He’s New Zealand’s Olympic hope for 2020, but only a few short years ago, Billy Stairmand was struggling to light his competitive fire. Now he’s in the best form of his life. This is how the 30-year-old Raglan surfer rebuilt his career.
As the World Surf League Qualifying Series came to a close in 2018 very few New Zealand surf fans pinned their hopes on Billy Stairmand ever making the Championship Tour. From the outside it seemed as though he had lost his drive, lost his flair. Billy wasn’t acting like the hungry athlete he once was. His spark was gone.
Billy, who spent that summer potting plants at Whale Bay in his hometown of Raglan, had other ideas. Fuelled by a brief taste of the alternatives he was facing, he got to work.
“At the end of 2017 a lot of things happened to me,” concedes Billy as we sit down over a coffee ahead of his 2020 National Title defence in Dunedin. “I lost my main sponsor. My mum passed away. I just had to start from scratch really. I had a lot of emotional stuff going on.”
He shakes his head slowly.
“You know, I had to get up and get a proper job and work at home,” he reveals. “I spent a lot of time at home and I kind of realised how good I had it and how much I really wanted to compete and do what I love doing. So, yeah, I started from the bottom again.”
“At the end of 2017 a lot of things happened to me. I lost my main sponsor. My mum passed away. I just had to start from scratch really. I had a lot of emotional stuff going on.”
The challenge at the start of 2019 was brutal.
“I was starting from the bottom again in Aussie. Battling in the QS1000s and getting wildcards into the 6000s and I won the trials for one of the 6000s,” he recalls. “It was hard work, but I managed to get some good results and got my ratings back up and got to Hawaii, which was one of my goals … and the Triple Crown.”
He came out blazing in 2019 extending his own record, winning a seventh national championship. Then by the end of the season, he sat comfortably in 69th on the QS and had the provisional nod to represent New Zealand at the 2020 Olympics. If surfing was understood by the mainstream sports media, he’d have been on front pages everywhere.
“2019 was a huge change for me,” he offers. “I changed a lot mentally. I was working with a friend, Alby James, at Body Rehab in Taranaki. He was helping me out mentally and physically. I stayed at his house at the start of the Nationals in 2019 and he helped me out the whole week.”
Billy and Alby continued to work together throughout 2019.
“Mentally I changed a lot,” admits Billy. “I really wanted it and I was hungry and I was going to do anything to get to where I wanted to be. Everything kind of steamrolled last year.”
To understand Billy’s change of mindset first you need to understand the reality he faced during that off-season. He was potting plants. He was doing surf lessons for Green Wave Surf School in Raglan. He was trying to do some fundraisers here and there to get more backing. It was a grim reality for such a gifted athlete, a veteran of the Qualifying Series.
“I didn’t have any money from any sponsors or anything,” he reveals. “I guess it made me work a lot harder to get to where I am now. I still want to work my butt off – like this whole week I wanted to come down and shoot photos and do this kind of stuff. I want to make the most of every opportunity right now. Now’s the time, you know, I don’t have forever. I’ve got hopefully a couple more years in me and I want to give it my all. I don’t want to end my career and look back and go, ‘Oh, hey, I haven’t done what I really wanted to do’. So, yeah, I’m just trying to give it everything at the moment.”
Having his good friend and former Suitcase Surfers buddy Ricardo Christie qualify for 2019 added a little extra incentive.
“Me and Ric have always battled ever since we were little and he’s one of my best mates,” he admits. “So, it was good to see him qualify. But I had my own goals – I’ve got my own things going on and I just really wanted to do it for myself.”
With surfing being in the Olympics for the first time, Billy set his sights on Japan.
“My seeding wasn’t very good for the QS and realistically I wasn’t going to qualify last year,” concedes Billy. “So the Olympics was huge for me and that was a huge motivation. As soon as that became a thing, I really set out to achieve that. And I did last year, so everything’s kind of ticking towards that now. And obviously I’m in the QS10,000s now, which is going towards the CT campaign next year.”
Billy’s provisional Olympic qualification came from his sustained form in international competition as he headed into the Japan ISA World Surfing Games.
“It was a huge contest – they had all these big names there,” he explains. “Everyone was sending their best, best teams there and the whole vibe was pretty good.”
Billy admitted that, while they were there as a team, he had his own goals.
“There are three of us going for the Olympic spots,” he recalls. “Me and Kehu ended up battling out the one day. There were five or six heats in one day and it was pretty much whoever finished furthest that day was going to get the spot.”
