Jared Houston is now a household name in bodyboarding thanks to his stylish freesurfing, a formidable competitive edge and a dedicated and professional approach to bodyboarding. But it wasn’t always so. All somebodies come from nowhere. I first saw Jared bust on to the world stage in his early twenties with brilliant consecutive displays at world tour events at Fronton – a wave with which Houston has an almost mystical relationship. Jared’s riding in and out of the competition vest in the Canaries was simply unbelievable. It seemed his smooth and controlled style made his maneuvers more radical and unpredictable, which looks like a contradiction on the page until you see the magic of it in the water.
From being high on the hog after his first world title to having to recover from a badly dislocated shoulder and enduring a category five hurricane with his wife and child, Jared snatched victory against the odds over the stiffest competition. Speaking with him after his big win in Portugal Houston is candid about the naked facts of life but always, in the end, tries to look for the positive, the silver lining or the lesson beyond the bump in the road.
Jared Houston (29) is from Cape Town in South Africa and started bodyboarding at Onrus beach, where Tristian Roberts also started surfing. The Houston family visited Onrus on holiday and when young Jared saw a tightknit group of bodyboarders he was impressed. Jared’s parents bought him a bodyboard shortly afterward and the world stage beckoned.
Since Jared started riding a bodyboard he had a world title on his mind. All because of Andre Botha.
“The very same year I started bodyboarding was the year that Andre won his first world title.” says Jared, “That was huge. I’d just started bodyboarding, and I remember walking into a news agency and there was a bodyboarding magazine there with a picture of Andre on the cover and it said, ‘Youngest world champ ever, seventeen years old’. “
“And I picked it up, and I read it. I was ten and I was like, ‘What? Oh, so there is this young South African guy, just a couple years older than me, and he’s the best in the world’. That’s what I want.’”
“From the second I started bodyboarding, I knew I wanted to be world champion because of Andre.”
Andre Botha was a huge influence on Jared both early in his career and in the second, world title-winning phase of his dominance.
“I definitely can take some inspiration from him with just the longevity he’s found in the sport, and the way that he’s constantly reinvented himself and kind of like completely stopped fighting against the whole competition scene or whatnot, and he’s just focused on what he’s doing.”
“He is probably the most barreled bodyboarder in the world right now.”
Jared started bodyboarding age nine or ten and enrolled in a surf school which hired a bodyboarding coach – Adam Kramer – for the keen grom. Kramer taught Jared his first spin. Through his coach, Jared met the people involved in the Western Province Bodyboarding Association who organised state-level contests around where Jared lived. South African surfing is typically well structured. Jared entered the provincial trails series and after four contests that year he moved on to represent his province at the national championships that September.
At that time, the South African bodyboarding scene was super strong. Jared began to grind his axe and says it was one of the hardest competitive environments he’d ever been exposed to. Originally, Houston looked up to guys in the divisions above him; Daniel Worsley, Mark McCarthy, Sacha Specker and competed against the cream of the crop: Michael Ostler, Mark Watts, Josh Kleve and future world champion Iain Campbell.
“It’s crazy how deep the talent pool in South Africa was in those days. It was pretty amazing.”
Jared finished school in 2007 and did his first overseas trip to compete in the 2009 Pipeline contest.
“Surfing Pipeline for the first time was freaking nuts.” Jared tells me. “I remember so clearly my first day out there. I was just so in awe. I couldn’t believe I was finally there… The pipe comp that year was super heavy. It was pretty big. It was kind of scary but I had a good time.”
Pipeline is like a mythical place and when you arrive there for the first time it is as good as you always imagined it would be. Jared spent a month there, surfing and working, and bought a plane ticket to Australia where he stayed until he returned to Hawaii in early 2010. Jared’s friends recall their mate’s laser focus on bodyboarding when he began to travel overseas. Over three months, Jared got comfortable at Pipe and it showed when he placed third in that year’s Pipe comp ahead of Kingy and behind winner Amaury Lavernhe and Canarian Diego Cabrera. Jared picked up a new sponsor and became even more focused on his dream.
Jared Houston moved to Puerto Rico in 2013 with his wife Natasha and they now have a daughter Poe (5). Houston considers learning the Spanish language as one of the greatest achievements of his life.
“I actually love Spanish. It almost doubled what I got out of life with all the locations I have visited. I met so many of my best friends and some of the coolest people ever through having known Spanish.”
Although very different from Cape Town, Jared was lured to the island by love and a laid back lifestyle. But behind the veneer of calm lies the brute force of the Atlantic Ocean. Puerto Rico was hit hard by a hurricane in 2017.
