In the surf world, the man with the most scars wins. Scars for a surfer are equivalent to decorations for a soldier — visible proof that he’s been through the trenches and is still around to tell about it. And if scars do indeed signify a surfer’s rank, Carlsbad’s Taylor Knox — one of the last ’90s stars to compete for an unbelievable number of years on the World Championship Tour — would be a five-star general. One look at his sunburned frame — and the deep, discolored indentations that line his face and back — and it’s clear that his road to success has been full of potholes, speed bumps and blind curves. But Knox never expected a free ride. As an 8-year-old living in Oxnard, California, the age he decided to become a pro surfer, he realized he couldn’t rely on his God-given talent to take him to the big leagues. Instead, he took the blue-collar approach — hard work, determination and an incessant desire to improve.
As a teen, Knox didn’t exactly light up the amateur ranks. No one would have picked him as a peer leader, especially when he received the news at age 15 that he would have to undergo immediate back surgery. A damaged lumbar vertebra from an old skateboard accident threatened to paralyze him if he didn’t attend to it soon, and doctors told him the surgery might prevent him from surfing again. After six long months in a cocoon-like body cast, Knox proved to the doctors that he would surf again, and that he’d surf the way he’d been visualizing from the discomfort of his couch for the past half-year.
Within months of his first day back in the water, Knox rocketed past the middle of the pack to the top of the ranks in the NSSA Open Season. He became a star member of the NSSA National Team, benefited from expert advice from former California pros David Barr and Witt Rowlett and went on to compete for the United States in the 1990 World Amateur Championships in Japan, finishing fourth — his highly touted teammate, Kelly Slater, finished fifth. In the early ’90s, with a little help from his friend Taylor Steele, maker of a progressive surf video titled Momentum, Knox became known as a key player in a group of fins-free heavy-hitters known as the New School. Along with Slater, Rob Machado, Shane Dorian, Shane Beschen and Ross Williams, Knox was being played up as the official replacement for the ’80s dinosaurs. Knox had his competitive coming-out party at the 1992 Hard Rock World Cup at Sunset, when he won six heats in a row, took out Sunset notables such as Gary Elkerton, Sunny Garcia, Tony Moniz and Vetea David and secured a spot on the 1993 World Championship Tour.
Knox’s rise was steady from his rookie year on. He didn’t win many events, but he gained the reputation as a surfer’s surfer — one of the only New School pros who truly buried a rail. His competitive success hit its first crescendo in 1995 and 1996 when he finished fifth and sixth in the world. Then, after a 1999 hiatus, he returned to the tour reinvigorated, reaching fourth in 2001 before see-sawing between the mid-twenties and top 10 through 2009 where, he finished a respectable 12th. Along the way, he also strengthened his starpower in other ways. In February 1998, Knox charged into the spotlight by winning the inaugural K2 Big-Wave Challenge, an event that offered $50,000 to the surfer who caught the biggest wave of the winter and had photographic evidence. Knox unknowingly plunged into the winning wave — a 52-foot behemoth at Todos Santos — during the Reef Big-Wave World Championships. The drop made the tour workhorse an international hero overnight. “I got more publicity for that one wave than Kelly Slater did for any of his world titles,” he later said. Most recently, Knox’s scarred visage has become the face of surfing fitness. Releasing a DVD in 2009 called “Surf Exercises,” he credits its core-strengthening methods and increased flexibility for boosting his surfing performances and lengthening his career. Must do some good. When he returns to competition in 2010, Knox won’t just be the last New Schooler standing besides Slater — he will be the oldest surfer on tour. (Though you’d never tell by looking at him.)