Jenny Rudd meets two of the world’s top junior surfers, brother and sister, Elin (15) and Jonas (17) Tawharu. They have grown up surfing on their doorstep, here in The Mount.

WORDS JENNY RUDD
PHOTOS JEREME AUBERTIN,
SALINA GALVAN + CAM NEATE

Representing New Zealand in any sport gives you the grit and resilience needed to get through difficult times in life.” John Tawharu is the father of Elin and Jonas, two of New Zealand’s brightest surfing stars.

The siblings have just returned from the Azores in Portugal, where they competed in the 2016 VISSLA ISA World Junior Surfing Championship. Elin came 3rd in the U16 girls’ division (the first Kiwi podium finish in nine years), and Jonas was the top Kiwi competitor in the U18 boys’ division. This year was the biggest in the competition’s history, with 370 competitors from five continents, and the first in the era of surfing as an Olympic sport.

We meet Elin and Jonas at the UNO. office. In their Mount College uniforms, they look like any other teens, but they are world class athletes competing at the highest possible level.

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Jonas, John and Elin Tawharu, off for a morning surf together.

IN THE BLOOD

There’s a fair bit of sporty blood flowing through the family; John, a teacher at Omanu Primary School, has represented New Zealand in softball and rugby. Step-mum Jo teaches at Tauranga Intermediate. They both coach the surfing teams at their respective schools. Jo has toured with the New Zealand women’s team as a qualified judge.

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A young Elin and Jonas with step-mum Jo Young

“My children have grown up surfing at every opportunity,” says John. “Living by Moa Park in The Mount, they have always been able to skip across the road in their wetsuits. Every weekend for years has been taken up with surfing, either here at home, or out on one of our infamous weekend surf missions. We study the weather reports, checking swell and wind conditions, work out where the best surf will be, and leap into action. It’s such an exciting way to live. Jo makes a stack of homemade pizzas the night before, and we start getting chilly bins, portable chairs, and all our kit out of the basement; everyone’s hunting around for wetsuits, fins, boards and sun-block.

“Jonas decides exactly what time we need to leave to get the tide at its best, and I always say that Jo is our lucky charm: she almost always calls the surf conditions bang on. The adrenaline’s pumping as we round the last few corners, desperate to get a glimpse of the waves after a few hours on the road. I’ve lost count of the number of times we have zoomed down that hill at Manu Bay, Raglan! I feel very lucky to do these adventures with my partner and children.”

WAVE AFTER WAVE

The ocean has been the backdrop to Elin’s and Jonas’s lives. As toddlers, John would kick a ball into the waves. They would dive in and scoop it up, so the water splashed on their faces, giving them confidence in the water. As small children, John took them out boogie boarding in the rougher white water, to teach them about the power of the ocean.

“Ever since she was little, I have always called Elin my Storm Girl. I’d take her out in cyclones, when the white water was smashing around all over the place. She just loved getting rumbled over and over in the waves, and even now she doesn’t ever care about being smashed by huge, dumping waves. That’s her thing – gnarly waves. Jo calls her the Queen of Gnarly.

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“As a youngster, Jonas would surf all day with no rest, wearing himself out completely. Then he’d be wrecked for a few days. He’s had to learn to come in and get food and drink every few hours. He has an analytical mind, and has always been particular about his technique, practising over and over again to get it right. Jonas’s love of physics and interest in how things work is ingrained in him; as a nine-year-old, he gave me a lesson on weight transference on his skateboard!

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“The surf season is long and hectic, running from January through to November. And expensive. All us parents worry about how we are going to find the thousands of dollars needed for travel and accommodation as we take our children on the national tour. If they make the national team and go to the World Championships, it’s even more expensive. It always comes together, though. We fundraise hard, doing movie nights, garage sales, and car washing. And the community really gets behind us, which is fantastic. Jo is our master-organiser in the family, making sure everything stays on track. Everything clicks when she’s on board; her brain is amazing.”

ELIN

Dad used to push me into twofoot, glassy waves on his fat fish board when I was little, and I would try and stand up. It was exhilarating, and I was hooked. Those are my earliest memories of surfing at my local break, Crossroads.

Learning to surf at The Mount has given us such a great advantage. There’s so much coastline here, and the curves, peninsulas and islands create lots of different waves. The Mount has produced a lot of good competition surfers, as it’s a beach break, which is changeable. You have to be flexible to adapt. If you always surf a point break or river mouth, you don’t get enough practice with the smaller, slushy waves.

EARLY ADOPTER

I picked up surfing properly when I was nine. I’ve always been competitive by nature, and won my first national competition when I was eleven, in Taranaki. I was given a greenstone surfboard trophy. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling. And being round the professional surfers was the most exciting thing I’d ever experienced: watching them sign autographs, have their photos taken, and engage in awkward chatter with fans (like me!). Just to be near them, I was frothing as a grom. I wanted to dress like them, look like them and, one day, surf like them. Everything changed after that. I set myself the goal of making the New Zealand team before I turned 18, with a vision in my young head of travelling overseas and representing my country.

Another win for Elin on the tour.
Another win for Elin on the tour.

NATIONAL TEAM

Then, just as I turned 13, I was selected! I wasn’t expecting it at all. What made it doubly exciting was that Jonas made the team too. I think it’s the first time a brother and sister combo have ever been selected together. Can you imagine the excitement in our house? I have been selected to represent my country each year since then, and this year I won the bronze medal in Portugal in the U16 girls’ division. It was beyond my dreams to make it to the final, surfing with the best in the world at Praia do Monte Verde, where a large swell pounded the beach break. Even though the conditions improved throughout the competition, the waves were pretty unruly and hard to read, so I was seriously stoked to get a medal.

