He is considered one of Australia’s greatest ever sportsmen yet few people outside of big-wave surfing and ocean paddling have ever heard of former Gold Coast lifeguard Jamie Mitchell.
Kelly Slater, the world’s most revered surfer, once described Mitchell as “one of the greatest unknown sportsmen of all time”.
Mitchell has been featured in National Geographic with his exploits in Hawaii winning the Molokai to Oahu paddleboard race, something he has done an unprecedented 10 times before turning his attention to big wave surfing – one of the ocean’s most fearsome challenges.
In an exclusive interview with More Gold Coast, Mitchell spoke about his first win on the World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour at Portugal’s Nazaré Challenge where an iconic underwater canyon generates treacherous waves in excess of 12 meters.
Taking on a field of the world’s best surfers, the 39-year-old encountered the most challenging conditions of the day to break through for his first win and a top five rankings spot.
“It was all about surviving the day – I saw the guys facing horrendous wipe-outs,” Mitchell said.
“It was incredible to win – I’m lost for words. I have never before made a final which makes the win so unreal.
“Having put the entire contest together from start to finish is actually more exciting than the win itself. I felt comfortable all day despite the conditions – my board felt amazing and that gave me a ton of confidence.”
Mitchell said he has always loved the challenge of the ocean because paddling in a big swell is one of the most physically demanding challenges he has ever faced.
“I love chasing a big wave and doing it with some of my best mates is something special and an amazing opportunity,” he said.
“We surf some of the most dangerous waves in the world and it is just a matter of controlling your fears and remaining calm and relaxed and not expanding any unnecessary energy.
“The ocean is so powerful – you can never turn your back on it. As soon as you think you’ve mastered it all – that is when something goes wrong. You can never take the ocean for granted.”
Mitchell can see himself chasing big waves for another decade having always looked after his body and remaining relatively injury free.
“I can see myself going on until I’m at least 50 – I will always love surfing big waves,” he said. “There are some of the guys I surf with who are over 50 and in great shape, which gives me hope for the future.
“I see myself as someone who has always loved a challenge which has been different at various stages of my life.
“I have had three distinct stages in my life, doing nippers before becoming a lifeguard and helping save people’s lives which was a great platform. I then did the Molokai racing for a decade and now see myself as a big wave surfer.”
Mitchell is one of surf sport’s great all-rounders having patrolled the Gold Coast as a professional lifeguard before setting off on his journey of adventure taking on big and small waves around the world, dabbling in tow-in surfing and stand-up paddleboard riding.
However, the one discipline where his superiority is unrivalled is long distance open ocean paddling.
He won Hawaii’s annual 51.5km Molokai Channel race 10 times between 2002 and 2011.
The race is considered the ultimate test of endurance with contestants taking on one of the roughest and most treacherous stretches of ocean mass in unpredictable winds and 10 meter swells.
The race challenges more than the participants paddle board skills – it is a test of physical and mental strength along with their ocean navigation skills.
“Molokai is my Everest,” Mitchell once said.
“The race has always been very important to me – the feeling you get when you cross the line you don’t get that from anything else.”
Mitchell capped his 2015 campaign by winning the “Heavy Water” category at the prestigious Surfer Poll awards despite a year marred by injury.
The award honoured the surfer who’s best displayed “heroics in the heaviest waves on earth”.
Mitchell spent months out of the water after a serious wipe-out at Western Australia’s big-wave spot, Cow Bombie.
His wipe-out saw him hospitalised with concussion, torn ligaments in his right knee and a fractured right elbow requiring months of rehabilitation.