SURF LIFESAVING’S MAD PROFESSOR
They call him “The Professor” – with good reason. Shannon Eckstein is the King of Surf Lifesaving. A four-time World Ironman Champion, Seven-time Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain series winner and more recently, the most prolific winner of the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships Ironman title, taking out an unprecedented 7th victory. What he does is pure science. Here he goes under the microscope.
Shannon you’ve just won your 7th Australian Ironman title which breaks Trevor Hendy’s all-time record. It’s a remarkable achievement. Congratulations. How does it feel?
Yeah, it hasn’t really sunk in to be honest. I think until you retire you probably don’t look back too much on your career otherwise you, sort of, don’t keep moving forward. Obviously, winning the sixth was awesome to equal Trevor. But breaking the record wasn’t really on my mind at The Aussies, I just wanted to win the race and, you know, that’s probably why I’ll go around again next year, because I want to win. It won’t be until I retire that I look back and think that I’ve got the most ever or things like that. But it was obviously a big deal in the build up to it being the hundred years of Aussies and I found it extra special too. It’s obviously been a big part of my life, my family’s life, so it was a good way to finish the year.
You gave it a big claim as you came back to the beach. At what point did it sink in that the title was yours again?
Yeah, probably when I was getting off the ski. You never want to claim too early, especially when on the ski you can slew and those sorts of things can happen, but when I was coming in off the ski you start to feel like you’ve accomplished something and you get an extra special feeling. But the race itself panned out pretty good for me. I just needed to get away from them on the board and then the swim was always going to set it up for me. So, I had a good board paddle and then, you know I got a lead in the swim and got a nice little shore break there and from there it was pretty comfortable. There was a little wave at the back which could have stopped me for a little bit but I got out quite nicely and, you know, I thought Perth last year was a perfect race, but this one I thought was executed well.
It’s a big journey, The Aussies with a big program, especially for an athlete like yourself. But it seemed as though it was all about winning the Ironman this year. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I do seven events on The Aussies program which means you might do up to 30 races when you go through all the heats. It’s quite a big program but it’s heavily based on the first couple of days, the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then my weekend, you know, it’s pretty free. I’ve just got the surf race on this Saturday which I’ll have a good crack at and then the Ironman semi and the final on the Sunday. So, I don’t really think about the Ironman too much until I get to Sunday and, you know, you can’t take the semi-final lightly. That’s, you’re pretty much doing two flat out Ironman’s that day which, you know, that’s what you’re training for.
Now that you’ve got seven titles, is it like asking who your favourite child is when you get asked which one is your favourite of those seven?
I was thinking about it the other day and I can remember most of them. I can’t remember 2006 at all. But, I can remember most of them, what the order was and how I, sort of, won the races. But 2006 I can’t remember at all. My first race in 2003 I can remember. That’s probably the most special because you’ve always got to win your first one and it’s such a traditional event. There’s so many great Ironmen on the honour roll. That was the only one my Dad Billy saw before he passed away and he was handling for me that day. That one’s always going to be the most special to me.
You were one of the athletes who expressed some concern over the venue before The Aussies. But in the end, it looks like the best athlete ended up winning anyway. Can we get too caught up in the conditions of a surf race?
I don’t mind racing at North Kirra. It’s just that when the swim cans are inside the break it opens it up for a little bit of more luck coming into play for a number of reasons. It’s hard to explain. I’ve won there two out of three now. I think people just look back at the one that Cam Cole won when there was twelve people on a wave for a sprint up the beach. That’s never happened in the history of the Australian Ironman final so people just put it down to the beach, but that’s the sport. Luck comes into play in our sport, but you’ve got to be good enough to overcome the luck I suppose. A lot of people can use that as an excuse in our sport. People may not take responsibility for their performances. You can blame the waves or blame someone else for hitting you or you can blame so many other things, but at the end of the day you’ve got to take responsibility for your performance and even when you win and you’ve been lucky too, you’ve got to understand that you were lucky. That’s just part of our sport. I’ve never minded racing at North Kirra but I may have planted the seed of doubt in other people’s heads as well.
Good strategy then! I know you said that the record wasn’t the focus, but what did it mean to you that Trevor Hendy was there and he literally passed the baton on by presenting you with your medal?
