An accidental (world) champion

Megan Hazlett had a conversation with Mark Richards on ageing, egos and unending quests.
Photography courtesy of Mark Richards

Australia is a great surfing nation with around 2.5 million of us surfing regularly and if you ask any one of them about Newcastle born and bred Mark Richards, they’ll tell you he is a legend. A four-time world surfing champion and once described as our “surfing saint” by Australia’s Surfing Life Magazine, he’s had a hugely successful career as a professional surfer, at a time when the term was in its infancy.
If you ask Mark Richards about reaching these competitive heights, he’ll tell you it was almost accidental.

Affectionately known as MR, his childhood was spent on the beach and in his dad, Ray Richards’, shop, one of the first dedicated to surfing in Australia. In addition to winning four back to back world surfing titles (1979–1982) he was inducted into the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame in 1985, received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1994, an Australian Sports Medal in 2000 and a Centenary Medal in 2001. Not bad for an accident.

Mark and I are chatting over the phone one humid Sunday morning. His voice is warm and thoughtful, and there’s a cheekiness in his manner too, the hint of a wry smile coming through the phone line at times. Mark turns 65 in March and I ask if this significant milestone was making him reflective.
“In my mind I’m actually approaching my 35th birthday,” he laughs. “When I got to 50, I started counting backwards. It’s funny, you know, I feel like a teenager trapped in an elderly person’s body … possibly that’s surfing, making surfboards for a living and being around young people keeps you feeling young.

“I know when I was young, I had the blinkers on and just such a passion to win surfing contests. I was ruthlessly competitive and some of the people who I competed against, I just wanted to beat them and basically, I was on a mission to ruin their life.”

There’s that wry cheekiness again, but he adds, with a tinge of regret in his voice, “I wonder now how I would have felt if I’d had my competitive dreams squashed and I feel bad for the people that I denied the chance to be world champion.”

But would he do it again I ask? “If I was good enough, I would,” he says, adding an expletive as emphasis.

“You’re really fortunate to be able to surf for a living, it is a very special thing to do.”Mark also feels fortunate about his life in Newcastle. “We have such beautiful beaches and they’re relatively unscathed by development, they’re still in a natural sort of state, it would be very hard to find anywhere in the world that had beaches at the scale and quality that we have.”

A proud Novocastrian

While Newcastle has evolved in recent years, Mark says that the biggest change he’s seen is the perception of the city from outsiders. When Newcastle launched the Australian leg of the world pro surfing tour in April 2021 after Hawaii and the Californian legs were cancelled due to COVID-19, fifty-two of the best surfers from around the globe landed in Newcastle and had a couple of weeks to explore before the competition. Mark says that they were literally gushing about the place. It’s events like this, Surfest and Supercars, that he believes have contributed to the change.

Read more in the Autumn issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.