Hawaii goes international
From Mike Latronic's adolescent angst as a journalism student at Waialua High School, to his run as an aspiring pro surfer, to his current gig as Hawaiian surf media mogul, the man's been around. His latest endeavor consists of helping Hawaii's national team, for lack of a better term, achieve international success. In June he helped manage the junior squad to ISA gold in Panama, and now he's in Nicaragua with the masters team, where he hopes to keep the momentum going at the ISA World Masters Championships. ESPN Surfing sat down with him to see why the islands have been such a force recently, and true to form, he had something to say.
How did Team Hawaii come together for this?
Well, it was a little bit of a push/pull kind of thing. Obviously there was a lot of momentum after the Hawaiian junior team won gold in Panama, and that was pretty powerful. I was kind of hoping to carry that momentum into this. At first I almost bailed on it because we couldn't find sponsorship and we didn't have as much time to get everything together as I thought. Last year's Masters event was in October, and having the job of finding sponsors and managing the logistics, I figured okay, when I get back from Panama in early June I can start to get everything together. Then boom, it's in July. At first Sunny [Garcia] couldn't come because he had plans to be in Jeffreys Bay, and Pancho [Sullivan] had other plans. We had people just frothing to come, but schedules were fighting us. The Hawaii pride was running high, but in the end logistically and financially we were running dry. It wasn't until Sunny called me up and said, "Hey, my plans changed, lets do this," that I re-rallied the effort.
A lot of good momentum coming out of Hawaii right now, what's in the water?
Two pounds of sugar and three scoops of honey, you know, I don't know, man. Geographically Hawaii's in a great spot. It's like a mini Australia kind of. You have this island surrounded by water, lots of people surf, and the competition is high. Everybody's constantly pushing each other, and I think on a spiritual or historic plane, Hawaii is often touted as bringing surfing to the world. You know, Duke Kahanamoku was the ambassador of surfing, and I think in our own way that's kind of what we're doing here. More than anything we have to be ambassadors of where we all come from. It's a lot of logistics: constant wind, constant swell, kids constantly pushing each other.
Getting noticed outside of Hawaii has sometimes been a challenge for kids from the islands; do you think that's changing?
I don't think so. I think that's another exponent of logistics. The bottom line is that there's a lot of talent in Hawaii, just like there is in Australia or California, but the market in Hawaii is so much smaller than most markets, so when you get companies that are looking to sponsor kids, the bottom line is that it won't be more than California or Australia because the return on their investment isn't there. The number of hot young kids you can sponsor from any territory is probably some kind of cost/reward ratio or formula. Where Hawaii will do a few million dollars a year in business for any given company, somewhere say like Florida can do that in one season or something.
Coming from Hawaii, representing the birthplace of surfing, how does it make the Hawaiian team feel to come to something like this and see how truly global the sport has reached?
I can tell you, I've been lucky enough to come to these event since France maybe eight years ago, and it's pretty notable that Fernando [Aguerre] has done a fantastic job of involving and fabricating a surf culture, or expanding the surf culture in these Central and South American countries ... which was bound to happen eventually. I mean, look at the number of phenomenal number of surf breaks from the border of Mexico to the tip of Chile. There's so much coastline and so many opportunities to enjoy the ocean, yet these smaller countries, it's only been in the last decade that the younger people have started to get into the sport and embrace it. Just look at how advanced the junior divisions are, and how far this next generation has come in a relatively short period of time. I think that Fernando and the ISA have really opened the door to an explosion of surf culture and progressive surfing to a giant population of potential surfers. And the result is that these people are getting into it. The governments are getting behind it, and giving these kids surfboards and the ocean to play in. It certainly kicks the crap out of any armed rebellion or drug trafficking. It's a pretty simple life down here. It's a beautiful life. They say Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the world, but honestly, these people have so much food and beauty and it seems so peaceful. It's hard to imagine that a decade ago you couldn't walk outside at night.
And your magazine in Hawaii, Free Surf, lets talk surf media for a minute.
I started the magazine right after 9/11, probably the worst time to start a surf magazine. But I didn't do it for money or accolades; I did it because I felt Hawaii truly deserved a media source that was an honest representation of the sport.
What about the changes in technology and how social media's effecting things?
If you don't have an app you're nobody. And everybody that has a GoPro now is a producer. It's almost like the space suit was invented. We used to roam around on planet earth, and now you can go anywhere in the galaxy. And now you don't know who's talking to whom. It's like a swarm. You think you're killing it because you got 5,000 likes on your video, then all of a sudden some kid in Florida videos a tow-at and gets 20,000 likes and it's like, wow. You know? But I think there's something to be said for sitting down at home on the couch and looking at a good magazine. I don't think that's going to go away.
Lets wrap it up, what do we have to look forward to in Hawaii this winter?
I've got a couple of things up my sleeve. There's a lot of amazing dark horse talent in Hawaii in waves of consequence, and every year those guys reveal themselves. I call it the gladiator pit. Every year the ASP's top 34 or whatever come to Hawaii, and those guys are the best surfers in the world, but you have so many different diverse aspects of surfing that are interesting, and I don't think there's anything more interesting than plopping down and watching Backdoor roll at six to ten feet and seeing who the gladiator of the day is. That still, I don't know, I think for surfers watching waves like that is the ultimate. I think as surfers we're hardwired to want to watch waves of consequence, be it for the blood sport or the thrill of victory or the high-five claims. It doesn't matter how many times you've seen it. You want to see it more, and I think in a way it keeps you young.
Finally, who's the next Hawaiian world champ?
Well, it's looking like John John Florence, if you ask me.
He's getting so much media play around the world right now, but what's the buzz about him back home?
I don't know anybody that doesn't like John John, how could you not? He's humble. He's incredibly skilled in any surf. The kid's more comfortable at 12-foot Pipeline than most people that have surfed it for 30 years. And in two-foot surf he can do all the airs and stuff. Hats off to him. He's the full package. But there's something that we should make clear. There's a difference when you're talking about who the next Hawaiian world champion is and who the next world champion from Hawaii is. Hawaii's a culture, they're a proud culture, they're an intelligent culture, and yes, they are a culture. It's not like they're a Californian or a Floridian. Just like Chinese or Philippians or English, they're their own culture. So I have to say, John John looks to be the next surfer from Hawaii to be a champion, but that's different than being the next Hawaiian champion. Zeke Lau, Keanu Asing are ringing bells, and there are a few others. I'm sure Zeke's hungry to catch up to John John, and we'll see how that plays out in the next couple of years.