Indigenous surf legend Russ Molony is all-in on the next generation
© Grant Molony
Two-time Indigenous Surfing Title Champion and surf legend, Russ Molony, talks respect, surfing as a tool for bringing communities together, and the importance of championing the next generation.
When Russell Molony was at grade school, his nickname was ‘Midnight’. “When you’re a kid, you don’t really pick up on stuff like that,” Russ says, towards the end of a long phone conversation we’re having towards the tail end of October.
I’ve reached out to Russ to get his perspective on the recent history of Indigenous surfing in Australia, and to find out more about one of the pioneers who helped shape it.
At 43 years old, an ex-professional surfer and an active member of the surf community, Russ has taken huge paddles forward for Indigenous surfing throughout his career.
One moment in particular stands out: the 2013 ISA World Games in Panama. Russ had won the Australian Open at Port Macquarie in 2012, and the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach, which gave him the opportunity to represent Australia at the 2013 ISA World Games, which sees the best surfers from around the globe compete on the world stage.
Russ went to Panama and surfed, representing Australia and Australia’s Indigenous community as he did so, carrying both the Australian and the Aboriginal flag with him at all times. “A lot of people didn’t know what the flag was,” he says. “They didn’t know there was another flag in Australia. I carried my flag with me everywhere.”
He surfed through to the final heat and took home a silver medal. And when it came time to accept his medal on the world stage, he took his flag up there with him. “It was a big moment, getting up on this big stage with my flag, representing my people and showing everyone that this is who I am.”
We were always taught to respect our Elders, and that’s something we’ve grown up with. When I was competing on the WQS...people just paddled on top of each other. It wasn’t my cup of tea.
When I ask Russ what he wanted to show the world in that moment, he says, without hesitation: “I just wanted everyone to know that I was black and proud.”
What happened in Panama was important because, for a long time, being Indigenous wasn’t something Russ could be proud of – not publicly at least. “It was definitely different when I was competing,” he says, referencing his days competing in the World Qualifying Series (WQS), some 20-odd years ago.
“I wasn’t known as ‘the Indigenous guy’. It wasn’t something that people looked at… in a way it was hidden. Today, Indigenous surfing is definitely getting more exposure. People want to know about what we’re into and what’s happening. A lot of people didn’t ever know that Aboriginal people surf. A lot of people think we just play footy, but there’s a big Indigenous surfing community out there.”
As an example of how far things have moved along, Russ refers to his parents, and the lives they lived – often endured – in order to provide better lives and opportunities for their children. “My parents used to hide their Aboriginality,” he says. “It wasn’t accepted. They couldn’t go to some schools, they weren’t allowed in certain areas, they used separate toilets. I don’t think a lot of people understand what happened to our parents. Our parents all went through hell to get to this point, and my generation was a process of growing and more people accepting who we were.”
Russ is from the Guringai community, although he lives in the Darkinjung community, where he grew up. These communities are essentially separated by the Hawksbury River, and it’s not uncommon for people to have family members from both sides of the river. “My great grandmother probably had both Guringai and Darkinjung in her, but I’m still learning a lot because she was taken,” says Russ. “Sydney was one of the first to get broken up, and my great grandmother was taken to a cattle ranch inland. She ended up with an Irish cattle farmer, and that’s where I get my last name, Molony. A lot of last names got lost.”
Surfing became an outlet for Russ at a very young age. Hooked on the sport by the age of five, by 12, his parents allowed him to ride his bike from his family home in Berkeley Vale, NSW, to go surfing. The family lived a little way inland, and Russ and his brothers would ride roughly 40 minutes to get to the beach. "I think because we had to work to get there, we weren’t very picky," says Russ. "Whenever I’d get to the water I’d just go surfing, and I think I progressed a lot more because I was out in every condition.”
Soon after Russ started competing, he started winning. He began competing on the WQS in an effort to make the World Championship Tour, though he never quite got there. Looking back, though, he doesn’t seem too phased about the fact, in part because many of the competitions didn’t represent what surfing means to him. “Respect is a huge thing,” he says. “We were always taught to respect our Elders, and that’s something we’ve grown up with. When I was competing on the WQS it was a hassle comp. People just paddled on top of each other, and it wasn’t my cup of tea. Probably why I didn’t get on Tour, to be honest.”
Today, Russ remains active in the Indigenous surfing community, competing in the majority of competitions around the country. He is a two-time winner of the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach, and has taken home 12 wins at the Wandiyali Indigenous Classic in Newcastle.
There's so much talent out there, we’re doing everything we can to pass on the baton to younger kids. We want to show them that if you want a career in surfing you can make one. Give the kids something to strive for.
But for Russ, the events are about so much more than just winning. “Indigenous culture has a huge connection with the ocean,” says Russ. “All the way around the coastline, our people have been there since the beginning. And the sport today, our events that Juraki Surf put on at Fingal, and the Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells, they’re more about community and gathering. It’s not so much the competition.”
During the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach last year, a young girl approached Russ, curious about his last name and where his family came from. Neither of them had ever met before, but they soon realised they were cousins.
“That’s why getting together as a community at these events is so important,” says Russ. “You find relatives that got lost. You get to meet and catch up with family and friends. In the Aboriginal community everyone is connected, and it’s so amazing to catch up and realise that someone you surfed with is actually your relative.”
After a long hiatus, thanks to Russ and others like him, Indigenous surfing events have resurfaced over the past few years and are filled with up-and-coming talent and Elders alike.
From events run by Juraki Surf Culture up in Fingal, Northern New South Wales, down to the Surfing Victoria-run Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach, Victoria, Indigenous surfing events have become a cornerstone for many communities along the coast. They have turned into opportunities to gather, share stories and pass on knowledge; in many ways more like miniature cultural festivals than competitions.
“You’ve got your dance, your art, your storytelling… these are the stepping-stones for kids to become involved and feel supported, to go on and compete at a high level,” says Russ. “There is so much talent out there, we’re doing everything we can to pass on the baton to younger kids. We want to show them that if you want a career in surfing you can make one, just like any sport if you put your mind to it. Give the kids something to strive for.”
Russell, and many others like him, have used surfing as a platform to bring their communities together, to stand up and be proud of their heritage and their culture. To teach the youth that it’s important to be proud of who you are, passing on knowledge and history – whether you like the history or not.
“It’s important to know history, even the bad stuff,” says Russ. “Not many people want to get very deep because it’s not nice, it brings up a lot of bad memories, but it needs to be out there. Today, a lot of people are changing and to see so many people stand up to get us to where we are today, it’s a huge deal.”
Inspired by his brother Grant Molony, a renowned artist, Russ finds time between surfing and raising three kids to tell the stories of his culture and community through art. “It’s mainly about storytelling, showing people my upbringing, sharing my culture with the world,” says Russ. “And now more than ever, people are trying to understand what it all means. That’s the whole point of everything we do, to teach others so that we can understand and be accepted. Surfing and art, for me and for many of us, creates a platform for a voice.”