There are certain humans that gracefully play with, or even seem to defy gravity. They exude a special relationship with momentum and inertia and move with rare dexterity. These people simply make incredible things look easy. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about ballet, soccer, moto cross, boxing or any other sport. Although hard work, consistency and technique play a major role, these naturally gifted athletes stand out. Eli Hanneman could throw a football with a perfect spiral at four years old. He was a voracious wrestler before he was even 70 lbs and is one of those very gifted, very rare athletes in the sport of surfing.

A child prodigy, Hanneman started turning heads and winning trophies around the very young age of seven. He wasn’t just a “good young surfer,” Eli was into advanced tricks and tail slides and such. Eli Hanneman has evolved to be one of the top aerialists on a surfboard today. Hanneman’s big aerial “make rate” is among the highest in the business and this, in combination with solid flow, technique and maneuvers makes him one of the most dangerous rookies on the WSL Championship Tour. Eli’s performances in waves of consequence like Sunset and Pipe have been solid and that’s raising eyebrows from his peers and pundits. He is uber-competitive, determined and focused and may well be a contender in the the top five quicker than most people might imagine. The kids got serious game on the tour and in the ocean but surfing wasn’t his first love, yet.

FSM: Historically you started boardriding at a very young age. Do you have any recollection of the first time you traveled across water on a wave and felt stoked about it?

EH: I actually really started with skateboarding. I felt at the time I was more naturally gifted at skateboarding and it came so much easier to me. My dad was a surfer but I kind of didn’t enjoy surfing (at first) because it was just so much harder to learn and there’s so many more variables. I definitely remember when I had that turning point of having less fear for the ocean and more excitement for what it offers. I don’t know the exact age, but I just remember that I was really into skateboarding and I wanted to be a professional skateboarder when I was all the way up until I was probably like eight ’cause I started skating when I was like four. So there were a few years where my dad was a huge surfer, so he is still a huge surf fan. He wanted me to just be someone who enjoyed surfing. So it was kind of just something that I did with my dad for a few years. I think it got to a point where I started to realize that skateboarding is a lot more prone to injuries.

FSM: Did skateboarding influence or help your surfing?

EH: Skateboarding definitely influenced my progression in surfing a lot. It’s kind of like how you think about when people learn a new language, like they compare it to their first language where they are fluent to the point where they don’t think about their first language anymore. I’d say surfing is more free in the sense that there’s more opportunity because when you go in the ocean, it’s different every day and it’s different every second. Whereas when you go to the skate park, you kind of generally know what you’re up against and you see the park, you see whatever street, no matter what kind of skating you do you generally know what you’re up against. When you’re surfing, it could be any conditions, any size, whatever. And so within that you have new opportunities and more freedom every day. I don’t know. It’s a never ending challenge.

FSM: Well obviously that changed. What changed your mind to focus on surfing?

EH: In skateboarding I probably got good by the time I was like five or six. Probably like a year or two after that, (age seven or eight) I remember the first time I ever pumped down the line and got some speed on the wave. I’m sure it wasn’t anything crazy, but to me it felt like I was flying on the wave and I remember coming in and telling my dad about it. It was kind of that moment of achieving something and like, you know, progressing. I’m someone who’s extremely competitive with myself. I kind of have high expectations and when I achieve something, it kind of motivates me to keep going and get that satisfaction again. And that’s still what’s driving me today. The ocean part of it kind of came later once I started to understand how crazy it really is to be surfing. I felt like I would get hurt way less surfing because it’s more forgiving. You fall in water instead of on concrete. That could also tie into the freedom aspect of it. Because unless you’re out surfing big dangerous waves, there’s a lot more you could put on the line without having to worry about injury until you get at a higher level and you’re doing bigger airs, bigger barrels, bigger turns, then you start getting into (a bigger) risk factor. Compared to skating, just basic surfing and going out and riding a wave, there really isn’t much risk, I mean, unless you’re over shallow water or anything. Generally it’s pretty harmless and that’s, that’s what drew me in.

FSM: Let’s talk about the trial and error of what you do. It’s like you’ve got a tool chest filled with all these high level maneuvers.

EH: Yeah. I think for me it’s been kind of just putting my energy into things that from a young age really were interesting to me. I’ve almost had to work backwards. I grew up and just wanted to do airs and you know the flashy stuff. As you mature as a surfer, you need to learn how to surf on the face. You need to learn how to carve and how to throw spray and that kind of stuff. Growing up and just focusing on airs and focusing on how to get outta the water (above the lip) was really crucial because that’s what separated me (from others) I think, from a young age. Now it’s actually been really motivating to kind of learn backwards and focus on my rail surfing and things that I maybe didn’t focus on from a young age. And I feel like it is almost easier to learn backwards than to be in your mid-twenties and trying to learn airs. It’s not that easy. So I’m grateful for the path I’ve taken and I’m glad that I am able to identify what my weaknesses are and really turn those into strengths. That’s a never-ending process.

