Lately, surfing has been getting me down. My turns aren’t hard enough, my snaps aren’t vertical enough, I can’t land airs, and when I pull into tubes that I rarely pull out of, my stance looks like something out of sumo training camp. The crowds, the waves, my boards…all of it…I feel like Dante, midway through this life’s journey, in dark woods, the right road lost.
Today I paddled out unenthusiastically in a dying swell. After a few waves, I saw a out on an Australian clubby board, which for the uninitiated, looks like an eight-foot missile with a flat part on top where you lie and paddle. The Aussies use them to race in lifesaving competitions, and apparently to save the occasional life, though I’ve never actually witnessed the latter. Riding waves on them is usually done prone, or the knees at the very most.
But this guy…this guy was standing up on his, doing these sweet, gliding bottom turns and pulling into little tubes then getting demolished. He was obviously a talented surfer out on a lark. After taking a wave myself, I ended up in his way and he had to draw a line that saw him mowed down by an incoming section. When he popped up, I apologized.
“No worries, mate,” he said, turning to me with a big, jimmy-jawed grin. It was Drew Courtney. He took a wave in and left me standing in chest-deep water with a strange sensation in my chest. I was stoked.
As a writer, I maintain a strict pretentiousness about which words I will and will not use. It is a symptom of my crushing fear that any day now someone will realize that the only qualifications I have for my “job” are shamelessness, self-importance, and a good spell-checking program.
I avoid “stoked” because the word is overused and un-precise. And yet, today I found myself enjoying an emotion somewhere between excitement, happiness, surprise, and appreciation. There was only one word for it. God, help me. I was stoked out of my damned mind.
Some of you may remember Drew Courtney as one of the most maligned men to ever surf on the World Tour. During his stint on tour, I spent as much time as anyone over at Postsurf.com LOLing Lewis Samuels’ “Benjamin Button” comparisons and hoping Courtney would lose his next heat. If I had to choose between watching him and say, Jordy Smith, I would still choose Smith, but in retrospect, I think Courtney’s greatest offense was having an old school approach during a time when the tour was changing a lot. Granted, he was a little stiff and his face was easy to parody. The same criticisms could be leveled at some Hawai’ians – past and present. Not that I would do that. I, like everyone else involved in the surfing media, am deathly afraid of criticizing anything Hawai’ian due to a strange mix of fear, regret over how they have been treated in the past, how I might be treated in the future, and a pinch of disdain – a condition commonly known as liberal guilt.
Anyway, Courtney is not one of the greatest surfers of all time. But he is still a great surfer. And I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of waves with him at my local beach during my lunch break. This isn’t an isolated incident, in the last few months I’ve shared waves with a slew of pros – Jadson Andre, Cory Lopez, Ace Buchan, even the second most maligned man in pro surfing, Aritz Aranburu; I was stoked like a six-year-old at Christmas each time. What’s more, the same happens to other people every day: you paddle out at your local spot, the waves are pretty good, and lo and behold, you are on the shoulder while one of your surfing heroes drops into a drainer.
Willie Mays was legendary for playing the occasional game of stickball with kids in the Bronx during his tenure with the New York Giants. That’s a nice gesture, but very different than actually training in the street, which is essentially what pro surfers do. Think about that: every pro surfer from Kelly Slater to Thiago Camarao (the current world #100) surfs almost every day with people just like you and me. This is perhaps the most wonderfully democratic pastime in existence.
I challenge anyone to name a professional sport in which you can so regularly rub elbows with the greats, and even throw a few elbows if you want.
Tennis is dominated by private clubs and million-dollar training facilities. You have as much chance of meeting Rafael Nadal at your local park as you do running into Sarah Palin at a MENSA meeting. Same goes for golf. And baseball. No coach in his right mind invites randoms to train with his professional baseball team, and the prospect of even attempting the same in a professional football practice gives me a mild concussion. Basketball comes the closest with NYC’s Rucker park pickup tournaments that occasionally attract pro talent. But in general, athletes are celebrities who, due to the strange priorities of modern society, exist in a different sphere than the rest of us.
Surf stars do not and will never have the same renown as men like Kobe Bryant or David Beckham, but in the grand scheme of things anyone whose fame is based on how well he throws a ball or runs one hundred meters is startlingly insignificant anyway. The beauty of surfing with a famous surfer is not that their surfing is brought down to our level, but that our surfing is elevated to theirs, or at least we can believe it is for as long as we share the lineup. There are few boyhood fantasies quite as enduring (excluding that one about the teacher) as sharing the field with your sporting heroes. For those of us who are too old to still day-dream about receiving a pass in the Super Bowl, kicking a penalty in the world cup, or dropping in deep for a hail Mary at Pipeline, it affords us the opportunity to be boys again, when the world was still big and waiting to be filled out with our dreams.