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Is Surfing Long Overdue for a Swing in the Health Trend Pendulum?

Will the surfing health pendulum swing towards the above, or more towards the opening monologue of the classic video below. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

I’ve had a hunch, for a while now, that something is brewing in professional surfing. A swing of the pendulum from uber-healthy-athleticism back to a more relaxed breed of surf competitors. For the past decade (and really more than that, but let’s cap it at 2010-onwards) the characters in professional surfing have been really… healthy. Surfers on tour attribute their wins to their nimble limbs, kept spry from calisthenics workouts and mostly-veg-and-protein “80-20” diets. Filipe Toledo trains on land every day, does yoga, and is basically vegan. Caroline Marks strength trains for an hour every day—in addition to four hours of surfing. 

I don’t have this hunch as someone who stays glued to the TV when anything WSL-related comes on, and I don’t have this hunch as someone who plays fantasy surfer. I have this hunch as someone who read a lot of tabloid-y fashion magazines as a kid. Stuff like Girl’s Life and Teen Vogue. Because these were fashion magazines specifically written for kids, and not adults (which is a whole other topic of conversation worth having another time). There was always a back-to-school issue focusing on what was hot for fall. 

These trend forecasters focused on the most important topics in a teen girl’s universe: Was it bitchin’ or was it lame to wear cardigans this year? Were platform shoes cool or silly? Of course these trends reflected bigger cultural shifts: if the top 40 songs were mostly electronic, dying your hair was radical. When Mumford and Sons dominated the air, of course folk trends like leather boots and braids made their way into the clothing ideals. 

When you pay attention to trends marketed to the mainstream youth every year, you notice things swing back and forth. One year glitter is in, next year it’s all about muted colors and understated accessories. Things tend to go back and forth between extremes instead of existing in the middle for extended periods of time. While this likely has more to do with marketing and getting kids to throw out all of their clothes, purchasing new closets every year, this also applies to virtually all areas of pop culture. 

Including… surfing. Like it or not, surfing, in the modern day, is mainstream. Whether surfing trends are influenced by mainstream culture at large or influence this culture from their generation in the surfing subculture first is a chicken-or-the-egg question. But what is known is that surfing trends, like everything else, swing back and forth. And, like the Californian earthquake, “The Big One” that’s now over 150 years overdue, surf culture is also long overdue for an explosion into a new era. 

I have good reason to believe that the new era will involve a little more alcohol and a little less vegan-ism. If the pendulum swings back and forth between two ends of the spectrum, we’ve been on the uber-healthy end for far too long. Even Griffin Colapinto, one of our youth’s modern-day heroes, said he doesn’t want to be one of the boring guys on tour. Because everyone on tour right now is similar in that they train hard, eat healthy, and don’t get too crazy in the public eye. 

You can more or less sink every decade into a category of being focused on physical health or not. Of course surfers are athletes in at least some sense of the word, so surfers are never physically out of shape, but there were years surfers put time into this aspect of surfing, hit the gym outside surf sessions, and then there were other times when they drank a mountain dew, ate a donut, and got out there. 

For example, starting off in the fifties and sixties, surf health trends weren’t so far off from the norm of anyone else in those decades. Surfers smoked cigarettes (because tons of people in those days smoked cigarettes) and while surf stars of the era, such as Johnny Fain, were mostly clean cut, they were portrayed as a bit lazier than the average “responsible” office-job-going adults. 

A 1966 profile on Fain indeed noted him to be on a “permanent vacation,” stating that “If the omens are good, he’ll get up quickly, put on a pair of shorts, gulp down a bowl of chili, pick up his surfboard and head for the water. If the omens are poor, he may simply roll over and go back to sleep. Most of the time Fain has no place to go but the beach, and nothing to do but cultivate what he and his friends call the beach look.” The kids played volleyball on the beach after surfing, and maybe a game or two of Monopoly if they were feeling frisky. People partied on the beaches, but it was mostly limited to drinking. Hard drugs were not at all en vogue for the masses. 

Of course, partying was associated with surf culture in the ‘60s: Windansea, for example (the club), even showed up with a bus full of drunken surfers for the 1963 Malibu Invitational. But Windansea was known to be rowdy. And, at least as far as I know, most of the members were keeping the substance use at just that: drinking. Heavily or not, I wouldn’t say beer counts as being completely off the rails, health wise. 

