Hometown hero Cam Richards is making waves in pro surfing’s world stage
Pro surfer Cam Richards, born and raised in Garden City Beach, is slaying the sport right now in competitions around the world. He’s currently ranked 4th in the North American Qualifying Series and 5th in the World Surf League.
He credits his career success to a little bit of luck, a lot of hard work, and a consistent, true love for the sport. But there’s more lurking under the surface to stand out from the rest in the surfing world, of course.
“I’ve realized more during COVID and everything how super lucky I am to be able to do this,” says Richards. “And I might as well just have as much fun as I can. That’s the one thing I felt like I’ve taken away from this year and I’ve actually done very well so far, which is nice. When you get to step back and look at everything from the other side, you realize how our sport is so subjective and so luck-based, so why do we really get too mad? Because there’s not much in your control.”
He’s chatting with me on the phone from his hotel room in Barbados, where he’s competing in a qualifying event–the last of the season. Next season’s circuit of events kicks off in May. Richards, 26, may be a long way from his hometown, but as long as he’s on a board skimming across the water along a coast somewhere in the world, he’s always been at home.
His dad, Kelly Richards, owner of Village Surf Shoppe on Garden City’s Atlantic Avenue since 1969, fell in love with surfing when he moved here from landlocked Arkansas. He then passed his passion onto his sons, Cam and Cole, Cam’s older brother by four years.
“He was never one of those dads that was pushing us to surf, but he was more than happy to take us down to the beach and do it,” laughs Richards. “There are photos of me with little swimmies on in case I fell, so I was super young. And then I began competing in some events around age 10 at home and I was doing well.”
Young Richards tried mainstream sports, like little league baseball, but it never stuck like surfing and skateboarding did. Instead, he signed his first surfing contract and turned pro by the time he was 11. He was climbing the ranks on the East Coast leaderboard… until he competed in California with his brother for the first time.
“We just got absolutely smoked by people because we had no idea how good everybody was,” laughs Richards. “I mean, we’re on the East Coast, thinking we’re all good, winning everything, and thinking we’re hot shit. But we just went out there and got absolutely waxed, so it was a rude awakening.
“When I was younger, I was very stubborn and I didn’t want to listen to my brother or dad between heats,” he continues. “When things would go my way, I would just rub it in their face and, when they didn’t, I would just be a super bad sport. ... I was pretty cocky, but when I went out to California, I got a reality check, which was great. Because seeing old photos and videos of me when I was younger was pretty cringy.”
Richards answered his humbling moment with a comeback story that included making more and more heats and culminated into winning the open men’s national title at age 15–the highest amateur event at the time. The next natural step was moving up into the junior professional world league, which sent him to compete along the coasts of just about every continent. He says that he wasn’t dominating the pack at this point, but he always placed in the finals. By 19, he slowly made his way over to the Hawaiian surf scene, but he hit a plateau.
“The competition began to get harder and I wasn’t doing too well, so it was firing me up and getting me frustrated,” says Richards. “That’s when I fell in love with surfing bigger waves–not the biggest waves–and a wave called pipeline.”
Before that, Richards would have to battle the well-known pecking order of native Hawaiian surfers that demanded the ultimate respect from non-locals before catching a wave. And he finally did at a prestigious Pipe qualifying series when he was 21.
“In my first heat ever, I got a perfect 10 and then a near-perfect 10, like a 9.9 or something. That was my first time ever competing out there and my first time ever really getting waves out there because there was no crowd,” says Richards. “I ended up making the finals of that event and that’s when I went from being known as a little scrum East Coast pro surfer to a world pro surfer. Because if you can do well out there, it shows that you’re comfortable with big waves, like a proving ground. … I always wanted something more and that built my respect out there.”
Cam Richards, who grew up surfing some of the smallest waves on the planet, soon became a bicoastal name and one known worldwide for consistently maxing out the big waves, like those along Oahu’s pipeline, as well as proving his agility and light feet to catch big airs.
His next transition? Slipping into a sweet spot as both a free surfer and competitive surfer. As a free surfer, Richards, sponsored by Vissla, a southern California-based apparel brand, basically gets paid a salary to wear their clothing year-round, plus at surfing photo shoots that pop up about four times a year.
“A lot of times, people are sponsored not necessarily for looks, but how well they can market or represent something,” says a modest Richards. “And if it looks cool on them, hopefully, it can translate to other people. I’m lucky enough that I’m able to do that and they also support me surfing competitively. My sponsors have always put me in every catalog … You pretty much follow any storm you see, or any good waves, and you book your flight the night before and you go to these places wherever you think the waves are going to be best and you get filmed for videos on social media and YouTube.”
One standout free surfing ride of his life, he says, was caught on one of his dad’s Perfection surfboards that he had shaped for Richards’ 19th birthday.