FSM: You strike me as one of those really super talented people that has performed well all his life that has somehow remained calm and humble. Does that have any impact on your bigger aspirations?

EH: I think it does. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because you need to have a good head on your shoulders to succeed, but at the same time, after a few years on the qualifying series you almost need a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. You need a reason to believe that you deserve to succeed and not the guy that you’re against, you know? So there’s a, there’s a fine line between being yourself and kind of like, okay, like this is mine, not yours. “I deserve this,” because it’s a very cutthroat sport and there’s so many things that you can’t control in surfing. There’s so many variables and so many elements. This is kill or be killed. It’s a thing that I’m learning to navigate and it’s something that everyone deals with and it’s just one of the factors that comes into play when you’re a competitor.

FSM: Ok so there’s a dynamic with other competitors for sure. But what about the ocean and certain surf spots? Let’s talk about your relationship with Pipeline.

EH: I’d say the Pipeline is probably the most relational wave in the world, just because of all the different phases it has and the danger that comes with surfing it. I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good relationship with it over the years just because I’ve dedicated a lot of time to surfing and studying it. I feel like I’ve had good experiences out there and I’ve had really bad experiences out there. I feel like that’s all what goes into getting to know something or someone is just, you know, going through the thick and the thin of it. You could have the best wave of your life out there and you can also have the worst wave of your life. That’s what makes it so special is the risk vs reward factor of it.

FSM: Where do you get your competitive spirit and how do you manage to keep it fresh?

EH: Yeah, I think the difference between someone who has some spotlight on them early on and can carry that into their adult life and someone who gets kind of burnt out could be the competitiveness or maybe the expectations they have within themself. A lot of times you can be a freak talent but you really don’t love what you do enough or maybe you’re not driven enough to look within and do it for yourself. A lot of times I think it’s easy to get caught up in how to make everyone else happy. What really helped me was just kind of not being as happy unless I’m succeeding. What matters is what drives you to be or get where you want to go.

FSM: Tell me about that winning feeling. Is it addicting?

EH: Yeah the winning feeling is what we all strive for. It’s what we all do this for. It’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s what we all want to achieve.

FSM: Do you hate to lose?

EH: Yeah. It’s a funny thing because I’m very reserved. I keep to myself and I tend to suppress my emotions a lot but there’s one thing for sure and that’s that I’m a competitor through-and-through. You learn a lot about yourself as you compete more and more. I mean, I want to be a world champ. So I guess what I’m working towards is just becoming the best all-around surfer that I could be. From two foot waves all the way up to ten foot waves. You know, I look at the world champs that have come before and they have been very well-rounded surfers. The proof’s in the pudding. You look at the list of names and it’s, you know, guys are generally pretty well-rounded surfers and that’s what it takes. So you have to be good at airs, you have to be good at barrels, you have to be good at turns, you have to do it all.

FSM: You roll with a very talented bunch of surfer/sparring partners. Does that contribute to pushing you?

EH: Yeah, I have a really good group of friends. A lot of them are from San Clemente (2% Crew) and they’ve had this ongoing group effort of pushing each other and becoming better surfers from a young age. Those guys all have pushed me and they’re all gonna be on the tour now.

FSM: So how do you feel about your first year in the “big leagues?”

EH: It’s an interesting evolution of the journey that I’m on as a professional athlete because as you reach these milestones, like for example, qualifying for the WSL championship tour. It’s kind of this leering thing over your head since a young age, like, oh, I want to qualify for the world tour. But you don’t really realize that it doesn’t just stop when you get there. Like I made it, it’s all good. Like, it’s all, you know, I’m just riding off into the sunset. But once you get there, then it’s like, okay, now it’s twice as hard to be where you’re at and, and stay there. So that’s kind of the interesting thing about having goals – you’re always just gonna be chasing. It’s something I’m learning to navigate because you can’t never be satisfied because then you’re not happy and that’s really all that matters. So finding the balance between like, working hard and appreciating and keeping the hustle going.

FSM: Career wise, you could easily have one of those, “free surfer guy” careers, but you choose to keep going after this.

EH: Yeah, I have nothing against free surfers. I think it’s great and I totally understand why someone would wanna become a free surfer. It’s been something that people have said to me for a long time and at a certain point, I almost get offended when people say, “You should just become a free surfer,” because I aspire to win. I’ve grown up watching surf contests, watching guys win world titles, and that’s what I want and that’s where I want to be. My preference is competitive surfing and one day I will 100% be a free surfer, but I feel like I have some competitive milestones to achieve before I get to that.

FSM: You started very very young and you are still very young, ultimately what keeps you stoked about this sport?

EH: I think a turning point for me was understanding that surfing is just so special in its simplest form, just kind of going out in the water just having fun on a piece of foam. It’s the core of what it comes down to. And that’s still to this day, I think what I love so much about it is just the simplicity and the freedom.

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