Entering his debut contest as a surfer on the 2017 World Surf League Men’s Championship Tour, Ezekiel “Zeke” Lau knew it wouldn’t be easy. By round two of the Quiksilver Pro at Snapper Rocks on Australia’s Gold Coast, the 23-year-old had drawn some tough competition: Filipe Toledo, a Brazilian surfer and a former world title contender with four seasons on tour under his belt.
“It’s my first event, and I’m just getting used to how everything is going with the energy and vibe of the whole place. It’s pretty intense,” Lau told NBC News. “I didn’t get a warm-up surf, so I was a little jittery.”
But the Hawaii native managed to calm his nerves enough to best Toledo in the heat and advance to round three, where he lost to South African Jordy Smith, another tour vet, by only 0.3 of a point — and not before delivering a perfect 10-point wave.
Lau is currently ranked 22 out of 36 surfers on the tour. His prowess in the water is in stark contrast to his first competition experience at age 4, when Lau, screaming and crying at the sight of the “big” waves coming at him, was pushed into them by his father. Years later, the two would later see his face on a poster at a local surf shop.
“I thought it was just crazy, like ‘That’s me.’ And my dad was like, ‘See, you were crying and now you’re on a poster,’” Lau said.
It’s been a long road to the championship tour for Lau, who identifies as Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and white. The Honolulu-based athlete joined the league’s Qualifying Series (or second-tier league) in 2011 and had been on the cusp of joining the championship tour for the past three years.
But uneven competition results and injuries plagued Lau. By the end of 2014, the possibility of ever joining the world’s top watermen seemed further than ever when he was dropped by all of his sponsors, including one that had been by behind him since age 9, Volcom.
“I had no stickers on my board,” Lau said, referring to the decals that usually cover surfers’ equipment. “I basically poured all the money I had made previously, and I put everything on the table. I said, ‘If this is what I love, if this is what I wanna do, I gotta commit everything and can’t shy away from anything. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.’”
But despite earning back sponsors and a solid 2015-2016 season, Lau’s dream of joining the tour still just seemed out of the reach at the end of last year by the tour’s final event, the Billabong Pipe Masters at Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore.
Lau had come up short at the previous contest at Sunset Beach, California, putting him in 11th place on the qualifying series; in order to join the tour, he would have to crack the top 10.
But friend and Quiksilver teammate Kanoa Igarashi broke through with a solid second-place finish at Pipe, securing his spot on the 2017 championship tour — and pushing Lau through to join.
“I almost felt like I was gonna cry, but there were too many cameras on me,” Lau said with a laugh.
The serendipity of those events have since become something of a running joke between the two as they crisscross the globe together, like recently when Lau was reluctant to share a WiFi password with Igarashi for fear that it would slow down their Internet access.
“Someone said, ‘He gets you on tour, now you don’t want to give him the WiFi? I was like, ‘Come on, that was last year. It’s a new year.’ We just joke around and laugh about it,” he said.
Lau says he wears Hawaii on his sleeve, both in the form of a flag on his jersey and on his body with the Polynesian tribal tattoos that adorn his left arm. He also has one of King Kamehameha, Hawaii’s celebrated former ruler, and another of Duke Kahanamoku, the Native Hawaiian surfer and Olympic gold medal winner credited with sharing the sport with the world.
“I definitely have a lot of pride in being Hawaiian and being a Hawaiian-blooded surfer. I’m really grateful and proud to represent where I’m from and my culture,” he said.
Born in Hawaii to Daina, a dorm supervisor, and Leonard, an educator, Lau attended the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, which emphasize providing educational opportunities for students of Hawaiian ancestry. He grew up playing a variety of “land sports” (soccer, baseball) before settling on surfing, which he first picked up as a hobby. Both of his parents were college athletes and instilled in Lau the necessary grit to weather the inevitable injuries and pain of being an elite athlete.
For Lau, the pain has been all too real. At age 13, he landed in the hospital for three months for a staph infection in his calf that almost resulted in the amputation of his leg. In another dramatic injury, at age 15, he fractured his vertebrae before winning his first national title but wasn’t diagnosed until after the contest; Lau ended up in a back brace for 4 months that he could only take off to shower.
“After those things, it really made me want to look into my body and make sure I’m taking care of it,” Lau said. That extends to his mental game as well, since surfing is as much a mental sport as it is a physical. “You lose a lot. It’s just something you have to get used to.”
To help mitigate the chance of that happening, though, Lau spent this last year surfing in as many different waves as possible, in both good and bad conditions, something that may help him as he makes his way through the 11-stop tour.
“This is the thing with Zeke — he doesn’t have a weakness,” Lau’s coach Jake Paterson, a former professional surfer, told NBC News. “He surfs really good in small waves, he surfs really good in big waves, in hollow waves. He’s really good in the airs. The only weakness — it’s his confidence.”
In a contest that has, in recent years, been dominated by Brazilians and Australians, it would appear that the tide is finally turning in favor of surfers from the birthplace of the sport: Last year’s champion, John John Florence, hails from Oahu.
Lau hasn’t been shy about gunning for a world title. He is aware of how hard a climb that will be, though, especially as he continues to draw tough competitors in heats. Lau was knocked out of the tour’s most recent competition, the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, by number-two-seed Australian surfer Owen Wright.
“His first year is so hard. He’s been tipped to be making the tour forever, and he’s put so much work and time effort into it all. He’s heard a million people saying this is where you belong so the pressure’s built up on him,” said Paterson.
But the Hawaiian is taking it one stop and one wave at a time.
“Surfing is pretty much our gift to the world,” he said, “and I’m just happy to be the one that’s able to share it with everyone.”