Russell Bierke is the hellman’s hellman. At only 20 years of age, he’s widely acknowledged to be one of the hardest charging surfers alive, yet he does it with such a humble nonchalance and makes it look so easy that it’s easy to consider him a bit of an underground commodity.
The reality is that Russell is one of the best slab paddlers alive, and fearless in the XXL range too—the kind of guy who is more comfortable at maxing Shipstern's than he would ever be surfing a chest-high wave in a pool in Lemoore.
Last month, the Big Wave Awards acknowledged Russell’s talent and drive by giving him a top 10 Overall Performance nomination, which also happened to result in a wildcard spot on the 2019 Big Wave Tour. With the seasons currently shifting and the global forecasts taking a bit of a snooze, we took advantage of the lull to catch up with Bierke and chat with him about his new career as a competitive big wave surfer.
Congratulations on qualifying for the 2019 Big Wave Tour. Is this something you have been consciously working towards?
Thanks! Qualifying has been a big goal of mine for a long time now. I was trying to chase swells in the northern hemisphere a lot more this year, as it seems like that’s what you need to do to be noticed, and I guess it paid off.
Pretty much everyone knows how hard you charge, but most people probably envision slabs when they think of your surfing, rather than big bombies. Was it a bit of a surprise to get a nomination in the Overall Performance category, and to qualify for the tour?
I guess I get a lot more coverage in slabs down in Australia, as we don't have many traditional big wave spots. When I first started to get out in bigger waves, I was tagging along with my dad.
We'd always be surfing big bombies on guns, and I first started surfing the outer reefs in Hawaii when I was 13, so I've always been comfortable in big, open-ocean waves. I think that's helped me transition to waves found more in the northern hemisphere.
If there were more swells, I would've been on those too
I had a good session at Jaws, and then Mavs, and considering it was a slow year, I was hoping it would be enough to be nominated for Overall Performer. If there were more swells, I would've been on those too.
Australia doesn't seem to have much representation on the Big Wave Tour. Do you think that is because the big wave spots there tend to be kept sort of underground, or because Oz has so many tow slabs, or something else?
There's only a couple legitimate traditional big waves in Australia, and they're kept pretty underground, so you need to travel a lot to be noticed. I could list so many Aussies that would kill it on the tour, but they just don't have the backing to chase every swell to the other side of the world. Jamie Mitchell is the only Australian who's consistently been on the tour and he's had to move to Hawaii to do that.
I think paddling slabs could be a new frontier in the future (Teahupoo, Shipstern's, Mullaghmore, etc.). Not long ago, Peahi was seen to be a tow wave, and now nearly the only places left to tow are giant Nazare and some slabs. If that does happen, then it's safe to say there'll be a lot more Aussies on the world stage in big waves.
I saw some footage of you at Peahi this past season, but there doesn't seem to be much floating around of you at Mavs or Nazare. Have you surfed those breaks before? Do you have any specific training/preparation plans for the venues on tour?
Right after the Peahi swell I followed it to Mavs. I had been keen to surf it for years, but it never came together, so I was stoked to check it out for my first time. We had a fun, glassy day, then a huge windy day later in the week.
It was great to see some different moods, and I loved the way it ledges up on the reef. It reminds me of a lot of waves at home. I haven't made it to Nazare yet, so I'm planning to post up there at the start of the season to get my head around it. Although it doesn't seem as good quality-wise compared to some other spots, it has to be the most consistent big wave in the world.
The Big Wave Tour is going to be all northern hemisphere in 2019, which sort of works out well for you, eh? You can do all the events, and not really miss any bomb swells back home.
It will be great to have all winter here to test my equipment and get prepared for the tour season in the northern hemi. I am pretty bummed to see Puerto is off the tour this year, but it's great Mavs has now been included.
There was a solid swell for WA a few weeks back, during the Margaret River event. Has there been anything else yet this season that has caught your eye in Australia, or are things just now starting to heat up?
Unfortunately I was over in the US for the Big Wave Awards when that swell hit WA, so I ended up missing it.
It showed up bigger and better than forecast, so hopefully it's a sign of things to come. Overall the season seems to be off to a slow start, although I did get what was probably the wave of my life paddling Shipstern's just over a month ago.
Can you talk about the accident you had last year? Did that experience affect your approach at all? Did it take awhile to get your mental game back, or were you straight back out into it?
The accident I had last year was so unexpected. It was a solid swell, but nothing gigantic, and I was riding a smaller wave in when I pulled in and my board knocked me out. It was a heavy situation, but in all reality I could've pulled into a 3ft wave and had the same thing happen.
So I've just taken it as a freak accident. It has changed my approach for sure
So I've just taken it as a freak accident. It has changed my approach for sure, though—I've learnt to pick my battles for when they really count, and I'm a lot more switched on now when it comes to safety. If the local guys didn't have a ski out that day, the situation could've been a lot different.
The recovery was thankfully super quick, and a few weeks later I surfed a solid swell that helped get rid of any doubts quickly.
We have six months before the 2019 Big Wave Tour season starts. What do you have planned for the southern hemisphere winter? Has qualifying affected your plans for the next six months at all?
I'm in a good spot to strike mission wherever is looking best, so I haven't locked in any plans at the moment.
A stint in Puerto is super high up the hit list—I've been super keen to get there, and can hopefully pull it off this year. Other than chasing swells, I'm going to make sure I'm in the best health possible with the best equipment I can have leading into the Big Wave Tour season.
Right on, well we are looking forward to seeing you in a jersey. Good luck!
Cover shot Russ at Mullaghmore by Tim Borrow