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Leading a Balanced Life

Surfer Knox credits meditation in aiding his confidence as he chases elusive world title at age 35

September 12, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Taylor Knox once charged down the face of a wave towering five stories high.

It was a brief but spectacular race between man and thunderous breaker, and when Knox survived the drop and veered to the right and out of harm's way, he had carved a niche in surfing lore.

The 52-foot peak at Mexico's Todos Santos Island was judged to be the largest wave conquered in 1998, earning the Carlsbad surfer $50,000 as winner of the inaugural K2 Big-Wave Challenge.

It remains the defining moment in Knox's career, and therein lies the irony, because the 13-year veteran on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' World Championship Tour is not a big-wave specialist. His defining moment, many had predicted, would occur on the elite contest circuit in the form of a world title. Now, time appears to be running out on a 35-year-old who competes largely against surfers in their 20s.

But it may be premature to count him out. Having discovered meditation, Knox claims to be sounder of body and mind than ever.

As the Boost Mobile Pro, a WCT event, begins a five-day run today at Lower Trestles in San Clemente, he ranks fifth in the world. A victory, at a right-handed point break that suits his explosive style, would propel him into the top three with four events remaining.

His previous best finish was fourth in 2001, a year after meeting Ron Rathbun, founder of the Kelee Spiritual Foundation in Oceanside.

Through methods taught by Rathbun, also a surfer, Knox has become far less obsessed with surfing, which he believes has made him looser and more confident.

"I'm not going to lie to you -- it's something I want," Knox said of the world championship. "But one of the things I've learned through all this introspection -- and it has relieved me of so much pressure -- is that surfing is something I do, but it's not who I am. It does not define me as a person."

Recently at tide's edge in Carlsbad, Knox was just another proud parent. Jordyn and Hunter, 7 and 9, were catching their first waves without Dad's assistance.

"Look at my daughter ride that wave; I've really got to get out there," he said, postponing an interview.

Knox was Hunter's age when he started surfing. His family moved from Thousand Oaks to Oxnard and he sulked because he loved the wilderness.

But once he discovered the sensation of getting tubed, or covered by hurling waves, he couldn't get enough.

"I was addicted to that feeling and was searching it out every day," he recalled.

When he was in the third grade, he told his parents he was going to become a pro surfer. When he was in the sixth grade, for an assignment, he printed what he wanted to be when he grew up: a pro surfer sponsored by Channel Islands surfboards; and if that didn't work out, a fireman.

"It's funny because that's the way things turned out," said Knox, who lists the surfboard company among many sponsors. "It's a pretty amazing letter. I forgot about it and my mother pulled it out recently and sent it to them, thinking maybe they could use it in an ad or something."

The move from Oxnard to Carlsbad -- Knox's father was in construction -- would prove a boon to Knox's career, but not until after his remarkable recovery from a back injury.

A section of vertebrae hadn't developed properly, and a skateboarding accident nearly paralyzed him. During emergency surgery, doctors put him in a body cast that immobilized him for six months.

"It was the hardest period of my life," Knox said. "I was 15 and my whole life was surfing. I didn't care about girls, partying -- any of that. It was all about surfing."

Knox, however, emerged from his plaster cocoon fully healed, albeit with nine pieces of metal in his back, and took to the water like a pelican dive-bombing sardines.

He became a leading member of the Carlsbad High surf team. He won the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. open men's division in 1988 and was a star of the 1990 World Amateur Championships in Japan.

"He was hands-down the most powerful, fluid surfer in the NSSA in his youth years and he carried that onto his pro career," recalled Janice Aragon, executive director of the NSSA.

Rising with new-age surfers such as Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, Pat O'Connell and Shane Beschen, Knox qualified for the WCT in 1993. "When he burst onto the scene in the mid-'80s, I picked him as a potential world champion, I was so impressed with his power," said Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew, a former world champion now presiding over the ASP.

But Knox had difficulty mastering the mental aspects associated with competing on so high a level.

He finished fifth and sixth in the world in 1995 and '96. But mistakes, especially during pressure-filled later rounds, were his trademark.

O'Connell, a 12-year WCT veteran who recently became a marketing manager at Hurley, said Knox seemed to dwell on those mistakes in the lineup "instead of thinking about what he has to do now to make it through his heat."

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