FAMILY

I’m so lucky to have four supportive parents. My mum, Anna, and her partner, Paul, are yoga instructors, so have always practised lots of yoga with us. It’s great for keeping your body strong, open and flexible. All those extra things really give you an edge when competing at a high level. And Mum and Paul are always ready with a good massage after we’ve been training hard.

So we can dissect our technique, Jo spends hours filming us, and offers fantastic analytical advice. She’s incredibly supportive of women surfers, having been with Surfing New Zealand for so many years. My dad has always coached our sports teams, like many other supportive parents, and he and Jo drive us for miles looking for swell. He and Jo have given up so much of themselves to help us succeed.

My dad’s always out in the surf. In fact, he’s the biggest grom I know. He’ll be out there when it’s absolute crap, just loving it, for hours on end.

I’d surf every day of my life if I could. It’s an addiction, a habit your body and mind craves. I love the exhilaration that comes from the challenge of riding waves and speeding along the face.

I’d like to have a go at the professional junior circuit in Australia. Finding funding for that is the biggest challenge. And I also have next year’s World Champs on my mind. I want to win it.

2011 U12 Women’s Champion, Taranaki.

2013 Ranked 3rd nationally (U17 girls).

2013 New Zealand Primary Schools U13 Girl’s Champion.

2014 U16 Women’s Champion, Gisborne.

2014 Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, Ecuador (U16 girls), 13th place.

2015 Ranked 2nd nationally (U17 girls).

2015 Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, California (U16 girls), 16th place. Best result for New Zealand team that year.

2015 Ranked 7th nationally (open women’s).

2016 Ranked 2nd nationally (U17 girls).

2016 U16 and U18 Women’s Champion, and placed 3rd in Open Women’s, Dunedin.

2016 Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, Azores, Portugal (U16 girls, 3rd place. First Kiwi in 9 years to reach podium, best result in New Zealand team that year, helping New Zealand team to finish 10th overall.

2016 New Zealand Secondary Schools U18 Champion, Raglan Academy Competition.

2016 Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology Secondary School Sportswoman of the Year for Bay of Plenty.

JONAS

Surfing is my passion, and I’m completely committed to it. Elin and I are at Mount College during the week, but all weekend we are on the road or at home, surfing. We have done this for as far back as I can remember.

THE HOME FRONT

Meeting the locals at Allen’s Beach, Otago with Jordan Griffin
Meeting the locals at Allen’s Beach, Otago with Jordan Griffin

Having surfed all over our country, as well as many other places in the world, I’d say New Zealand is as good as it gets. Nowhere else will you score pumping waves with epic landscapes and backdrops like we do here. You can surf a volcanic crater at Muriwai, and see great whites and sea lions in Otago. You seem to feel much more immersed in nature and the ocean.

Although there are better and more consistent waves in other countries, it still cranks here when it needs to, especially on the east coast of the North Island. But of anywhere, I have the most fun at home, here in The Mount. Even when it’s two-foot mush. We grew up surfing at our local break – the coolest place with the best locals.

AIM HIGH

This year, I won all three Billabong competitions on the circuit here in New Zealand, which put me at number one in the national rankings for the U17 boys. That helped me get selected for the U18 boys’ team to compete at the Junior World Championships this year in the Azores.

Elin and I are pretty competitive with each other, but more than that, we support each other. At the Junior World Championships this year, I watched my sister smash her way into the final and get a bronze medal. I was so stoked for her! Supporting her from the beach, with all our teammates, as she competed with the best in the world was an amazing moment.

BUILDING RELATIONS

The cost of competing is really high. Elin and I recognise just how lucky we are to have two sets of parents who do so much to support our surfing financially. We have some fantastic sponsors too, many of whom have become friends, as we’ve spent so much time together on the circuit. Getting sponsored isn’t just about getting stickers on your board: it’s about working together to make sure both sides benefit. Surf companies do want to support young athletes, but they expect us to use and promote their products in a positive way.

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ACADEMIC SUCCESS

I really enjoy school. I think having a strong academic background is important, and have just finished year 13 at Mount College. I studied physics, calculus, biology and sport science, and am considering studying further at University of Otago.

My greatest achievement so far was recognition from one of the world’s greatest surfers. Around a thousand surfers, from all round the world, entered the ‘King of the Groms’ video competition last year, each submitting a video showcasing their surfing. Californian, Dane Reynolds, picked my video in the top 30. It has spurred me to work harder on my surfing.

Looking to the future, I’d definitely like to craft a career in surfing. I’d like to work with companies in the surf industry, and advertise and market for them. But that’s in the future. Right now, I’m concentrating on getting selected for the 2017 New Zealand team and the pro juniors in Australia next year.

2014 April:Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, Ecuador (U16 boys), 43rd place.

2014 U16 Boys’ Champion, Gisborne. 2015 Ranked 2nd nationally (U17 boys).

2015 Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, California (U16 boys), 47th place.

2015 Quiksilver King of the Groms World Top 30 U18 Boys’ finalist.

2015 New Zealand Piha Grom Series, (U17 boys), 3rd.

2016 Ranked 1st nationally (U17 boys).

2016 U20 Boys’ Champion, Hawkes Bay.

2016 Vissla ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, Azores, Portugal (U18 boys) 33rd, top performing New Zealand U18 boy.

2016 Champion Billabong U17 Boys Grom series, at Mount Maunganui, Whangamata and Piha.

2016 U18 Boys, Dunedin, 3rd

Each of the teenagers featured in this article is self-employed, earns money using their own skills, manages their own income, and in some cases, earn more than many adults.