“Hurricane Maria was a category five hurricane, about as strong as they get. It traversed the island from the southeast corner and went out to the northwest corner. So it just went over us completely.”
Jared was at home on Puerto Rico when Maria hit.
“We boarded up our home and I rode out the storm. A category five is insane. Indescribable. Three hundred kilometer per hour winds. The next day, I opened the door and didn’t even recognize the place. It was just completely upside-down. Everything that you can imagine. Everything you’ve ever seen in a horror movie or in end-of-the-world movies, that’s what it looked like.”
Scientists measured Hurricane Maria to be the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide in 2017 as well as the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane since records began. A Category 5 hurricane has sustained wind speeds greater than 250 kilometers an hour. Maria caused over 90 billion dollars worth of damage and killed over 5800 people (2,900+ in Puerto Rico).
“It’s definitely the single biggest lifetime experience I ever had. My family and I lived for ten months without electricity. We had no running water for a month and a half… No food, no gas, no water. People going nuts, people dying. It was a real live horror show.”
Jared immediately pitched in with his neighbours to help start rebuilding.
“I didn’t see any emergency personnel in my area for ten days after the storm. All the roads were opened by neighbors, by community members. That was really cool. I got to see humanity at its finest even though I saw nature at her worst. Everybody banded together and helped each other. And that was key in people. If people hadn’t done that, there would have been a lot more deaths than there were.”
Now a year and a half on things are slowly getting better. Jared still has to drive over to the other side of the island to get a phone signal that won’t drop out every five seconds. It will take time until PR is back to the same level pre-Maria but Jared remains philosophical.
“It’ll take a couple of years for us to be at the back of the level we were before. But life works like that and everything happens for a reason. I think at least. I am sure some good will come out of this.”
Jared has visited Praia Do Norte twice and thinks it is remarkable that the beach is situated near a town that lives and breathes surfing. The wave itself is a completely unique freak of nature. It is undoubtedly a high-performance bodyboard venue with the addition that the wave breaks close to shore making it spectator-friendly.
“I’m still amazed by it. It’s such a good venue for an APB tour event. The only other beach that I would love to see on tour would be Zigatella.”
Praia Do Norte is one of Houston’s favourite waves in the world despite dealing him one of his worst injuries. Thankfully his injury didn’t cross his mind on the final day of the 2018 Nazare Pro until a friend reminded him of the shattering wipeout when it was all over. Jared almost feels ‘like a whole lifetime’s passed’ since his injury but at the same time it was just two years ago.
The injury happened when Houston was the world champion. The night before he had a sick surf at Praia Do Norte with pals PLC and Lewy Finnegan. Jared paddled out the next morning and it was pumping too. Fatigued from the run of swell, Jared caught a few waves and decided to catch one more in. Oh, but it’s always the last one. Jared caught one for the road and was about to go straight when he spotted a potential ramp to his left. He tried doing a looping spin but the section went too early. He got stuck in the lip on a six-foot wave. He came down on what he felt was a soft section and Houston went limp. He landed on his board but while he rolled off his arm stayed on. He arm got trapped on the board as it got knocked upwards by the wave, wrenching it out of the socket. Ouch!
“Immediately, I knew something was up because I couldn’t feel my arm and when I came up I saw it completely hanging down in a place where it shouldn’t have been. Then I caught four more waves on the head.”
The shorebreak at Praia Do Norte is not a place anyone likes to get caught, not least with a dislocated shoulder. Jared’s arm was getting ripped around. When he got the beach he had to wait four hours until his shoulder was popped back in.
“The pain was insane. I was just ready to pass out.”
When it came time to pop the arm back in the muscles had become tense with cramp. Jared said it was ‘absolutely excruciating – it was just heinous’.
Worse was to come. When he returned to Puerto Rico it became clear Houston had some serious shoulder damage so he opted for reconstructive surgery. Four months of intense rehabilitation came after the surgery. Jared pushed the limit of recovery in order to be fit for the APB event in Tahiti.
“I had a great physiotherapy team that really helped me out so much. Then to come back and win that first event in Tahiti was just like incredible. I went out on that trip and I was just so excited to just surf good waves again. I was a little nervous because this was a left and it was my left shoulder [that was injured].”
The morning of the biggest day of the waiting period arrived and Houston was out there in the dark. Just as he arrived in the line up a massive wave arrived. Teahupoo is not a spot where you can catch it from the top of the wave. It is best to be under it.
