Tom Carroll – Biography
Carving deep and artful lines across waves from Pennsylvania to Pipeline, Tom Carroll was the epitome of a “power surfer.” The term itself is seemingly tailor-made to describe the stocky Australian goofy-footer who single-handedly slammed the door on pro surfing’s first generation heroes. He mastered everything from 1-20 feet amid a stellar 14 year career that included two world titles and the distinction as the sport’s first million dollar athlete. Tom Carroll (along with his arch rival Tommy Curren) set the 80’s performance standard and is without question one of pro surfing’s most powerful wave riders. At the height of his mojo, Carroll’s leaden back foot, low center of gravity, and perfectly focused coiled energy were the envy of the surfing world.
Tom Carroll was born 1961 and raised in Sydney, Australia. His father was editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald. According to both Tom and brother Nick (a longtime surf journalist), his father “ruled with a pretty firm hand…” But he was also someone they “looked up to immensely,” giving the boys a solid foundation. Sadly, at age 8, he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer. Months later, Tom stood on his first wave and progressed like an Outback brush fire. While smaller in stature than the competition, Carroll surfed like a giant with a firm stance and an aggressive style that garnered wins in the juniors division of the Australian National Titles in 1977 and 1978 and top honors at the Pro Junior in 1977 and 1980.
Heavily influenced by legendary Narabeen surfer and shaper Col Smith as well as by the soulful big wave stylings of Hawaiian Gerry Lopez, Carroll rocketed to the finals of the 1979 Pipe Masters as a world tour rookie, finishing 24th in the world that same year. He continued to ascend from 17th to 10th to 3rd before taking the world title in 1983 (winning 6 of 13 events) and distinguishing himself as the 1st goofy foot world champion. The following year, winning just two events, he answered the challenge from the veteran Shaun Tomson to win by a razor thin margin. That was the last charge from the “Free Ride” generation of pros who had been instrumental in creating professional surfing. In 1985, he boycotted the South African leg of the tour in protest against apartheid and subsequently fell behind a rampaging Tom Curren. Carroll finished 2nd the following year.
Historically, Carroll was the yang to Curren’s Yin, and the two Toms literally set the performance standard for the generation and became stars in the new VHS era of the surf video. Carroll laid the foundation for goofy foot power surfing emulated by the next wave of Aussie surf stars (most notably Mark Ochilupo and Luke Egan). In 1988, he made history again by becoming the first surfer to secure a million dollar contract (a five year commitment to Quiksilver). He finished 3rd that year and again in 1991 (taking the Triple Crown the same year) before retiring in 1993. In total, Tom Carroll took 26 career world tour wins, 3 Pipe Masters victories (87, 90, and 91), and 2 world titles.
At 5’6” and 145 pounds, he was seemingly built for small surf. He won the knee-high slop fest in Jensen Beach, Florida at the 1984 Wave Wizards Challenge. The conditions were so minimal it was termed “the unridden realm” and was aided only by a passing fishing boat hired to push the size past the 18 inch ASP requirement. And even though he also famously won a wave pool event in Allentown, Pennsylvania, that of small wave maestro would never be his legacy. As the 80’s came to a close, Tom Carroll became synonymous with shredding life-threatening surf. Performances at throttling Sunset and Rockpiles solidified his presence in the islands, but his awe inspiring method at Pipeline was unrivaled. He didn’t just survive the barreling beast, he shredded it like he was riding Newport beach break.
The Gath helmet. The long, narrow gun with a stripe swathed across the deck. The inhuman drop and snap across a 12 foot Pipe bomb. That was the legacy of Tom Carroll.
He won the 1984 Surfer Poll and was inducted into the Australian Suring Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1991, he won Australia’s Surfing Life Peer Poll and 8 years later was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Hall of Fame. But his life was not all charm and fortune. There was also great pain. While his strength and physique became a representation of the fitness, nutrition, and stretching he incorporated into his routine, Carroll ironically racked up an extensive and infamous list of injuries: a surfboard inflicted stomach rupture, fin cuts, a concussion, two knee injuries, back issues, ankle ligament tears, and a most unsavory perforated rectum. One of his ankle injuries actually occurred during a warm up session for the Eddie. In addition to the early death of his mother to cancer, he learned that his beloved sister was killed in a car accident just prior to his 1987 Pipeline Masters final. He received the tragic news, told no one, and went on to win the event, later saying that it was her death that spurred his surfing that day.
Tom Carroll is married with two children. That’s where many surfer bios end, but Carroll has continued living the surf dream, remaining in his hometown of Newport, Australia and continuing to work with Quiksilver in developing young surfers and traveling the world in search of massive waves. As recent as 2010, Carroll and fellow Aussie big wave demon Ross Clarke-Jones searched Tasmania for the gnarliest swells for a Discovery Channel documentary.
Carroll was voted in at Number 7 on Surfer Magazine’s list of the “Greatest Surfers of All Time” in which Martin Potter wrote: “To tell you the truth, I almost quit surfing because of Tom Carroll. One year, we drew each other five times in a row in the second round, and he beat me every time. It almost ruined my life, because I almost gave up competing.”
Driving Martin Potter to near retirement, fast forwarding performance possibilities at Pipeline, becoming the first goofy world champion and the first surfer to make a million dollars; Tom Carroll’s surfing left a mark in the sand yet to be eroded by the next wave.