Teenager Joe Keogh born to ride waves
At just 13 years old, Hong Kong's Joe Keogh is taking the surfing world by storm with his daring routines and passion for the sport
It's a miserable day in Shek O, where even curious village dogs curl into balls for warmth and diehard locals shun the frigid beach. But not Joe Keogh. Relishing the chance to surf before pulling on his school clothes, he sprints to the water's edge and launches himself. The once shy teen is instantly transformed into its master, carving waves out of shapeless slush until his fingers turn blue.
Watching on shore, his father, Tim Keogh, looks bemused. "It's amazing how good he's become surfing here, given the conditions," he says. "Hardly anyone surfs here."
But with a growing community of surfers in the region, it's only a matter of time before Hong Kong produces a world-class surfer, say the experts, and Joe looks to be the city's surest bet yet. The prodigy ousted an Australian 20 years older to win a competition two weeks ago, earning a wild card to compete against top professionals in Hainan next month. The best part? He's only 13.
Young surfers in top competitions are not unusual, but Joe hailing from Hong Kong has stunned the international surfing community. "This is the first time someone so young from Hong Kong or China has shown such a high level of skill," says Dane Jordan, general manager of the Association of Surfing Professionals for Australasia.
Joe pulled off an impressive series of tricks to secure top spot in the men's and boys' division at the Reef Hong Kong Surf Cup two weeks ago, making him the competition's youngest winner. His double victory followed a win in the under-16 division and a runner-up finish in the men's competition at the 2012 Skullcandy Surfing Hainan Open in early November.
He will represent Hong Kong and China against some of the world's best surfers at next month's International Surfing Association's Hainan Wanning Riyue Bay International Surfing Festival.
How can a 13-year-old be so good and learn all the skills, especially in Hong Kong? YouTube, of course. "I learn a lot of my tricks from watching YouTube," says Joe. "Before my surf sessions, I watch my favourite surfers and then I go out and try to do their moves."
Credit also goes to his local surfing gang from Shek O, where he lives. The oldest is 16 and the youngest 12; together the friendly rivals are the best surfers in Hong Kong. During winter, they wake as early as 5.30am to catch waves before heading to school. During summer, they wait patiently for typhoons to bring the big swells.
But living and surfing in Hong Kong may be holding these young guns back, says Jordan. "They don't have access to top-level conditions on a regular basis or the chance to watch top-level surfers regularly."
The talent of these young surfers and their results suggest otherwise. "I think he surfs probably more than a lot of other kids, especially living only a few steps from the beach," says Joe's father.
Hong Kong's inconsistent conditions make for a better surfer, adds Ken Choi, a long-time Hong Kong surfer, founder of X-Game and one of Keogh's sponsors.
"If you surf well in Hong Kong, you can easily surf other waters in the world, because the wave shape is better elsewhere," he says.
When the conditions are not ideal, Joe practises tricks on his skateboard. He also travels overseas to gain experience in competitions in Thailand, Malaysia and Australia. Each year, he spends a month in Phuket, where he surfs with the locals and works on his other passion - Muay Thai boxing.
Keeping his cool under pressure is what sets the teenager apart from his seniors, says sponsor Adam Healy from Ark Surfboards. "What impresses me most about Joe is his maturity. I have seen a lot of athletes fail in this area, because their nerves overcome them.
"Joe is very disciplined. He is never happy with his last performance and he pushes himself to improve every day."
His father agrees, also noting his natural strength. "He's a good paddler and he reads the waves well, much better than he used to before," he says. Catching his first wave at only three years of age - still in floaties - may also have something to do with it, he adds.
Choi believes it is his enthusiasm and lust for the sport that helps him outshine his peers. "He's born to ride," he says. "Some will surf a long time and never get to his level."
If you ask the shy teenager, he's unsure. He humbly credits his growing board collection. And, perhaps, his versatility developed as a skater. Without doubt, it's also his love for the waves - no matter the conditions - which propels him.
Despite already representing Hong Kong in rugby and being a competitive swimmer (he finished first in the under-21 division in the 2.2-kilometre Shek O challenge in July), he says his real passion is surfing.
He's only been known to cry when he snapped a new surfboard the day he got it. Not even 10 stitches in his forehead at nine years old was enough to draw a tear. He has an unnatural tolerance for fear that has seen him surf waves almost three times his height off remote islands in Thailand. It's the same daring nature which led him to abseil off the roof at only four years of age.
While Joe shows promise, heading to Hainan is ultimately about gaining world-class competitive experience and having the opportunity to watch and learn from the best.
"However, we expect to see Joe potentially competing with the best over the next couple of years," says Jordan. "If he continues down this path then it is highly likely he could be the first top-level Chinese/Hong Kong surfer."
"It's up to Joe. He's got to keep improving," says his father, who's suggested a training regime of long runs, push-ups and sit-ups to prepare for Hainan. The cool youngster shrugs it off. "I'm just going to surf," he says.
His casual attitude should not be confused for indifference, however, and he assures he's hungry for a career in surfing. "I'd like to get a world title when I'm older," he says. "And it would be cool to get a sponsor and maybe go on tour."
But for now, the competitive teen is focusing on making the most of the experience next month, while still enjoying himself. "I think I could make it, hopefully, to the semi-finals," he says. "I like being in the water. It feels nice beating other people and having fun with your friends."