Yeah. He’s been awesome and a huge influence on me since I was in Surfers and growing up coming through the Nippers. He was the man and he was there when I won my first title. He was there when I won my first world title in 2002 as well. I guess he sort of fast tracked my career to an extent because I learned so much from him when I was doing Ironman sessions. I used to always ask him a lot of questions and I used to watch what those guys were doing. He sort of went out of the sport a few years ago due to a few personal things and then the last couple years he’s been back in the sport doing some commentating. So, he’s been around and really helped me a lot. You know, he doesn’t have a big ego. He’s not the guy that doesn’t want anyone to break his records. He loves to pass the baton and he loves to help you out and try to make everyone better. It’s pretty cool that he was there last year and this year as well.
You ‘re now up to 35 gold medals at The Aussies. That puts you one gold medal away from equaling Clint Robinson’s record. Does that give you a bit of extra motivation going into next year?
Yeah, I think that this year was pretty perfect except I lost the Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain series by one point to Ali Dy, so that puts a little bit of fire in the belly to come back. And then obviously the one gold medal to equal Clint’s record would be nice too. You know, I had a good Aussies. I’ve been to Aussies before and won six gold and been to Aussies before and not won any gold, so I’ve got two this year which was a pretty good campaign and something to go back to next year. I think Maroochydore will be a great beach to race at next year.I’ve got the biggest off-season I’ve had in a while, so I’ve got time to rest up and get rid of any niggles and then sort of re-focus on the Kellogg’s and then the Aussies. Those are my two goals next year. There is no world title so that will make the job easier.
Anyone who has seen you compete and knows of your record would say you are one of the best athletes on the planet. Does that bring with it any sort of frustration that there is a degree of anonymity outside of the surf lifesaving nations?
No, I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because this sport may not get the press that it deserves, because I chose this sport. When I was younger I played a lot of sports and probably could have chosen a few different ones, but this is the one that I enjoyed the most and I was the most passionate about. We have family tradition in it and I wanted to give it a crack. You know, you’re not entitled or guaranteed to make money out of your chosen sport at all. But I guess sometimes it’s frustrating when you see a footballer get in trouble or things like that, and you think that our sport is pretty clean cut and it’s a great Australian traditional sport and you wonder why we don’t get more exposure. But at the end of the day we’re lucky enough, we’ve got a great sponsor in Nutri-Grain and they’ve hung around for so many years and without them we wouldn’t have an Ironman series. So it’s been going a lot better than other sports. But, you know, we don’t have live TV coverage at the moment and things like that, but we’d love to get back to that as always. You know, it’s certainly frustrating at times but I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It’s not that bad.
I think beyond the amazing achievements on the beach, the most impressive part of The Aussies is that all of the 7,000 athletes who compete over those nine days spend the rest of the year volunteering their time to do patrols and keep Australian beaches safe. The community service element often goes unnoticed.
Yeah, it’s a unique sport in that everyone has to do their community service to race. You’ve got to do your service hours to race. You grow up and do your bronze medallion and learn your first aid to be able to race. It’s very unique in that aspect and that’s why I think it’s a big family when you go to The Aussies. There are so many sporting events and there’s a lot of camaraderie. Everyone wants to do their best and win. Then there are the times when you see teams win the gold medal and you’re stoked for them, even though you or your club didn’t win it. You see them go through the emotions like the Surfers Paradise team this year in the board rescue when they finished first and third and third in the Taplin. And you know I’m happy for them because I spent so many years in that club. They sort of went through a tough year and are now building back up, so you know, that’s what’s good about our sport.
Has there ever been a moment in your career where you’ve thought about tinkering your program so that you could be an Olympian?
There have been moments when I’ve thought about it, but not too seriously. You know, you see Ky Hurst doing well and going to the Olympics as an open water swimmer, but I never grew up really as a swimmer and that wasn’t something that I really enjoyed. But kayaking was always in the back of my mind and when you see someone like Ken Wallace or the K4 win gold, you know, it’s something that you think you might be capable of doing. But to me, again, mainly paddling in the flat water all the time is a little bit boring. They spend a lot of time in Europe too and I like being home. I like spending a lot of time with my family, so there are a lot things you sort of think about, but it’s never really seriously crossed my mind to change sports. I enjoy this one too much.