Even on the other side of the world in Australia, the fifties and sixties were characterized by sunshine and, for the most part, good health. Oz saw popularity in the likes of Wayne Lynch and Nat Young. Drugs and crazy fitness regimes hadn’t taken hold of the sport yet, at least not in the public’s eye. 

The seventies were then a swift swing in the other direction. Starting, actually, at the end of the ‘60s, surfing’s image was taking a turn away from the “cleaned up” version of itself the media was after. With the experimentation going on with the shortboard revolution, LSD is an undeniable aspect of those years in surfing’s history. 

Also worth noting is that big wave surfing had, at this time, more or less fallen out of vogue. Though not all big wave surfers were healthy, big wave surfing requires intense breath-holding and certain forms of athleticism that, for example, logging may not require. 

Even though Byron Bay and much of Australia saw the surge of Country Soul, and a hippie revolution which encompassed all of the things modern day hippies represent: growing food, using organic ingredients, doing yoga, and the “body is a temple” mindset, and Hawai’i saw Dick Brewer sitting in full lotus for an hour a day, drugs were present in the ‘70s in a way they just are not today. (And many of the Country Soul surfers did, indeed, smoke pot.) 

Even professional surfing had a certain rebellious air we would never see in the press today. Drew Kampion wrote a story on the ‘72 World Titles that included David Nuuhiwa saying he wanted to “get drunk” and forget about the day’s events. 

My favorite surf story of all time is the Harbor Island Travelodge catastrophe of 1972: 154 surfers stayed at the hotel for the ‘72 World Surfing Championships, and the drugs were everywhere. John Grissam noted that “Someone used a room to clean several kilos of grass and had left two huge garbage bags of seeds and stems sitting in the hallway.” Randy Rarick “walked into a room where the Peruvian guys were staying (and) there was a salad bowl full of coke. A fucking salad bowl, I’ll never forget it. Just this mountain of coke in a big giant bowl and anybody who came in could snort up whatever they wanted.” 

While the ‘60s had psychedelics, the ‘70s had cocaine. Health-wise, cocaine is probably worse. Surfers were also using heroin. And, regardless, all drugs are discouraged from use by today’s professional surfers. The WSL drug tests competitors, and if they were doing so in the ‘70s their heats would have been slimmed down. Even mentioning binge drinking would be frowned upon in 2023, I think. 

The other interesting aspect of the ‘70s is that surf travel became popular. How does this relate to health? With exotic traveling in focus, finding new spots becomes cool, and hitting the gym goes out of the limelight. Surfers can’t prioritize everything at once, and mags were promoting virgin waves, and not rock-hard abs and clean eating, as the epitome of the surfing life at this point in time. 

The ‘80s are perhaps the most notoriously unhealthy times for the world in general. And although there was the occasional ad with Mark Richards pointing a piece of fried chicken at the camera and the brutal (but admittedly funny) GOTCHA campaigns depicting overweight, pale non-surfers juxtaposed with bronzed, beautiful surfers and the tagline “if you don’t surf, don’t start… if you surf, never stop,” the ‘80s may seem like health wasn’t at the front lines. But it was, in a way. Importantly, staying fit was at the forefront of surf media: surfers who took their health seriously were promoted in movies, magazines, and on tour. 

While mass media saw the emergence of nation-wide cocaine use in the late ‘80s, surfing wasn’t necessarily worse than the average population. In fact, the pendulum swung away from the ‘70s drug-crazed frenzies, if you will. Because surfing was growing, professionally, its image had to be cleaned up a bit. 

Surf historian Matt Warshaw notes in the Encyclopedia of Surfing page on “Drugs and Surfing” that by the mid ‘80s, “the occasional celebratory drug references were all but excised from the surf media; if drug use was mentioned at all, as surf journalist Steve Barilotti pointed out, it was with ‘a muffled puritanical tone.’” 

And while alcohol has and will always be part of people’s lives, surfers are actually less prone to alcohol abuse than the general population, perhaps because their lives depend on their health. Mark Foo reportedly said surfers are happy people because we always know what we want.” So while Bintangs are part of the Bali experience, and Tecates are part of the Baja camping trip, surfers are no worse than anyone else in that respect, time and time again. 