“So my mental game that day was just super focused. I was doing my own thing – up and down the beach. We had two banks, we were just going back and forth, back and forth. I think I was one of the last heats of the day and I had to surf after Kehu and unfortunately he just lost. So I had to make it through my heat to get the Olympic spot. It was a huge heat for me. And I remember getting this one last wave and I held Mikey February off to make the heat. And I remember it wasn’t even that good of a wave, but I had priority. I remember I got to the beach and I was just yelling and hooting and pretty much claiming. I don’t think I won the heat, but I still made it and I got that Olympic spot.”
Billy continued through to eighth overall, which was the best result ever by a Kiwi at an ISA World Surfing Games.
“I love Japan,” he smiles. “I love Japan so much and always have a good time there. And the waves really suit my surfing. I can’t wait to get back there for the Olympics.”
“I remember getting this one last wave and I held Mikey February off to make the heat … it wasn’t even that good of a wave, but I had priority. I got to the beach and I was just yelling and hooting and pretty much claiming. I don’t think I won the heat, but I still made it and I got that Olympic spot.”
The provisional qualification is an interesting one for Billy and Ella Williams, who also provisionally qualified at the ISA Word Surfing Games in 2019. As Billy understands it, he could lose his spot if this year at the ISA World Surfing Games two people from New Zealand, and in the New Zealand team, place higher than he does in the contest and also in the top five.
“Going off statistics I got eighth last year and that’s the best anyone’s ever done,” he considers. “So it’s going to be really hard for two people to finish in the top five, maybe one can. I think my chances of going to the Olympics are pretty high.”
“At the moment I am full preparation,” he adds. “My mental game, my mindset is that I’m in the Olympics. In my mind, I’m certain I’m going and I’m just preparing as much as I can to get myself ready.”
I ask Billy what it is he specifically works on to prepare for Olympic competition.
“I’m doing a little bit more training, a little bit more coaching on the side,” he shares. “Last year was a really good learning curve for me – obviously I had a really good year. I won a QS and all these contests at home. And a few thirds and fifths around the world. I travelled a lot by myself last year and just doing my own thing has really helped out. I’m not going to change too much with my equipment. Hopefully I’ll be able to work more on my mental game and a little bit of training and a little bit of nutrition and just be as fit as I can. I’ll just keep moving forward and try my hardest.”
Tomorrow, Billy will head out to defend his National Title. If he wins, it will be number eight for him – extending his record a notch further. It’s hard to believe he turned 30 in October. Especially after watching him surf these past few days. In heats and free surfing he is faster, stronger and has more flow than we’ve ever seen from him.
“I feel really good,” he smiles. “Luckily, touch wood,” he says, reaching out to the coffee table. “I haven’t had any major injuries. I’m not big in stature and I don’t do anything too crazy outside of surfing, so, my body’s pretty good. I just try to surf as much as I can. And I try to keep my body right and keep healthy and fit. I do feel the best I’ve ever felt and I feel like my surfing has matured a lot, but at the same time, it’s still getting better. I’m learning every heat, every surf. I’m taking a lot on board and I’m using it to my advantage.”
“I do feel the best I’ve ever felt and I feel like my surfing has matured a lot, but at the same time, it’s still getting better. I’m learning every heat, every surf. I’m taking a lot on board and I’m using it to my advantage.”
His speed around a wave face is a clear advantage – he finds speed quickly and maintains it throughout the line he takes on each of his waves.
“I’m a super energetic surfer anyway,” he laughs. “Ever since I was little – I just like to make the most out of every wave. Every surf I try my hardest.”
One very big win for Billy came at the start of 2019 when he reached out to a few key players in the industry asking for help.
“Hutch and Cam at Backdoor came back to me and they sounded interested,” he recalls. “So we did something for the Nationals just to start things off. And then we sat down and had a chat about my future and what I was set out to do and they seemed pretty keen to back me. It was awesome. I can’t thank them enough, they helped me out pretty much my whole QS campaign last year. And even in New Zealand, we’re doing fun little surf trips and they want to help as much as they can. I’m very thankful for those guys.”
Billy has a great relationship with them, aided by the fact Hutch has surfed in Raglan throughout Billy’s grommethood. Hutch’s son Taylor and Cam’s son Caleb are also rising stars.
