Eli Olson seems content when we sit down to talk. He’s just come back to the States from Nias and word has already spread about a close call he had navigating the infamous keyhole out to the lineup. Growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, his passion for surfing and training in jiu-jitsu has given him a unique lifestyle. His childhood friends from the neighborhood are top-tier athletes in their own right and his perspective is extremely rounded for someone in their mid-twenties. Arms folded, leaning forward in his chair, he radiates a certain amount of intensity that’s both kind and intimidating. I was curious to know more about his story and had a few questions to ask…
A CONVERSATION WITH ELI OLSON
Eli, how’s it going man? I feel like I know about you but I don’t really know you. Obviously, you grew up on the North Shore. What was the neighborhood like when you were younger?
Yeah, I grew up on the North Shore of Oahu. I’ve lived in the same house since I was two years old. I’ve had the same friends from elementary school and all the way through high school. Pretty tight little clique. My house is across the beach from Three Tables, which is the beach right next to Waimea Bay. You cross the street from my place and climb up the rocks and just get this insane backdrop of Waimea Bay and the valley. It’s the coolest angle. Growing up, I would climb the rocks and just stare out whenever the big swells would come in. It was the best view ever.
You weren’t born on the North Shore?
No, I was actually born in town but I definitely don’t remember it. My dad was a pro surfer back in the day and he knew that he wanted to live out on the North Shore.
So what was the family vibe like growing up?
It’s broken up, but I have an amazing family. My dad is super athletic and hard-working. My mom is also incredible. She’s the most hard-working woman I’ve ever seen. They split when I was around seven or eight years old, but I was so young I didn’t really see it as a bummer. Like whatever, I get two Christmases. (Laughs) I just saw it in a positive way. A lot of people would apologize and stuff but I never really cared. I have an older brother and a younger half-brother as well. We’re all super close. My dad just had us surfing, skateboarding, and riding dirt bikes from a really young age. Playing sports too, we did it all. I actually wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a kid.
That’s interesting. Are you still stoked on animals?
Yeah, I’m a huge animal lover. I’ve had a bunch of dogs. Roosters too I guess. My neighbors hated them so it didn’t last too long. (Laughs)
So what were you like as a kid?
Well, other than the surfing I was getting into a lot of trouble. Just getting into street fights and stuff when I was really young. I would get my ass kicked and my dad had all of these friends that were training, just these super gnarly guys. He said if you’re gonna be getting into all these fights you need to at least learn how to defend yourself. (Laughs) One day he just came up to me and said I was going to start training with some of his friends in jiu-jitsu. I remember thinking it sounded kind of funny. I ended up giving it a try but didn’t like it at first. It was super strict and the coach was intimidating. The other kids were really good, just kicked my ass and they weren’t friendly about it. It just wasn’t my thing, but my dad encouraged me to stick with it. I just wanted to surf and cruise with my buddies so I said I was going to go one more time and then quit. It was literally that night, I ended up having a really good class. I guess after a few months of training I finally started to understand the things I was learning. I just kind of fell in love with it and have been hooked ever since.
How old were you when you started training?
I was like nine or ten years old.
That’s gnarly you’ve already been going for over ten years.
Yeah, I’m glad I started so early because I got to learn from really good guys when I was young, so I never developed bad habits. What’s so cool about jiu-jitsu and surfing is that they’re so similar. The best guys in the world will still say they’re students. It’s never-ending. You’re always evolving and learning. Getting better is the goal. I still use some of those techniques from when I was ten years old. The progression is ongoing and so addicting. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.
So let’s talk about your friend group growing up. Just following your surfing a little bit, it seems like you grew up with some pretty gnarly guys.
Yeah, I have a super tight crew. They’re awesome. I have a bunch of friends that all do different things. Some are MMA fighters, some are gangsters, and some are the best surfers in the world. My main crew growing up was my surfing buddies. We spent the most time together. Koa Rothman, Nathan Florence, John John Florence, Kiron Jabour, Koa Smith, and Billy Kemper. I have a ton of friends but those are the guys I travel with the most. They’ve helped me so much more than they’ll ever know, just by being themselves. They’re all such good athletes and so hungry, just always pushing. Competing with them, friendly battles in the water, we feed off each other’s energy and push so hard. We’re so supportive. Surfing is such a selfish sport, it’s really all you. It kinda sucks but that’s how it has to be if you want to push yourself. That being said, our crew is so supportive of each other and we always have each other’s backs. I think it’s a little different for most. We just try to lift each other up and not outshine or anything. It’s a really cool tight pack. I love all those guys.
