BY Chris Erskine
Here’s a thought: Leave kids alone and let ’em play. In fact, I’d like to start a “Let ’Em Play” movement, dedicated
to the novel idea that your child’s athletic endeavors are theirs, not yours, Daddy-O ... you insufferable Steinbrenner ... you meddling Marinovich.
I’ve got some crazy ideas, all right. “Let ‘Em Play” is just one of many. Don’t even get me started on banning movie sequels.
My advocacy for “Let ’Em Play” was reinforced Saturday while watching school kids compete in a modest surfing tournament in Santa Monica. The parents were cool. The young surfers? All smiles. The results? Who cares?
“What I want to mention is how it changed my son’s life,” Ray Mickshaw says of his 14-year-old’s embrace of competitive surfing. “His grades went up. His focus went up.”
In a creeped-out world awash in sexting and texting, surfing forces “you to stay in the moment ... there’s a spiritual component,” Mickshaw says.
“You can just go out there and be creative,” says competitor Bennett Kelly, 13. “Your dad isn’t sitting in the water next to you telling you what to do.”
Surfing is also — despite its cosmic and hippy vibe — relentlessly humbling. Turn your back on the ocean, and it’ll pound you worse than any NFL linebacker.
Essentially, the ocean is the ultimate coach.
Rise and shine
It’s 6:30 a.m. on a weekday. The Pacific is the temp of a gin and tonic. Up and down the Southern California coast, students leave warm beds and pj’s for wetsuits and icy practice sessions.
Marion Clark, 35, is one of Los Angeles’ surfing swamis, assisting school programs through her Surf Academy. If the ocean is the ultimate coach, Clark is a close second. Sassy and energetic, the daughter of a surf icon lives and breathes the beach.
“I need the ocean,” she says. “It’s a lifeline.”
In the past six years, Clark has helped to grow programs in four schools: Santa Monica High, and three nearby middle schools. Her practices are tough, stressing conditioning, self-esteem, endurance and trust.
“Surfing compares to football in the level of aggression it requires,” she says. “But in surfing, your aggression isn’t directed at others.”
To be sure, surfing remains a fringe sport in Southern California. Competitions didn’t begin till 20 years ago, and surfing is still not officially recognized as a competitive sport by the California Interscholastic Federation. In the hotbed of the South Bay, a dozen schools participate in a league dominated by Mira Costa, Redondo, Palos Verdes and South Torrance high schools.
“It’s a growing sport,” notes Tracy Geller, coach of Mira Costa, league champion since 2007. “When I was a kid, you had to ditch school to surf.”
The South Bay participants typically reside by the water, but the Santa Monica kids often come from further inland, fighting L.A. congestion to make their way to the ocean. It’s a lot of commitment for a simple physical education class credit.
But to the beach they come, on weekdays and again early Saturday mornings, drawn by the sport’s ephemeral triumphs. Last weekend, Clark staged a tournament of junior high and high school teams, volunteer judges and free lunch.
On waves that broke clean and fast, the students competed in heats and finals, judged in the usual 0-10 surfing criteria — a variety of maneuvers, degree of difficulty, innovation, speed and power.
“That was commitment,” judge and former pro Chris Wells says of one eighth-grader. “See how he’s aggressive? See how he’s using his legs?”
Every kid has a wetsuit. Some have boards as tiny as potato chips. Others have long boards too big for Mom’s car. As with any sport these days, parents tend to overspend.
Judge Joey Lombardo pauses between competitors to recall home movies from the early 1960s, where none of the surfers had wetsuits to wear, even in winter.
“You’d surf 30 minutes, build a bonfire, warm up, and go back in the water,” he says. “You build a bonfire these days, and you get arrested.”
‘Stoked’ to be riding
Competitive surfing has its share of insane parents who are convinced their kid is better than anyone else. But surfing, the most mystical of sports, offers a sedative-motivator known as “stoke.” Or, said with almost a religious fervency, “pure stoke.”
No one can quite explain stoke without pausing, grasping for words, looking into the distance.
Geller, of Mira Costa High, says the term stems from stoking a fire. “You’re building up that energy; you’re building up a fire” to compete, he says.
Steve Flowers, an accomplished long-boarder, sees stoke more as the rich emotional yield — or buzz — from performing well.
“The joy of getting up on a wave ... it’s spiritual; it’s healthy,” says Flowers, whose son Jordan is also an avid surfer. “It’s so many things that make you a better human being.”And maybe even a better kid.