“There’s a good little vibe around Backdoor,” adds Billy. “I’m stoked to be a part of that team. I’m super thankful to have them on board and helping me out. I’m proud to have that sticker on my board and know that I’m representing a good brand and a good company.”
Part of Billy’s metamorphosis included jumping from his good friend, Luke Hughes, of Hughes Surfboards, to the Sharp Eye brand. Not an easy thing to do, but with the support of the Hughes family, Billy made the transition as smooth as possible.
“I’m stoked to be a part of that team. I’m super thankful to have them on board and helping me out. I’m proud to have that sticker on my board and know that I’m representing a good brand and a good company.”
“Obviously me and Luke are really close friends and we have been for ages,” he explains. “His Dad shaped my boards and then he shaped my boards. We just got to a point and, it was mutual agreement, that I wasn’t getting enough boards. It’s really expensive to manufacture 15 boards or so a year or whatever it was. It was getting to a point that if I had stuck around, I think it may have put pressure on that friendship. So, I had to make a decision. Sharp Eye reached out to me and said they were keen to shape me some boards. So, I told Luke and he was very respectful and kind of stoked for me – he wanted to see my career go to the next level.”
“I’m very thankful for the Hughes family for what they’ve done in previous years for me,” he adds. “And throughout my junior career – he took me to a lot of wins as well. So, we’re still good mates – it was a pretty good transition.”
“I’m very thankful for the Hughes family for what they’ve done in previous years for me and throughout my junior career – he took me to a lot of wins as well. So, we’re still good mates …”
There’s no doubt that Billy has gelled with his Sharp Eye boards. He rides ridiculously small whips.
“I’ve got a Disco Inferno right now it’s a 5’7”, 24 litres, it’s pretty small,” he laughs. “But then I’m only like 5’6” or 5’7” and 65kg. My board’s pretty flat in the tail – really fast off the mark. I’ve got a few other boards that I ride in different conditions, but my favourite board at the moment is the Disco Inferno from Sharp Eye. It’s taken me to some wins. I’m about to get a big bunch of boards soon to try out for the Olympics and the start of my QS campaign. So I’m looking forward to that.”
It’s obvious the Olympics occupies a large part of Billy’s mind. I wonder how he shares his grey matter between Olympics and his CT ambition.
“Last year I was kind of building my ratings up – that was my whole goal,” he admits. “I ended 2018 in 271st and then I finished 2019 in 69th. So I jumped over 200 spots in one year. So I’m super stoked and now I can do a full year in the 10,000s and give it a full solid crack. Like I said, mentally last year I learnt a lot and I’ve focused a lot more on competing and what’s in front of me and this year it’s going to be much of the same, but a few more bigger contests. I’m off to Aussie in mid-February for four events; a QS1000 in Forster, QS3000 in Avoca, QS5000 in Newcastle and then the big QS10,000 at Manly and then straight over here to Piha for the Piha Pro QS10,000.”
That’s something of a huge start to the year. I question the relevance of the Forster QS1000.
“I just want to go over and get to Aussie early, put the rash-shirt on and actually compete in a QS,” he reveals. “I got third last year – the waves were pumping and I do like Forster. I’m going to be travelling with Kehu (Butler) and Saffi (Vette) and I think Elliot (Paerata-Reid) and Dune (Kennings) and a few other Kiwis are going to go over. So, we’ll do those first few contests and bang it out and then I’ll do Manly and Piha and hopefully start with a couple of huge results and then I’ll be set up for the rest of the year.”
Billy has been in the upper reaches of the QS before. In his first year on the QS grind, he finished in the 30s.
“Me, Ricardo and Jay almost all qualified that one year and it was like the half year re-seed model then,” he smiles. “Then I finished in the top 50 a couple of times. And those last two years before 2019 were pretty bad. But I learnt a lot. I’ve grown up heaps.”
“My mental game, my mindset is that I’m in the Olympics. In my mind, I’m certain I’m going and I’m just preparing as much as I can to get myself ready.”
He said the Oakley sponsorship was good and bad for his career.
“I got given everything – I was with Oakley for so many years,” he begins. “I wouldn’t say I took advantage of it, but I was enjoying it. Now that I look back on it, I was young and I had the big sponsorship and I was just rocking up to comps, just trying to surf and not really focusing. I had the best time ever. But I’m 30 now and I’m realising I’ve got to make some money. Make a bit of a backing for myself and a bit of a name and maybe start up something and make an actual career out of it.”
