Rest in peace Tyson Williams: A superman of our sport

A tribute to Tyson Williams by Nick Gibbs

Words by former pro bodyboarder and longtime friend, Nick Gibbs | Video by Tim Bonython

It’s pretty hard to make sense of Superman dying. It’s simply not in the script. His invincibility is surely tested, yet we know that he will prevail.

We thus have no means by which to process the passing of Tyson Slade Williams, who took his own life last week, at 36 years old.

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Above: Tyson gracing the cover of this very publication with a bomb at Teahupoo.

Tyson first came into my life as a big, incredibly talented kid. At 11 years old he started appearing over the rocks by the pool and paddling out religiously every afternoon, progressing at an astonishing rate and becoming, quite obviously, a technical and creative rider who was certainly destined for big things.

On land he matched this with a sweet, guileless disposition and was like a little brother to all of us at Manly. A taller, nicer, better looking little brother, who you never felt you were teaching anything to, and took to every aspect of his life with the same freakish skill set. Turning up to his school’s athletics carnival he started entering events on a whim, finishing third in the long jump by simply running up and jumping.

The sports he actually focused on he achieved scary success – principally bodyboarding and surfing. Pretty much everything there was to win in bodyboarding he won, culminating in a dropknee world title and numerous World Tour and National Tour victories. He charged Teahupoo and various dark, unruly Australian slabs, with a disregard for his own safety matched only by a perfect technique and the calculated approach of an assassin.

“He literally was Superman. Guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be on him. He radiated ability, charm and charisma, and at times appeared completely devoid of ego.”

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Tyson scooping into a Teahupoo beast. Photo Brent Bielmann

I asked someone close to him if they remembered when Tyson learnt to ride a surfboard. They couldn’t, no one can. Tyson merely showed up on a surfboard one day and was RIPPING. It was ridiculous. If he could see it, he could do it. He started travelling with a quiver of boards along with his lids to Hawaii, and began lacerating Backdoor and Sunset. He finished in the quarter finals of an WQS event at Pipeline, throwing 9’s around like frisbees and leading many aspiring pro’s to take a hard look at their career paths.

He literally was Superman. Guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be on him. He radiated ability, charm and charisma, and at times appeared completely devoid of ego. My sister named her son after him, as a template for everything she would want a son to be.

Meanwhile, dark forces within were raging. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from childhood experiences was manifesting itself in crippling depression, an Ali-Foreman fight within and for his very soul. At every turn he was assailed, gut punched, counterpunching, rallying, taking blows, jabbing, hugging the ropes and sometimes just retreating to his corner exhausted, barely able to raise his battered psyche for the next round, but never throwing in the towel. A heavyweight boxing bout is 15 rounds. Tyson fought for over 16 years.

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It is often perceived that suicide is a rash and ill considered event. An inability to cope or a weakness or an “if only he’d…” For Tyson, meticulous in all things and brave to the end, had left no stone unturned. He had tried everything and everything- different medications, meditations, treatments and therapists. He had fought with a tenacity I can not even imagine, and all the while sought to help others. With anything. Everything.

He only refused to impose himself as a burden on others- removing himself from his hometown and many of his friends and decamping to a quieter place further up the Northern Beaches with a new crew who would come to know him as a brother. His passion for surfing never diminished, merely added to, with snowboarding, fishing, mountain biking and canoe paddling. It is safe to assume, dear reader, that he was shit hot at all these things too.

Sometime last year he messaged me frothing to chase some swells- Indo or Tahiti? I went Indo, Tyson Tahiti. He went for two weeks but stayed for two months. He worked helping, fixing, building houses with local families to whom he became their own. He tapped into the simple human rhythms of community and island life, and the raw, elemental beauty where the mountains meet the deep sea. It was a special time. He would paddle his tiny canoe out to Teahupoo and charge his brains out, alternating craft between waves. Seriously, Is there a man alive who could conceive of doing such a thing at 10-foot chopes?!

“He became what the Hawaiians call a Kahuna- a keeper of the knowledge, in touch with the Mana- the energy and the unfolding mysteries of the universe.”

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Above: Same session, different board. Tyson’s wave riding skills knew no limits. Photo: Brent Bielmann.

He struggled, as many of us did and will, with how someone with the gifts he had been given in life, that he should be chosen for this darkness to befall him. In what script did superman have a chunk of Kryptonite lashed to his soul? The universe is a strange and occasionally cruel thing. For my friend, for my little bro, I feel it was unnecessarily cruel. But I don’t know.

I reckon Tyson might. His battle had become a spiritual quest, a search for a higher meaning, a deeper understanding of what its all about. He became what the Hawaiians call a Kahuna- a keeper of the knowledge, in touch with the Mana- the energy and the unfolding mysteries of the universe. His story is characterised as much by his angels as his demons, and he had a loving crew of friends and family to whom he gave selflessly and loved dearly. His death is immeasurably sad, but I really feel that his journey continues.

I got home from the funeral last night to a message from my sister. She’d shown her son, Tyson, the excellent Teahupoo edit that Tim Bonython had put together. He’d asked some questions, then cut out a little cardboard bodyboard and practised taking the drop over the edge of the couch and pulling in to cushion barrels, checking his hand placement and style against his namesake. Tyson would have approved.

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