Were you conscious of that when you were younger? Like were you thinking these are just my local buddies and we all surf or was there an understanding that everyone was just going for it 100%?
Well, you kinda knew with John from a young age. We’re three days apart, always celebrated birthdays and stuff together, but you just knew. We’ve been super close since first grade and started surfing together then. As you grow up you get into different friend groups, you split up but we ended up getting really close again in our teenage years. John was so advanced from a young age but we would all still try to push each other. He would always be going on these trips and when he would come back I would notice his progression. Like he always got a little better. He would bring something new back and just add it to his quiver. You always knew he had that x-factor.
Were you ever bummed on your friends leaving and going on trips when you were younger? Did that inspire you to chase the same things or were you content doing your own thing?
That was the thing with growing up, like with age or whatever. I would trip on what other people were doing. I really wanted to shine in my own way like that. Being surrounded by all these super talented guys who had all this fame from a young age. I always thought it was sick, but felt compelled to set my own goals and do my own separate thing. Just do it my way. I’m stoked I stuck to it and followed my heart. At the end of the day, I really do what I love. I’m not really competing with anyone but myself. Those guys had such an insane drive with surfing. That passion inspired me to pursue everything, with training, surfing, and just life. I gotta do it how I wanted.
Yeah, I totally get that. And there is an interesting aspect to your story in that you didn’t travel a lot when you were younger. Was that hard watching your buddies take off for thick periods of time and you were just stuck back on the North Shore? How did you keep progressing and staying motivated when you were younger?
For a while, I would get super bummed out. I didn’t have the sponsors, I didn’t have the golden pick. I was just surrounded by these guys and would get a kinda bitter. But I realized it’s just too easy to do that. You can hate all day or just use it as motivation. Turn it into a positive fire. That’s kind of what I did. Just stay busy and surf as much as possible when they were home. When they would take off I’d just do my own thing and have more time to train. The surfing would always be my main priority but the training was always there. When the boys were home they’d just want to surf and it would pull me away from the mat. But when they would leave I would have more time to buckle down and just be a jiu-jitsu nerd. I would kinda just use that fire and downtime to push myself. Time would pass and they’d be back again.
There’s got to be a certain pride in that right? Like now you’re at this point in life where you’re able to travel more. You just got back from Nias. You achieved that goal on your own terms. Is there a sense of accomplishment looking back? Like fuck, you really earned those plane tickets!
Yeah, I am proud. But I’m grateful more than anything. There was a point in time where I never knew if I would go on trips or have big sponsors. Like traveling the world doing what I love. I always had these goals to do that stuff when I was young but you never really know. Doing everything on your own, you can’t control what happens. Like there isn’t anyone helping but yourself. So I’m definitely proud of what I’ve achieved. Glad I stuck with it and followed my heart. There was so many times where I could have just stopped when things weren’t really working out. The boys were already set and taken care of. I could have easily faded out and went a whole different route. I’m glad I just kept chipping away and kept a strong mindset to get to where I am.
So let’s talk about Nias a little bit. How did that come about?
That was one of the best trips of my life! I was actually in Puerto Escondido with the O’Neill crew doing a shoot. We were having a good time, just super fun small waves. But while this is happening, I was also checking the forecast with some people and noticed a huge swell heading for Indo. We didn’t exactly know where the spot would be but we knew it was going to be huge. I haven’t been paying attention to forecasts for too long but it was the biggest one I’d ever seen. Like, it was going to be really good somewhere. We just narrowed it down and decided that Nias was the best bet. So I was in Mexico and just knew I had to get over there. I had been in Mexico for week but started making calls through a travel agent and ended up booking all my flights. I went straight from Mexico to California and then straight to Indo. Dude, it was such a mission. It felt like three days of straight traveling. I was in like four different countries in 30 hours. Just no sleep straight into this giant swell. It was gnarly. We pulled up to Nias and the very first day it was already bombing. Just insane waves like I’ve never seen. I’ve seen a lot of really good lefts, like Chopu and Fiji, but I think that was the best right slab I’ve ever surfed in my life.