“I paddled and I kind of thought that I might just get under it, but I just got stuck on the ledge, so I kind of free-fell. And it was like – massive! It was like an eight to ten footer.”
He free-fell into the belly of one of the biggest bowls he had ever surfed and got blasted. But his shoulder survived.
“I was like, ‘All right, I’m sweet.’ even though I got smoked. That was a good confidence booster… That event was just one of those events where just don’t feel like you’re at a contest. You’re just out there getting barreled with your friends. It was just one of the coolest events I’ve been a part of.”
One of the keys to Jared Houston’s success on the 2018 tour was the backing he received from his sponsors Hubboards and Reeflex.
“This year, those guys really backed me. Reeflex. Hubboards. It was the first year in many years that my sponsors had paid for me to go on a trip. They bought my tickets, paid for my food, paid for my accommodation and really went all in with me this year.”
Jared’s involvement with Hubboards was two years in the making and Houston has been friends with the Hubbard brothers for ten years. Jeff and Dave are a famous pair but completely different at the same time. Dave is a drop-knee, stand-up wizard who also prones like an uncontrolled freak. Jeff Hubbard is in his forties now and has been a professional bodyboarder since he was in his late teens. To still be riding at the level he is after twenty years is beyond remarkable.
“He’s still one of the best bodyboarders in the world today!” says Jared, “And that’s mental. It’s mind-blowing. It’s something I already aspire to be like.”
“Jeff’s definitely, for me, the best aerialist in the world. I mean, Dave is an amazing bodyboarder as well, but Jeff is, for sure, one of my all-time inspirations. Ever since I became a bodyboarder, I was always attracted to the aerial side of it, and Jeff was always the leader so I’ve always looked up to Jeff [ no pun intended].”
“What’s really cool about Dave is his super diverse approach. And that really rubbed off on me a lot this year. The bodyboard is such a diverse craft, you can do anything on it. And I definitely put that into practice and found so much more enjoyment out of the ocean.”
As 2018 wore on, the high of winning at Teahupoo turned to trepidation when he arrived back on the sand at Praia Do Norte where conditions had caused it to become super shallow.
“I was a little bit worried when I saw the sand bars. I was kind of like, ‘This is going to be hard.’ But it worked out. By the time the final day rolled around, there were good banks and a super-sick level of riding.”
“The final day, it was not really a blur, but it just sort of – it just kept happening. I’d just go hard. And in the beginning, I was just going hard and doing what I had to do to get through heats. Just kind of quietly making it through. Guys like Pierre were on a real tear. I just stuck to my game plan, catching the waves I could catch and doing the best I could on those waves. Something that I was super-stoked about this year was that I managed to peak in the final. That was when I put my best surfing together, in the final. So that was something I was really stoked with and proud of”
In tough, demanding conditions, Jared defeated one of the event favourites, Tanner Mc Daniel, with a massive air reverse that gave him a perfect ten. Then, Jared pulled off a big, floaty invert to beat the world champion Iain Campbell in a winner takes all superheat.
The way the sandbars and rips were working had made the Nazare Pro extremely physically demanding for the athletes. Guys and girls were having to run up and down the beach like there was no tomorrow to progress through heats.
“The thing I remember most about the day was just how tired I was.”
But I wonder how this world title compares for Jared to his first world title. I mean, the first time is always a little special, like losing your virginity. Jared agrees with three-time world champ Jeff Hubbard who says each of his world titles was very different. When Jared Houston won his first world title in 2015 he was living the dream and getting paid thousands of dollars per month to bodyboard. His lifestyle consisted of just surfing and training. But despite putting so much effort in outside of surfing he lost early in the last event leaving his world title fate in other people’s hands.
In 2018, while still feeling blessed to get paid to bodyboard, bodyboarding can no longer sustain him and his family professionally. So while busy working another job in production Jared also managed (by hook or by crook) to attend three competitions and do well enough in them to be in a position to win a world title by the time Nazare came around.
At the end of the day, his world title was in his own hands and the path to it was very simple. Win the contest or bust.
“It wasn’t like I felt pressure but I just knew there was only one outcome, one scenario. And I just put my head down and I went all in.”
And that he sure did. Despite all the ups and downs, Jared is super positive about his second world title.
“When I got home, my daughter asked me did I bring the trophy home? And I said, ‘Yeah’ and she went, ‘Cool. I want to put it in my room’. Now she’s got the world title trophy on the bedside table next to the bed.”
Well, Jared, it’s not every daughter in the world that has her daddy’s world title on their bedside table.