WHEN Ryan Callinan hits the water for his first heat of the Rip Curl Newcastle Cup in the coming days, he will do so feeling the support - and the pressure - of being the big home-town hope.
"It's pretty insane," he told the Newcastle Herald at the beach last week.
"I never thought we'd see a CT here again at my home beach in front of a home crowd, it's amazing.
"I feel like there's a bit of pressure but the crowd here always seems to spur me on and get behind me, so I will take it like any other event.
"But I'd love to get a win, and we'll see what happens."
STORIES AND VIDEOS SO FAR:
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A dynamic goofy-footer whose incredible aerial feats are backed up with the bedrock of great surfing - deep tubes and deep carving turns - Callinan is finally hitting his straps as one of the world's very best after a rocky start that saw him fall off the top-flight Championship Tour after his rookie year in 2016.
It wasn't his surfing ability. Nobody doubted that.
But as the World Surf League notes in its official biography of the Merewether product, Callinan came to prominence as someone who many thought would go down the free-surfing route away from the boiler-room intensity of competition.
It "seemed Callinan just wasn't that competitive", was how the WSL summarised his early entry to the big show.
Being at the bottom of the CT rankings means surfing the lower-prize money secondary World Qualifying Series - "the grind" - as it's often referred to in surfing media - and there are plenty who have fallen off the CT, never to return.
But Callinan battled through those times.
He lost his parents - surfing dad Garry and his mum Janice - in quick succession - but when he returned to competitive surfing he did so with a vengeance, forcing his way back onto the top tour in 2018 and never looking back.
His rankings have steadily improved, from 31st in 2018 to 14th in 2019 and ninth today, after last year was wiped out and the current season rearranged because of COVID.
He was second to adopted Novocastrian Julian Wilson in the Rip Curl Pro in France in 2018 - coming in as an injury replacement for 11-times world champ Kelly Slater - and third at the 2019 Bells contest, showing what he can do in the top league.
Elite sport is as much about mental strength as it physical prowess, and Callinan has found the confidence to know he belongs in this arena.
He talked about the psychological side of things in a 2019 interview with Stab magazine: "Previously, I thought, 'oh sh.t', I'm versing hard guys and I'm probably going to lose.
"Now I'm more excited. I see it as a chance to prove myself and my surfing against the best guys.
"You don't beat world champs unless you surf against them."
Which brings us back to Merewether.
"It's so special, your peers and elders, and the calibre of surfers they are, and the calibre of people they are.
"They're such great people and that's more important than the surfing they did, so to have the respect of them is just a blessing."
- Our Top 10 countdown resumes on Friday, with our #1 picks on Saturday.
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