Maui native Ian Walsh has been tackling massive waves around the world since he was a teenager and his longevity and experience in the water shines through, whether he's in an elite contest, performing for the cameras, or purely riding for himself. He's one of the most passionate and dedicated big-wave surfers, and he's willing to go to the ends of the earth to find the perfect wave.
From about the time he could walk, Walsh was in the ocean. Growing up in Maui, he's been surfing for as long as he can remember. And by the time he was a teen, he started to seek out bigger and bigger waves.
"From a very early age being in Maui, there are so many big swells and big days that kind of naturally made me part of the environment," he says. "Starting from my early teens, I got interested in seeing what those big waves looked like from the ocean."
Walsh first surfed the legendary Jaws when he was just 16. When he graduated as valedictorian from his high school, he could have had his pick of colleges, but instead he chose surfing. "I had a few options to do the whole college thing, but my parents were very supportive of me taking a swing at surfing," he says. "Surfing was always at the forefront for me. That was my number one goal and I put everything into it."
While recovering from an injury after high school, Ian studied meteorology for a few months, learning the science behind the ocean's waves to help make him better informed when it came to studying the weather, and predicting where and when the ideal waves would strike.
The studying paid off: At age 19, he was runner up at the Billabong XXL Awards after riding a 68 foot beast at Jaws, and numerous other nominations followed. But for Walsh, none of that mattered. He was always chasing waves for himself, and nothing else.
"It's awesome to be acknowledged for what we do, but that has nothing to do with the mindset of a big-wave surfer," he says.
Walsh competed in surf contests for years and excelled at many of them. But contests never left him feeling fulfilled.
"Contests were my main priority for a few years, mixed in with movies, photo shoots, and chasing big waves," he says. "But soon, contests were taking up my entire year, and when you have a schedule that locks you in for 10 months out of the year, you don't have the flexibility to just take off to chase swells."
So he switched his focus and became mainly a freesurfer whose job was to find the most epic waves, and get there when the timing was just right, capturing his exploits in film and photos.
"Our sport has progressed a lot," Walsh says. "I'm into exploring and trying to find new locations to see where the swell goes."
He's ridden everything from Jaws at its most rugged to a maxed-out Teahupo'o in Tahiti, to an enormous swell off the coast of West Africa. The thing that drives his journey to the next big wave? It's pyschological and it runs deep within him.
"The reason I surf big waves is because I feel like I'm using every skill and every experience I've had in the ocean, both good and bad, and I'm condensing that into this one brief moment," Walsh says. "It's the pinnacle of what I can do in the ocean. I'm using everything I've learned from a lifetime of being in the ocean and I'm boiling it down to those few seconds before you get into a big wave."
In 2014, Walsh showed up at the one of the largest days at Jaws he'd seen in years. He was there to surf, naturally, but also to film a shot for the remake of Point Break, the legendary 1991 surf movie that he, of course, watched as a youth.
"Luckily, they timed it right and we had the biggest swell I've seen in the last five years," he says. "It was cool to see a project on that scale and to see how logistically everything works."
When he's not filming for Hollywood movies or traveling the world to exotic beach locations, Walsh hasn't forgotten his roots. In 2003, he launched the Ian Walsh Menehune Mayhem Surf Event, a youth surf contest that honors the up-and-coming surf talent in Maui, as well as their academic achievements. The event has continued for over a decade and in addition to awarding top surfing, it also honors athletes with the highest grade point averages.
"Menehune Mayhem is probably my biggest accomplishment," he says.