“It took over the whole surf world for a few weeks,” he says, “That was kind of the highlight of my career so far for sure. Mostly because it was on my dad’s surfboard.”
Other standout rides on the competitive side of his career–both the good and the ugly–from this year include one at a contest in Morro Bay, California, where, with seconds left in his heat, a wave came out of nowhere where no waves were breaking all day and he placed second. Another one–an aerial/trick competition in Jacksonville, Florida, that had a jet ski on the line for the winner–didn’t go his way.
“I did one of the better airs I’ve ever done and everyone was like, ‘You won it, no doubt,’ but the kid that was already in first was a local from the area,” says Richards. “The scores came in and mine was just short. That’s just the name of the sport we signed up for and we have to learn to live with it. Surfing isn’t all palm trees and blue water, I’ll be completely honest. It’s a tough world, it really is. But we’re super lucky to have this job.”
To put things into perspective, competitive surfers, no matter their skill set, are at the mercy of Mother Nature and the judges that appear on that day. And that day in that one place in the entire world could either be producing one-foot waves in windy conditions or it could be the perfect storm, so to speak. Heats are 20 to 25 minutes each; you surf against three other people, and the top two people advance to the next round based on their top-two scored waves.
“The scores can go your way at times, and there are other times when they don’t,” says Richards. “That’s what’s so hard about it and what people don’t see. … I compete because I want to. I just hope to get those incredible days with no one out and do well and have that winning feeling. Because, obviously, you love the feeling of winning, but the feeling of losing happens so much in surfing no matter who you are–even the best–so it’s a hard sport to really love to compete in. …We’re all friends outside the water, but the second a heat starts, we’re all pretty quiet.”
With a busy traveling schedule, Richards doesn’t get to return to his hometown too often, but there will always be a special place in his heart for the Murrells Inlet area. His girlfriend of four years, Melrose Boyer, is originally from Canada and would often vacation here with her family. When he does venture back home for a visit, sometimes accompanied by Boyer, he says he tries to tune out surfing for a change and go fishing in the inlet, golf with his brother, disc golf, or just hang out at his dad’s surf shop for a few hours.
The St. James High alum says he usually runs into one of his old buddies. He strongly advises aspiring surfers to graduate from high school, like he did.
“Not only for the learning aspect in the classroom, but for building social skills and meeting your friends and creating memories,” says Richards. “I made it work. I made all A’s and B’s going through school and I wouldn’t change that in a million years. … I see these kids come and do these comps at such a young age and then they do the interviews with people after they win one of their heats and they can barely even talk, you know?
“Just remember what’s important in life–and remember to always thank your parents if they do let you try to do this,” he continues. “The amount of money and time my dad and my mom spent when I was growing up, I mean, bless their hearts. There were so many weekends of my dad driving through the night to Florida and back and forth just for us. If you’re going to do it, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons first, and then make sure you have a backup plan.”
What’s next on the horizon for the pro surfer?
“My main goal is just to keep surfing in my life for long as I can,” says Richards. “The friends I made throughout this whole journey is unreal. I could go anywhere in the world and have friends’ houses to stay at, and I think that is priceless. I don’t know how much longer I’ll compete… It’s tough. It’s hard on the body and it’s hard on your mental health. Because it doesn’t matter how good you are at surfing, anything can happen in 25 minutes.”
Competing at the 2024 Summer Olympics at Teahupoo on the island of Tahiti may not be out of the picture for Richards.
“We’ll see… I love the waves in Tahiti, so if I can find my way on that team, it’s definitely the place I could see myself doing pretty decent,” he says.
Richards also plans to be a big part of the new wave pool coming to Myrtle Beach, which should be breaking ground this summer. He’ll be what a golf pro is to a golf course in a way, offering experienced advice on the many logistics involved. To test out the wave pool’s technology, he and the team traveled to Brazil; Richards says he’s been to just about every wave pool out there, except surf pro Kelly Slater’s.
“I’ve talked to him a few times and I’m like, ‘Dude, where’s the East Coast club,’ but I’m sure I will one day,” says Richards. “I will say, the technology we have is a lot more for more people. … At Kelly’s, you only get one wave about every five minutes. The one in Myrtle Beach will make around 30 waves in five minutes.”
No matter the speed, trajectory, or direction Richards takes next, he is eternally grateful for the recognition and respect he has received over the years.
“That’s all I’ve ever asked for in the sport,” he says. “If it wasn’t for South Carolina, I would not be anywhere. They have definitely put me on their back through the thick and thin. I’m proud of what I’ve done and I’m happy with whatever comes next. And if my career had to end tomorrow, I’d say I had a pretty good run and I had a hell of a time doing it.”