South Africa: Surf skier Matt Bouman finds peace off the podium


On the three walls and the space within are surfboards, paddle boards, kayaks, surf skis and just about anything else that can float on water.

Bouman has competed under the South African flag in five water sports over the past two decades, picking up medals along the way.

But he’s not one to brag. There are no trophies on display at his house in Umhlanga Rocks. No social media accounts boasting of his accomplishments. No sponsors plastered across his T-shirts.

The only hint that he’s a top competitive ocean athlete is when he charges into the water with his game face on.

A star swimmer

The path that led him to conquering the swells and setting records started in the pool. At eight years old, Bouman took up lap swimming as an after-school activity with classmates, or what he called “day care.”

“I’m pretty sure it was an excuse to get me out of the house. But I started getting good at it, and then it went from time-alleviating to time-consuming for my mother,” Bouman said.

He credits his mother for providing the bedrock to become anything he envisioned — and “swimmer” was the first of many on the list.

“I used to wake up every morning, five o’clock, jump into a chlorine pool, swim 5 kilometers. And that happened every day, day in and day out for I don’t know how many years,” the all-star waterman recalled.

South Africa’s most decorated lifesaver

In his teen years, he transitioned from a 50m pool to the endless sea. The ocean provided many opportunities that Bouman would compete and place in, the first being lifesaving, a competitive sport that evolved from lifeguard training. It involves elements of swimming, surfboarding, running, mock rescues and paddling.

Having won the national championship more than anyone else, Bouman is the most decorated athlete in the sport of lifesaving in South Africa. However, that is not a fact you’ll ever hear him say. He’s less about titles and more about his tenacious love for the ocean.

“I wasn’t a swimmer, a polo player, I wasn’t a lifesaver, I wasn’t a paddler, I wasn’t a surfer. I was all of them, and it was freedom,” he said.

Over the years, Bouman has been on a top 10 water polo team and he’s ranked among the top surf skiers in the world, though he was not always the best in every field, which he said humbled him.

“I was lucky to represent my country in pretty much every sport that I loved and I got to do it on a lot of different levels. Surf ski [for instance], we were the best in the world and everywhere we go, we get treated well. And then I go to the world of sprint paddling, where we’re kind of mediocre, the underdog. You almost can’t see how they’re the same human,” he said.

Winning is not everything

It was never Bouman’s intention to become a competitive athlete in so many sports. It happened as one patch of love to the next, as he described it.

“I just looked at the ocean, that’s where I wanted to be, it’s what I loved doing. I loved racing. I’ve never considered it an occupation or even a vocation, it’s just my passion,” he said.

It was this passion, mixed with a self-described narcissism, that propelled him through his prime pro-athlete years.

“Winning was everything to me at one stage in my life. How will you beat somebody else if you don’t value it as much as they do?” Bouman said.

This self-involved outlook ultimately led him to self-awareness. Bouman, now 40, has a more relaxed view on water sports: it’s equally as meditative as it is competitive.

“There’s a sense of ‘in the now’ like I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I imagine the Tibetan monks get it after they’ve sat in a cave for a couple hundred-thousand hours … I probably spent an equal amount of time in the ocean learning how to get into that space,” he said.

A commercial property developer by trade these days, he still prioritizes the water above all else.

His current sport of choice is surfski, which is a form of ocean paddling in a long, narrow kayak, with the goal of navigating from point to point as fast as possible. His reasoning for picking up paddling is simple: It did not require goggles.

In March, Bouman took home his second singles win in the Gara Surfski Challenge, and hopes to come out as the series winner. But today, a loss wouldn’t knock his tranquil spirit off kilter.

His calendar contains more blank space than it used to. Competitions are more ad hoc than they used to be. But looking forward, he can’t see himself ever being too far from the water.

“The ocean can be huge, uncompromising, terrifying. It can be benign, peaceful, beautiful. It’s just such a variable. It adds freedom to life. I’m never going to be bored.”

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