He said the age of surfing was getting older – with the era when “surfers like Occy and Andy Irons could rock up to a contest still drunk and still win contests”, over.
“Everyone’s staying fit, training and being healthy,” Billy offers. “It’s a bit different now. Hopefully I’ve got a few more years in me. It depends on the money thing – I’ll try and work as much as I can when I’m home. I’ll try and do some surf coaching. I’m not potting plants as much anymore,” he laughs. “I’m going to probably stay away from the potting bay.”
He felt like the surf industry had walked out on New Zealand.
“There’s not too much sponsorship or money in New Zealand in the surf industry anymore,” he reveals. “But perhaps there’s still good revenue for coaching and stuff like that.”
That seems at odds to the fact that the Billy Stairmand brand has never been stronger in New Zealand … and internationally. Is he even aware of his own brand? I ask him exactly that.
“I still think I’m the same person,” he admits. “But there has been a lot more attention. Like this week we’ve done stuff with you and Cory (New Zealand Surfing Magazine) and with Getty Images. It’s been a full-on week here at the Nationals, but I enjoy it – it’s part of the job and I want to make everyone happy. It’s good for me and it’s good for everyone else. So yeah, it has definitely been a lot busier and there’s a lot more attention and media. A lot more eyes on what you’re doing. But when it comes to competing and stuff, I just block it all out. I’m just straight focusing on what I have to do in the water, whereas previously I was worried about what was going on.”
Most athletes in New Zealand who reach the lofty heights that Billy has achieved cop a slap in the face by the tall poppy syndrome. Billy hasn’t been immune, but tries to teach a different way.
“New Zealand is a hard one,” he considers. “New Zealanders are so humble and cruisy. I try to drill it in if I’m coaching someone or giving someone tips – there are a lot of competitors that worry about other stuff. When I’m filtering around I ask the kids who’s going to win their heat and they’re sitting next to their best mate and they’re like, ‘Oh, probably him’, I’m like, ‘what? Don’t you want to beat him?’ You know, I’m like, come on you, if you want to win, you gotta win. Maybe I’m a little bit different, but I love to learn and I love to compete. I will do anything pretty much to win out in the water.”
I ask him if he’d do what Brazilian surfer Gabriel Medina did to fellow Brazilian surfer Caio Ibelli in his Round 16 heat at Pipeline last year. Medina deliberately dropped in on Ibelli to draw an interference and prevent Ibelli from scoring on one of the best waves in the dying moments of their heat. Billy doesn’t hesitate with his response.
“Definitely,” he offers with an approving shake of his head. “I reckon that’s the smartest thing anyone’s ever done. The World Title is on the line, the Triple Crown or Pipe Masters or Nationals, you know. I would have definitely not thought of that. But if you’re that smart and you really want to win? I guess us, as New Zealanders, we’re pretty humble and stay clear of confrontation or, going outside the lines. But what Medina did there was very smart.”
“I reckon that’s the smartest thing anyone’s ever done … I would have definitely not thought of that. But if you’re that smart and you really want to win then what Medina did there was very smart.”
“I’m stoked Italo won the World Title,” he continues. “I know all those guys and Medina is a really nice guy. He’s such a legend. I saw them all in Japan and we were hanging out – Italo, Medina and Filipe all kind of playing around. They’re just normal people who want to win, you know? Obviously Medina knew what he had to do to make that heat and cancel out his chances. I probably wouldn’t have done it because I wouldn’t have thought of it. But yeah, if I was in his situation, I probably would’ve done it.”
Billy said a lot of people misread the culture of athletes from places like Brazil.
“I guess if you consider where Brazilians come from and how they grow up – they don’t have much,” he reveals. “They have to fight for everything they have. And there are a lot more people in their country, so they’ve got to get one up on each other and fight. They’re pretty much making money for all their families back home and they don’t have houses and stuff like that. So I guess, because of where they come from, they’re hungry in nature and do what they have to.”
And they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with at the 2020 Olympics in Japan.
“Japan’s going to be interesting,” admits Billy. “I don’t know what the format is and I don’t know how they’re going to run the contest. I know it is at the beach in Chiba. I’ve actually got a third there before, so there’s a bit of confidence there, but it will be interesting to see how they actually run the whole event. I’m pretty sure they won’t go too far outside the lines – it’s the Olympics so they can’t change too much. Everyone will be out to get gold for sure. So there’ll be some fierce competition going down.”
