“If your surfboard is connected to the wave and it’s a super steep take-off and you’re in the most critical position on that wave that you can be… it’s that weightless, not knowing what’s going to happen feeling,” said Roper, who is currently living in La Jolla and works at his father’s surfboard repair shop in Kearny Mesa.
Last month, Roper was nominated for Surfer Magazine’s Heavy Water Award and serves as a top competitor in World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour 2018. This has earned him recognition as one of This Year’s Boldest and Bravest Big Wave Surfers.
“The most exhilarating is when you’re launching through the air on a drop with a big wave. It’s probably the most scary and unknowing-like feeling that there is, and when you make it out, and ride that wave back into the channel, it’s the biggest adrenaline rush you’re ever going to feel.”
That feeling is what Roper says first got him hooked on big wave surfing, and it’s that same thrill that keeps him in the game even when it seems risky and dangerous. Now 29 years old, Roper has been surfing for over two decades, chasing swells all over the South Pacific from Fiji and Tahiti to Portugal and Mexico.
“But I am probably one of the few younger people on the big wave tour,” said Roper. “I think there’s five of us in our 20s. The rest are in their 30s or older. Big wave surfing involves so much experience that you’ll see people surfing their best big waves even into their 40s. As long as you’re not taking constant wipe outs and your body stays in one piece, you just keep on doing it.”
But what this particular surfing career offers in longevity, it matches with high risk and there’s a reason experience is part of the big-wave-surfing package. While Roper says he “fell in love” at 17, riding Puerto Escondido’s more punishing breaks in Oaxaca, Mexico for the first time, the young surfer admits he didn’t truly come to terms with the real danger of big wave surfing until four years later when he witnessed friend Sion Milosky die at age 35 while surfing the less forgiving swells off Mavericks in 2011.
“I thought I had it all figured out and this guy was the invincible, best big-wave surfer at the time,” said Roper of Milosky, an accomplished surfer from Kauai. “We all idolized him. But it was an extremely humbling experience to watch somebody, who you thought was invincible, die surfing these big waves he was famous for.”
Roper was actually on the beach when the paramedics were conducting CPR on Milosky and even elected not to go back to Mavericks for a few years, taking a break from the “chasing big waves lifestyle.” Though he eventually made his way back, still seeking out that adrenaline rush, Roper this time went in with a level head on his shoulders.
“There’s a lot of risk and a lot of reward… It’s part of the game and dying is something we all know is a possibility,” said Roper. “But surfing still just always excites me. I can’t get enough of it.
“You’ll deprive yourself of sleep for surfing or, in my case, drive eight hours to Mavericks to follow the swells. You put it ahead of everything in life. Surfers are very selfish that way but It’s truly that addicting.
Roper added that, though not many surfers will admit it, “We all want to catch that 60-foot wave. We all want to paddle into the biggest wave ever ridden.”
Roper is set to compete next at Mavericks on the Big Wave World Tour. The competition will take place sometime between now and March.