Saturday 20 January 2018

Champion surfer is an easy rider on crest of a wave

Champion surfer Ronan Oertzen came to Ireland with his parents who gave him an inflatable board for his 13th birthday... the rest is history

Life’s a beach: Ronan Oertzen. PHOTO: Marty Tohill
Life’s a beach: Ronan Oertzen. PHOTO: Marty Tohill

Alison O'Riordan

Ten years ago, Ronan Oertzen was given an inflatable surfboard by his parents for his 13th birthday and the pro surfer has been hooked on riding the waves ever since. "I saw an American comedy surf movie called 'Meet the Deedles' when I was 12 years of age which got me interested in the sport. When I got my present off my parents, I went straight down to the beach with a mate. We must have spent hours in the water, totally hooked from that moment and it's still as good as it ever was," says the Bundoran wave rider.

"It was definitely the best and most exciting birthday I've ever had. It's crazy how one little thing can change your life. My parents never would have thought it."

Born in Spain to a German father and Irish mother, the family moved to Belfast when Ronan was very young but they still spent a lot of time going back and forwards.

"We were only in Belfast when we had school and the rest of the time we spent in Spain because my parents had to work. The main reason why we moved to Ireland was because the education system was better, and family.

"The surname Oertzen is not the most common. As a friend once put, it I have the passion of a Spaniard, the humour of an Irish man and the efficiency of a German," laughs the 23-year-old.

Entering his first event after just six months on his buoyant and manoeuvrable board, Ronan came second in the under-14s Quiksilver Groms competition in Portrush, when he was asked to attend squad training for the Irish national team in 2004.

"I thought the guys would whip me in my first contest. I said I'd enter it for the experience but when I finished second it just blew me away. Since joining the Irish junior squad, every year since I've been getting better.

"Being asked to become part of the national squad at 14 years of age was unbelievable, especially when only having surfed for a year. At that time I didn't really have any understanding of the competitive world of surfing or any friends that surfed but as soon I joined the national squad and started going to training camps I got to know Ireland's best surfers and some of them are now my closest friends.

"At the start I was scared to talk to anybody, it was like being in a room with German Formula One Racing driver Sebastian Vettel or Ralf Schumacher, if you were a kid dreaming about becoming a Formula One driver.

"Outside of training, my parents were good enough to take me most weekends to the small seaside resort town of Portrush in Co Antrim or I would get the bus to Sligo or Bundoran and stay with friends. In Spain we were right on the beach so I was able to get in the water whenever I wanted," he explains.

Going to school in Belfast until he was 16, Ronan then decided to compete his final two years at Sligo Grammar School so that like all passionate surfers he could be closer to the water and surf the swells on beaches such as Tullan Strand and Strandhill.

Tullan Strand is considered Ireland's most consistent beach break, holding waves of up to six feet while the coastal village of Strandhill, is a renowned place to improve one's surfing skills.

"Sligo IT was only 15 minutes from Strandhill and half an hour from Bundoran," he says.

Ronan currently resides in the world-renowned surfing area of Bundoran in Co Donegal with world-class waves at his disposal.

"There are very few places on this Earth that have so many superb waves in a 2km radius, it really is an amazing place to be if you're a surfer but it's not perfect every day so if you are willing to wait it out you will not be disappointed," he says.

Coming ninth at the European Junior Surfing Championships in 2008 when he was 18, has been the surfer's best result to date at international level.

"My goal going into the contest was to be within the top 10 in Europe and I did that and it felt amazing," he adds.

After years of finishing second on the Irish National Tour, in 2012 he became Irish national champion.

"I finally cracked it, for me that was definitely one of the major highlights of my surfing career, I had worked so hard and had come so close so many times.

"The prizegiving was the worst as none of us knew who had won. I think I was sweating from the nerves as they called out the results," Ronan explains.

With an insane appetite for competing, Ronan likes to impress those people closest to him when he takes to the water.

"There are a lot of people out there that have helped me to get where I am now and who saw the potential from the beginning, so when I surf I want to give something back and to make those people proud. I love competing but I'm still learning how to do it," he says.

Professional surfer, Australian-born American Rob Machado, is his idol, known for his casual, laid-back style in and out of the water. His fluid surfing style has made him one of the best-known goofy-foot surfers in the world today.

"The first time I saw Rob surf I was mesmerised by his style, it is one of a kind. I try to copy this style by watching videos over and over, then go surfing and try to do it in the water," he says.