I remind him that once you’re an Olympian you’re always an Olympian.
“Every time someone says that it gives me goosebumps,” he confesses. “It’s pretty freaky. It’s almost surreal. I guess until I go, it won’t sink in. I’m just trying to take it all onboard – the whole journey – the training camps, the opening ceremonies, the media days over there, there’s going to be so much going on. I’m just going to try and enjoy it all.”
Enjoying it all is something that’s hard at times with the pressure cooker of CT qualification hanging over your head constantly. The season ends in Hawaii and it was here that Billy was able to take a breath to appreciate his circumstances.
“It was me, Wade Carmichael, Ricardo and Cooper Chapman and we had this nice house at Backyards at the back of Sunset,” he explains. “We had an awesome vibe. We were over there for five weeks and we just surfed every day out the back and out at Sunset and Pipe a few times. We had this golf buggy we were driving around – rocking up to the comps with all our boards on the top of the golf buggy, it was sick. It was awesome to finish the year off with one of my best mates and a few of the Aussie guys.”
Despite enjoying the camaraderie and sharing the adventure, Billy discovered that solo travel offered some significant advantages.
“I stayed by myself at Krui and I didn’t go to a Japan 6000, because I knew Krui was a big left,” reveals Billy. “Krui was a 3000, but my chances of going good on a left-hander is much higher than at a beach break. So, I stayed by myself in my own room and just did my own thing. When we went free surfing I wasn’t even going way up with the pack. I was just sitting off the end having fun and enjoying my time in Bali.”
“I stayed by myself in my own room and just did my own thing. When we went free surfing I wasn’t even going way up with the pack. I was just sitting off the end having fun and enjoying my time in Bali.”
“Usually I’m not too selfish and I hate to be selfish, but when it comes to competing, I’m there to do a job,” he confides. “I want to do what I need to do to, to give myself the best opportunity to win. So I’ll do my own thing and then once the heats done, it’s onto the next one or the next person you’re traveling with.”
Billy feels a duty to pass on some of his learnings to the younger surfers coming through.
“I did the Azores and Japan with Kehu last year and that worked out really well and we had a good time, we made a few heats,” he shares. “I’ve travelled with Saffi also at the start of last year. So, I think it would be a good gang for the start of this year. And I think we’re all really motivated to do well. Kehu is really driven at the moment – he’s doing pretty well and Saffi won a Pro Junior at the end of last year. She’s got a taste of a win. I’ve been talking with them these past few days and we’re really keen and ready to give the 2020 QS a good crack and show them what’s up.”
While he may be the oldest Kiwi surfer on the QS he said he still felt like a grommet at heart.
“I’m still trying to stay young, I don’t want to grow up,” he laughs. “But I like the role of getting a house and getting a car sorted when travelling. Almost showing them how I’d do it and giving them a few tips and passing on some stuff. That’s what I did when I first came on. Ricardo had done it for a year or so before and Jay, Me, Ricardo we travelled together. I learnt a lot from them and all three of us did really well. So, I’ll try and do that again and just give them a few tips and help them out even if it’s heats or, just cooking some food.”
The wind shifts and we decide it’s time to look for a wave ahead of tomorrow’s final. Billy casts his eye over to the large National Champion Cup sitting next to him. His name’s on it seven times. Iain Buchanan has five consecutive engravings and Wayne Parkes has five also. It captures a huge breadth of New Zealand surfing history.
“I’ve just been shining up the cup,” he smiles. “I’ve got some silver shiner and it looks very sparkly right now. I’ve been telling my wife, ‘I’m gonna bring it home, babe. I’m gonna bring it home again’. My intentions are winning – I’m here to win.”
And with that he grins and paddles out into an empty peak just south of Dunedin. He’s in his element and mentally a sharp as a tack.
Finals Day 2020 NZ Surfing Championships
The form surfer of the 2020 Nationals, Billy looked every bit like he was going to rampage home with an eighth title. Piha’s Elliot Paerata-Reid had other ideas and executed a masterful final to hold Billy on the ropes right to the end. Their blow-for-blow battle whipped the Esplanade audience at St Clair into a frenzy. It was an incredible spectacle. But for Billy, it was not going to fall his way.
“That’s okay,” he confides in me afterward. “I’m stoked to see Elliot win one.”
As gutted as I know Billy is in himself, I believe in his excitement for Elliot. He joins in the celebrations, making sure Elliot feels the full gravity of what it means to get his name on that cup.