anyone else. We have one camera set at the end of the pool that films from the start to the finish at a consistent zoom. Online, you're watching four different cuts of the wave like drone, side angle, front angle, and there's no way you can watch that and have an opinion of how that wave was surfed because your eyes are going everywhere. We're watching one thing and then the world's watching something else…and that's what we're getting crucified on?
If everyone in the world's watching exactly what we're watching and everyone's going to say it's a bad result that they don't agree with, then I'm going to take it. But the fact that no-one had access to what we were seeing was probably the biggest disappointment of the event. We'd discussed it, the year before I made them put replay screens of our angle in the surfer's area so that they were able to see, at least, what we were shown rather than watching it on the broadcast and being confused.
Did you ever feel like the beef or the perceived beef with Italo and Medina, was that you weren't judging them fairly?
No, I never felt that it was directed at me, and I believe that both of them have dealt with me enough. So I don't think that they were targeting me. My name was never really mentioned, even though I'm the one that takes the heat anyway. But since I took over, who's won all the world titles?
If you look at the results, it wouldn't make sense to accuse any judge of an anti-Brazilian bias because they've been winning all the world titles.
Yeah. They've been winning for a long time, and deservedly so, but I've been a part of that as a judge throughout that whole shift. So if they were to really think about it, I don't think they could be putting it on me as being an Australian Head Judge. Brazilians win as many close heats as anyone.
Another common criticism is that surfers are being judged against their sort of theoretical performance peak versus what they're actually doing. I hear this with John John all the time. Is there any legitimacy to that claim?
I think, and I might be wrong with this, a lot of that comes down to surfers that are really pleasing on the eye. I think Stephanie has always been one of those ones as well, judging her against herself. I don't think there's any judge that's deliberately going, ‘Shit, he's not surfing as good as he normally does. We're going to have him lose his heat'. I think people watch those surfers and just enjoy watching them where judges are more analyzing their maneuvers.
But there’s so many heats in a year I'm sure it's happened at some stage, though I don't think there's a pattern to it and I don't think it's a thing that is thought about by anyone on the panel.
Is there anything else that you would like to be remembered for or that you would like to talk about from your time as Head Judge?
I think the point about changing the CT format in 2010 might just slip past as not being important, but it was kind of a big shift in me establishing myself as a part of the WSL outside of just being a judge.
That was a big part of the sport that I enjoyed - the technical side, the formats and the points. I think through that, it was probably a big part of what separated me to become the Head Judge as well, just that I was engaged in more of the overall sport as much as just the judging.
One more thing I'm proud of was that I brought the first woman on as a CT judge. She'd worked her way up through the ranks in America and I watched her judge at a couple of events and really saw that she was up to CT standard. Her name is Liz Hauser and she just had the knack for judging. I felt it was the right time to make a shift towards that, and she became an integral part of our team on the CT.
Then a couple of years later we brought Tory Gilkerson in who is a longboard World Champ, but she rips on her short board as well, and she started judging a few of the CTs in Australia. They were both at the CT level and were such cool people to utilise on our team. So we basically had a woman judging at most of the CT events throughout the year, and then in my last year I appointed her as the Head Judge for the Longboard Tour, so she judges on the CT and is the Head Judge for the Longboard Tour. So first WSL Head Judge, which I think is a cool thing for the sport, a cool thing for both of them, and it's part of my history.
Your role in the whole evolutionary development of the sport has been massive. What's next? Is there a way for you to keep making contributions?
I really feel that I have the knowledge and skillset to be involved in a few different elements, but it's yet to be seen whether [the WSL] see the value in that and if they want to tap into what I've got. And at this stage in time, it doesn't seem like they're interested in it. But I definitely want to be involved in surfing and keep that skillset rather than shifting and trying to reinvent myself if I can. Obviously, you do what you've got to do to live your life in a place like Byron Bay…
[long pause] The big thing is, I'm not bummed about where I'm at now. WSL, and the ASP before them, gave me an amazing career and lifestyle, and they gave me something that I probably didn't expect in my life, so in the end, it is what it is.
That's OK. It was a great journey. And you brought so much to it, so congratulations on that long career, mate. Though I have to ask the question, what the fuck happened to Erik Logan?
It's the most asked question, but it's also the best-kept secret, and I really don't know. I really don't think there's anyone that knows other than a few people at the top. He was always a gentleman to me. And really, he's been one of the few people that's continued to message me. So I don't know what the gossip is, I'm sure it will come out one day.
Well, turbulent times in the WSL, ain't it? Thanks so much for your time, Pritamo.
// STEVE SHEARER