Not only were drugs muted during this time; health and physical fitness were celebrated. The film Storm Riders is a wonderful encapsulation of the 1980s surf world: from Oz to the North Shore, surfers push the limits in and out of the water. One of the featured surfers, Ted Deerhurst, is seen running, swimming laps in a pool, and lifting weights in the gym. 

Brad Gerlach, another prime surfer from the ‘80s, flamboyant and powerful as they come, credited his professional surfing success to “his mostly vegetarian diet” and “Zen Buddhism” in a 1980s LA Times profile. 

By the late ‘80s, however, the surfing pendulum began to swing away its health-focused image. Gary Elkerton, who won ‘80s Triple Crown contests and was often compared to the Ho brothers for sheer surfing ability, had the nickname “Kong” due to his “alcohol consumption, public nudity, and smashed rental cars.” In 1985, Elkerton was hospitalized for a drug overdose.  

By the late ‘90s, Steele’s intense, gritty lower-quality films were beginning to be replaced by higher quality flicks, and, like all trends, this reflected the shift in the overall media demand for nicer, higher-quality things. (I don’t say this as a diss on Taylor Steele – I love his films. I say this only relating to the image quality of the surfing on screen.)

The ‘90s, though fairly neutral, were weed-heavy. Longboard champion Joel Tudor supported the legalization of marijuana, Rob Machado waxed on about the wonderful effects of smoking joints on the beach, and a SURFER magazine poll leaned towards weed being in favor with surfers. The surfing of the momentum generation, captured by Taylor Steele, and The Search, from Sonny Miller, again showed exotic travel destinations and an emphasis on surfing as a fun activity as opposed to something to do to win points and beat out other, less “fit” competitors. 

The end of the ‘90s saw Andy Irons in his self-destructive phase, one of the worst moments occurring in 1999 when Andy technically died and came back to life due to a drug overdose, but by 2000 he had more or less put himself back together to be (at least one of) the best surfers of all time. 

Again, none of this is to say that the decades of surf health trends were worse or any more far out than the general public. The ‘90s saw the rise of heroin chic in the fashion world, one of the most harmful visual epidemics of all time. Looking strung out was “in,” so if surfers were using drugs here and there, were they really to blame?

Either way, my point in going through each decade is to highlight the tendency to shift back and forth between healthy and unhealthy every 10 years or so. This shift doesn’t always happen right on the turn of the decade, but it does happen frequently enough to be a noticeable pattern. 

Right now, in the 2020s, we’re in a health-crazed phase. Ice baths, smoothie bowls, weight training out of the water, and surf coaching everywhere are the new norm. Because each decade has, more or less, swung back and forth, I think this may fall out of fashion sooner rather than later. People are getting sick of “soccer mom” styles of surf coaching with parents standing on the beach holding camcorders, and rebellion never gets old. 

Right now, the rebellious thing to do would be to rip hard in the water and (at least act) like you don’t care about being in the pinnacle of physical health on land. Surf culture is youth culture, and even though bodybuilding has been in for the last decade or so, even fitness influencers are shifting away from powerlifting to a more “natural” physique. I think surfing will shift this way, too. 

I’m self-aware enough to realize that I am no trend forecaster. In fact, the biggest problem I encountered when doing this historical research (and, importantly, as someone who doesn’t know most of these people personally) is that every decade had every end of the health spectrum. Some of the same people who were health-focused one decade were off the rails the next. Focusing on the surfers themselves proved to be a difficult way of seeing what was going on in each era. 

But in science, finding nothing is still a finding. Though null reports are often neglected from publication in scientific journals, they are just as important as groundbreaking research showing off-the-charts data or life-changing conclusions. 

I say this because, to be honest, I’m not sure the health trends in surfing, going by the decade, were as dramatic as I had hoped they would be going into this investigation. But they exist, without a doubt, and I still think we’re going to see a swing in surf media popularizing the slightly less health focused surfers going forward. 

Best of all, this lets us imagine who may be en vogue ten years from now. Will it be steroid-hopped-up power surfers? Rogue, party animal tube hounds? Light-footed, raw vegan single-fin loggers? There’s no way to know for sure, but it makes for titillating dinner conversation. 


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