What did it mean to you to captain the Australian team?
Yeah, that’s a huge honour. I really enjoyed the team sort of aspect of it. A lot of what we do is individual racing but on that Australian team I’ve got some great friends that I’ve been all around the world with. And it’s something that since I was young I’ve always wanted to do. So to captain that team is a huge honor. I don’t speak too much as a leader, but I like to lead by example when I’m training and competing and hopefully I’ve done that in the last couple years. We’ve lost the last two world titles, but last year was a lot better than 2012. So, whether I can keep going for another world title I’m not too sure. But I love representing Australia and wouldn’t give it up in a hurry.
Your relationship with your brother is interesting. He is an incredible athlete in his own right and although you compete against each other you have also each carved out your own reign of dominance in surf sports. How would you describe your relationship with Caine?
We’re brothers, but we’re different in lots and lots of ways and we’re similar in lots and lots of ways too. We do a bit of training together and when we’re training we’re pretty similar. We don’t go easy at all. We’re pretty flat out and we look after each other at training. We try to push each other and try to get the best out of each other. Away from that, we don’t hang out too much. We spent a bit of time in Bali last year and went surfing together and those sorts of things. I look out for him when I’m racing and he looks out for me. We’ve been brought up in a loving family that works really hard and that’s the kind of people we are.
How is it that one of you has dominated the short-course events and the other is so good at the endurance side of the sport?
Yeah, it’s kind of the way it is I guess. I would have done the endurance side of it as well, but I’ve had a problem with my calves. I’ve had two operations on my calves. So, it’s not that I can’t do endurance; it’s just that I have a medical condition that I can’t run over 5km. But in saying that Caine has really taken that up and he likes the longer training, whereas I sort of like the shorter training. In saying that, Caine has finished second in The Aussies in the Ironman and I’ve been on the podium in the Coolangatta Gold. We can do all facets of the sport but he has definitely chosen to take that on as well. It’s his thing and my thing is the shorter course. But we both train really hard and get the most out of ourselves and actually that’s why you get results.
So are there any regrets? When you think about your career, are there any regrets that there’s not a, Coolangatta Gold win on your CV?
Not really. I don’t regret that for one minute. I’ve done it three times. I’ve been on the podium twice. You know, the three times I did it I led it quite close to the end and my legs gave way. I’ve had two operations since then and worked out what the problem was and in training for those Coolangatta Golds I was as fit as I could ever be. I did whatever I could to try and win that race and I now know what was wrong. It’s not quite fixed yet. I might have another operation this off season. I don’t know. The Coolangatta Gold is always in the back of my mind but I’m getting older now and we’ll see what happens.
You talked some injury concerns straight after the Ironman at The Aussies. So, where are you at with getting your body right?
Yeah, it’s not too bad. About three or four years ago I had five operations in the off season and I had lots of things going on and we sorted a lot of things out and I’m going pretty good at the moment. The Achilles just plays up every now and again. It’s not something you can sort of get away from because you walking around or running all the time. So, I’ll rehab that this off season and it’s been good before. I rehabbed it last off season and it lasted quite a while through the season then started playing up again. So, I’ll rehab that and there’s just a few little other things to talk about. I’m sponsored by QScan Radiology Clinics and I get on pretty well with them. So, I’ll do a few things with them in the off-season and see if I need an operation or just rehab some things. Maybe I’ll come back out a new person!
So apart from rehab, what’s happening in the off-season? You’ve earned a break!
Yeah, I’ll be surfing and playing golf really. I love spending time with the family so I’ll be doing plenty of that. We haven’t booked any holidays yet, but I know I’ll be spending time on the golf course and with the family and enjoying it!
How much longer do you think you have left in you competing at the highest level?
I’d like to think that I could probably get two more years out of myself, but you never know. I’m committed to next year right now. If I come up and my body’s not right and I’m not enjoying it then I’d have no hesitation in quitting. But you know, quitting might just mean not doing the Ironman and still doing some team events. Like Trevor Hendy. He still does the board rescue and a few other things. So if the body’s not right to do Ironman or I’m not enjoying it, then I’ll hang it up. But I’d like to do another two years and get another world title over in The Netherlands in 2016. Let’s see how it goes!
* All Photos courtesy HarvPix