American professional surfer Kelly Slater, who is known for his competitive prowess and style, is another surf boarder that Ronan rates highly.

"Kelly Slater is an 11-time World Champion. At 41 years of age he is still competing and still winning events, he is a machine and one of the sport's greatest athletes," says Ronan.

With a desire to surf with such world-class sportsmen in the future, Ronan says, "Getting in the water with pros, enlightens me. Surfing with anyone who is better than you gives you the most memorable experiences every time."

Opposed to the stigma surfers sometimes receive, Ronan does his best to defend those in the sport who chase the waves.

"I didn't grow up in a surfing community where everybody surfs, so most of my friends don't. I hate the whole 'dude' thing and it's crazy that people think that all surfers have bleached blond hair and walk around in flip-flops," he explains.

It's not an expensive past-time, Ronan says, as he encourages others to take an interest in the surface water sport.

"The ocean is free and boards can vary from €100 to €2,000 or more.

"If you live in the tropics then all you need are your boardies but if it's a bit colder then you need to invest in a wetsuit which again can vary from €50 to €600. No membership fees here," he adds.

Competing on the Irish National Tour involves taking part in four to six events a year for more than 18 competitors and few more for the juniors. A surfer's best three results count for the national title.

The sallow-skinned diehard's surfing schedule has brought him to many exotic places such as the North Shore of Oahu, the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands; and the Australian High Performance Centre which is the world's first facility dedicated to helping all surfers reach a higher performance level so they enjoy the full experience of surfing.

"Too many places to mention really... Costa Rica, Africa, Hawaii. I have surfing to thank for being able to travel the world, otherwise I would never have seen any of these places. Hawaii was definitely one of my favourite places, it has so much energy and it's so intense and pretty dangerous too, I loved it. Surfing in warm water and swimming with turtles is definitely a bonus," says Ronan.

However, despite all the jet-setting, Ronan still believes the quality of the waves are better in Ireland.

"On a good day, it's as good as elsewhere in the world. It might be a bit colder but at least you don't have to fight a hundred other guys to get waves. It really is amazing plus there is such beautiful landscape and clear water," he adds. Getting a sports scholarship to Sligo IT, Ronan took a year out from studying Health Science and Physiology at third level.

"I found it wasn't exactly what I wanted to study but I don't regret doing it, I learned a lot and at that point I really wanted to concentrate on my surfing so I finished the year and went on to compete full-time instead," Ronan explains.

Now ranked as Ireland's number two surfer, Ronan spent last Christmas recovering from a dislocated collar bone – an injury which happened during a contest in France.

With no major scares to date in the water, he says: "You get used to everything pretty quick and after something happens it's never as bad the next time. You do see a few big fish sometimes and when you're somewhere where there are sharks, dark shadows in the water do make you a bit nervous, I'm not going to lie."

However, he maintains if one doesn't know what they are doing, it is a dangerous sport and one could very easily get into some serious trouble.

"We have all sorts of different waves, some that break in deep water some in very shallow, so don't do what I did and you won't break your shoulder.

"Injuries are common. I have a good friend who has broken both his feet, legs, dislocated shoulders but for the things he's done I think he's pretty lucky. When we were in Hawaii, every surf we had new cuts from bouncing off the reef. My mate nearly severed the whole tendon that lifts your big toe he had a nice big hole in his foot for a while.

"But if you're just going to the beach for the weekend and want to catch a few waves you're probably safer in the water then on your sofa watching television," Ronan explains.

Currently sponsored by Starboard for Stand Up Paddling (SUP), which is the world's leading natural watersports brand covering windsurfing, SUP, surf and fashion, he says: "It's great because this is another area I would like to focus on, such as long-distance paddling and wave stand-up paddle.

"I'm just trying to be open-minded with all the other ways there are to riding waves and with Starboard supporting me in that area I am very grateful."

Currently on the crest of a wave professionally, Ronan's ambition is to make the World Qualifying Series, a series of events which determine which surfers qualify for the ASP World Tour.

However, he has decided to take a well-earned break from contests for the rest of the year after a decade of competing.

"It's not because I don't love competing any more but I feel that if I take a year to focus on other things I will come back a lot stronger and more hungry to win," he adds.

* Ronan Oertzen is represented by Fraser Models and Actors www.frasermodelsandactors.ie

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