I heard you had a pretty close call too. What happened with that?
So on the biggest day, there’s this keyhole where you can walk behind the wave. For the most part, it’s pretty easy. But that was the biggest swell they’d ever seen. If the waves are over twelve feet, you can’t use the keyhole. I didn’t know that. I watched a couple people do it, and I guess they got really lucky with timing. I had done the keyhole a hundred times before, but when the waves were smaller. So I thought I had the route. As I was walking out, I realized the water was getting way deeper and pretty far away from the jump-off spot. The waves were washing around and there was so much current surging out. Picture a little bay with razor-sharp rocks, and then a mini cliff that you jump off of into the ocean. So I try and tippy toe on these sharp rocks. I was getting close to the keyhole but I couldn’t see exactly where it was cuz I was in chest deep water. A huge set came in and I knew it wasn’t going to be good. It broke and washed in over the little cliff. I jumped on the whitewash and after it surged by me I planted my feet again and thought I was good. But that was when it surged in over, so it still had to go back out. Water is already up to my head. I’m standing there and the reef is so sharp under my feet and I’m trying to stay planted. All this surge is pulling me and the reef broke off under my feet. It cut my feet and just swept me. So I was like, alright. Here I go. It started surging me down and right before the drop-off where there’s this little waterfall, my leash snagged on the reef. Before I could even get down to my ankle, the surged pulled and completely stretched me out. Like ankles to hands above my head, upside down in this waterfall, and I had sucked in water.. I’m completely under and the surge is just draining. All I’m trying to do is sit up to reach my leash and take it off so I can get washed out to sea, but it feels like there’s a five hundred pound weight on my chest. I could not sit up to reach it and I’d been underwater for a while, now starting to panic. I can feel I’m getting light headed and I just tried to climb my thigh. I remembered this technique I learned in a water safety class, like you grab your thigh and pull your knee to you, but there’s so much pressure it was impossible. I’m pulling my leg to my chest and I can feel I’m going to black out at any second. I was thinking about who was around me and who was in the water, like who could be the one to save me cuz I knew I was gonna black out. It wasn’t up to me any more, you know? Right when I was getting close, my leash snapped. Right when it snapped, there was so much pressure that it slammed me down on the rocks and then I bounced up and out of the keyhole.
Wow, so you were stoked the leash snapped!
Yeah! I couldn’t believe it. I came up to the surface and was completely in shock. So spun out and rattled. I just got angry, like so mad from the whole situation. Some guys were right there and made sure I was good. I still had to paddle through the lineup, and my back is all trashed and cut up. My friends saw me and were tripping. I was like, you have no idea what just happened. But they were like, “Go switch your leash, it’s firing!” I ended up catching a wave in with my broken leash, just hung on for life on this tattery wave. My friend Bobby lined my back, from the reef rash. I drank some water, swapped out my leash, waxed my board again and went straight back out.
What’s it like paddling back out after something like that? How are you able to put the trauma of a situation aside?
Well, it’s a heavy heavy mind battle. Just big wave surfing in general. I honestly think it’s 90% mental and 10% physical. You really have to believe in yourself and just know that you have the skill and endurance. Like you’re gonna be okay. At the end of the day though, it's out of our control. I just kind of accept fate. I’m not super religious or anything, but I just believe that if it’s your time to go, it’s your time. You can train as hard as you want, be as prepared as you want, but at the end of the day I just accept it. Before surfing huge Pipe or huge Jaws or Nias, I just realize if today is my day to die, I’m going to have the best time I can. Like fuck, before I do I’m gonna ride it out. I had that super close call and I was just exhausted. Like it took so much energy out of me. But I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I knew why I came to Nias in the first place and I was gonna get back out there. That angry pain turned into more sike to get back out go fucking send it on one. Maybe some people would have called it, but if you were there to see the waves, you wouldn’t fucking sit out. (Laughs)
That’s an insane story!
It was a crazy little adventure! Got some amazing waves that trip.
Photo / Video Credits In Order: Scotty Hammond, Keoki Photo, Nick Green
Follow Eli Olson: @eli_olson