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THE OLD MAN OF THE SEA : Shaun Tomson Has Left His Homeland and Overcome One Fear of Surfing

June 26, 1985|ELLIOTT ALMOND | Times Staff Writer

The Calvin Klein image-makers like athletic types. They're into wavy, wind-swept hair, cut evenly. They're into dark-tinted, rectangular sunglasses. They're into bronzed, smooth skin. Simply, they're into hunkism.

Calvin himself spends countless hours searching for this personification of perfect. And he thought he found it in a picture of surfer Shaun Tomson. He just had to have him model Calvin Klein pants. Nothing was going to come between this man, this vision, and Calvin Klein.

Nothing.

It was pure happenstance, but Tomson will take it. He will take a big modeling job when offered one. For once, things were coming easy.

It hasn't always been that way. Tomson has fought enough demons to earn a place in the ethereal world.

He has overcome the death of his father, Earnest--his soul support--to stand on his own. He has overcome galeophobia, an abnormal fear of sharks, to become a professional surfer. And he has overcome the burden of being an ostracized South African athlete to become an international ambassador of sport.

Tomson is not just a voluptuous bod; he's one of the world's best surfers--some say the best there ever was. Though he has won the world pro title only once, in 1977, he has the most tour wins in surfing's decade of professionalism.

Though Tomson has appeared in Vogue and Gentleman's Quarterly, modeling is purely a sidelight. Where he truly shines is not in the flash of a Hasselblad studio camera; not in the hot glow of television lights (he has appeared on "The Today Show," "P.M. Magazine" and "The Merv Griffin Show") and not in the glare of a photojournalist's Nikon. For Shaun Tomson, illumination comes from the water.

He shares an affinity with the ocean as his father did. That's why, for the time being, he will put aside a potentially lucrative modeling career, a thriving sportswear manufacturing business and a chance to work as an actor to follow that endless summer. He will do this knowing full well that at 29 he is the old man of the sea, and that the surfing aficionados have little use for has-beens.

So far he has assuaged the aging process, but even his most staunch supporters see his reign as surf king ending.

"You can't defy mortality," said Michael Tomson, Shaun's cousin and longtime surfing compatriot. "I'd hate to see him get beat seriously, that he would overstay his welcome."

Tomson has no intention of being swept aside like the ex-champ who lives in the past. He will step down with dignity, in his time.

"I don't feel I've reached some sort of pinnacle that I've been aiming for," he said. "I love my occupation. I love surfing. Winning contests never was my goal. I'll surf for two more years and then retire."

Tomson's aquatic passion was built around his father, once a South African swimming champion.

Earnest Tomson, the son of a Russian Jew, a Tomonosky who had emigrated to South Africa in the early 1900s, had the pioneering spirit of his new-found countrymen. But that spirit dimmed in 1947 when, just off a Durban beach called the Bay of Plenty, he was attacked by a shark, and suffered severed ligaments in his right arm. His promising swimming career was over, the scars of shark's teeth leaving a painful reminder of what could have been.

Said Earnest's best friend, Peter Burness: "He lived his life very much through Shaun. He was very much a driving force in the surfing scene for South Africa."

Young Tomson, the eldest of two sons and a daughter, never let Earnest down. Tomson dedicated himself to the surf at the Bay of Plenty, no more than a 100 meters from their home.

Spider Murphy, Tomson's longtime Durban surfboard-maker, said: "Whenever the surf was up, Shaun's father would make him go out. He would cry before he'd go out there on big days, but his father would make him do it."

Added Michael Tomson: "When he was 12 or 13 his dad would really yell at him. Shaun would burst into tears on the beach."

Tomson claims his father never forced him into the water, that exaggeration runs rampant along the coast. "He was the sort of father that if I lost he would never yell at me," Tomson said. "He loved me to win, but didn't hate me to lose. I think, in a way, I've achieved what he really wanted for himself."

Shaun's younger brother, Paul, a fine surfer in his own right, often felt isolated because of the special bond between father and eldest son.

"My father and I didn't get along too well," he said. "Shaun was his main channel of energy. Shaun got his push in surfing from my dad. I got it from Shaun."

Tomson, who travels with framed pictures of Earnest that he puts on a nightstand at every hotel he visits, prefers talking about the memorable times with his father, a well-to-do owner of an auto repair service in Durban.

One of Shaun's favorite vignettes is the time Earnest presented him with a Bar Mitzvah present most surfers only dream about: a two-month surfing safari to Australia and Hawaii.

Shaun was 14 when he saw Hawaii for the first time. It left a lasting impression.

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