In the lull that follows the winter big-wave season, Maui surfer Ian Walsh normally travels far and wide, fulfilling sponsor obligations and pursuing a variety of projects. But his world — and ours — has gotten much smaller in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His activities on hold due to government restrictions meant to curb the virus’ spread, Walsh has been sticking close to home in Haiku.
“I try to look at it as if the glass is half full, and this provides me an opportunity to spend more time with my family,” said the 5-foot-11, 165-pound athlete, who turns 37 on May 10. “So just being at home and getting into a routine, that’s something that can be challenging when you are constantly on the road.”
His new routine includes regular workouts at Deep Relief Peak Performance in Haiku and spending more time in the kitchen.
“I’ve been doing a lot more cooking. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but this has given me a chance to really dive into it.”
This time of year is also when Walsh’s Menehune Mayhem Foundation usually holds its signature event for youngsters 4 to 17 years old. He started the foundation when he was just 19, eventually registering it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2016.
The 17th Annual Ian Walsh Menehune Mayhem was scheduled for April 18 and 19 at Hookipa Beach Park before the new coronavirus tightened its grip on Hawaii, forcing organizers to postpone it. A new date has not been set.
An estimated 400 kids were expected to participate in the surfing competition as well as activities in art, music, dance, athletics and entertainment. Menehune Mayhem also recognizes surfers with awards for outstanding sportsmanship and environmental awareness, and grants four $2,500 scholarships to high school seniors who demonstrate academic excellence.
Walsh, who was reading applicant essays at home when interviewed by phone, said the foundation plans to announce the scholarship winners later this month.
No slouch himself when it came to academics, Walsh was a straight-A student from middle school on. (His mom, Kitty, was a longtime art teacher at Pukalani Elementary School, and his dad, Peter, was a truck driver for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.) He was class valedictorian when he graduated from King Kekaulike High School in 2001 — the same year he turned pro.
“I have an insurmountable amount of drive to learn new things, and I genuinely enjoy working, and that’s something that has definitely played a factor in my life,” Walsh said. “Every year, I want to be a better version of myself.”
Veteran board shaper Matt Kinoshita, Walsh’s first surfing coach, recalls that his outgoing personality, ambition and business savvy — even as a youth — made him destined for success.
“When I took Ian to competitions on Oahu, he would take the contest organizers doughnuts from Komoda Bakery. He was on another level from all the other kids when it came to professionalism and the way he understood how things worked,” Kinoshita said.
Walsh first took on Maui’s infamous Peahi break, popularly known as Jaws, at age 16. At 19 he was runner-up at the Billabong XXL Awards after riding a 68-foot monster at Peahi. It remains his favorite break to this day, and Walsh’s exploits there and at other notable surf spots earned him sponsorships from Red Bull and Patagonia, to name just a few.
But his first sponsor was Maui’s Hi-Tech ocean sports and skate shop.
“He was one of those kids who could balance school and surfing and excelled,” said Hi-Tech owner Kim Ball. “He was a special kid even from a young age and mature beyond his years. He was very appreciative of his sponsors — not just us, but anyone who would do anything for him. He would write a letter, and even up to the email stages, he was always very grateful. That’s rare.”
THE COVID-19 lockdown might be a welcome break for Walsh, considering the momentous events of the past year.
To start 2020, Walsh completed a “Big-Wave Trifecta,” surfing Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, Peahi on Maui and Northern California’s Mavericks during the same epic swell in January. He already has multiple entries for the 2020 WSL Big Wave Awards for electrifying rides at Peahi and Nazare, Portugal.
On land, last summer, Walsh conquered the 20,308-foot summit of Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. It was a feat he readily admits was “so far out of my comfort zone.”
“It was really eye-opening to see how much the human body can go through and kind of endure from the day-to-day grind — sleeping in a slim little tent on the ice or snow in negative-20-degree temperatures, which is the polar opposite of what we do here. That mountain is basically bigger than two Haleakalas.”
Other past achievements include capturing the 2017 WSL Pe‘ahi Challenge title and earning top honors for ride of the year and tube of the year at the 2018 WSL Big Wave Awards for his perfect 10 in the event. Walsh has also won competitions at the HIC Pro Sunset Beach (2015), the ASP Vans Triple Crown Pipeline Masters (2011), the Nixon Tavarua in Fiji (2010) and Xcel Pro Sunset Beach (2005).
His 21 movie credits include Red Bull Media House’s 2016 full-length documentary “Distance Between Dreams,” which featured Walsh and his brothers Luke, D.K. and Shaun. The film won a Surfer magazine award for best documentary. (Ian and Luke opened Paia Bowls, an acai cafe, in 2016 on Hana Highway in Paia town.)
Forced to the sidelines by the pandemic, Walsh is relying on his experiences and the perspective gained from an ocean-centered life to overcome any feelings of extreme restlessness. He said he prides himself on his adaptability in uncertain circumstances.
“This is a unique situation that everybody all over the world is in, so I try to look for the positives and it makes it a lot easier to deal with,” he said. “That’s something that surfing has taught me in a roundabout way. I’ve learned from the ocean that no matter how uncomfortable, how different or how much adversity you are going to go through, you have to try and stay positive and keep going toward it.
“In big surf it’s the only real way to get to the surface, because a lot of that battle is about what’s right in front of you and also what’s in your head.”