Images by John Hook

In 2011, Hawai‘i became the first state to officially recognize surfing as a high school sport, although as with anything requiring legislation, the organized rules that will officially bring surfing to the competitive standards of other sports, like baseball, football, judo or canoeing, are still in development, and surfing two years later, remains a club sport. But when the first official interscholastic high school contests happen as soon as the 2013 school year, Kamehameha Schools, and its surf team’s head coach, Lea Arce, will be there.

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Hawai‘i is the spiritual birthplace of surfing, but for better or worse, California remains its hub. The first documented wave riders in California were Hawaiian princes. While on a world tour in 1885, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana‘ole and brothers Edward and David Kawānanakoa stopped by Santa Cruz. Seeing waves breaking off the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, they spent a few days fashioning boards from redwood and caught a few sets in the frigid central coast waters. At the turn of the century, George Freeth, a one-quarter-Hawaiian lifeguard, moved from his home in Honolulu to Redondo Beach. He befriended novelist Jack London, who wrote of his experience surfing with the waterman, “Shaking the water from my eyes as I emerged from one wave and peered ahead to see what the next one looked like, I saw him tearing in on the back of it, standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.”

It was London’s description of surfing that first introduced many Americans to the activity. By the time The Duke was making movies about surfing in the ’20s and ’30s, surfing was a growing phenomenon, and the ancient Hawaiian sport has had a relationship with Hollywood ever since. Throughout the 20th century, Gidget, Miki Dora, three brothers from Hawthorne who called themselves the Beach Boys, and most of the touring professionals came from beach towns off the west coast of the North American continent.

When other non-arena sports like water polo, judo and even soccer were emerging as interscholastic athletic options for youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s, surfing was stereotyped as the activity of California slackers. Think of the Spicoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, any character played by Keanu Reeves pre-Matrix, and Michelangelo from the Generation X-Y touchstone Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose stoked nasal phrasing, constant clowning, and vocal advocacy for ditching important missions in favor of post-session pizzas have become a tenet of our collective unconscious.

It was this sort of stereotyping that local surfing educators have had to combat. But like all stereotypes, the one of the slacker surfer kid is based in some truth. Part of the danger in allowing surfing to become an official, state-sanctioned sport has been fear that students will just stay in the water and allow their stoked vocabulary to be reduced to a grating staccato of dudes, likes and that was siiiicks. For local baby boomers who remember their peers ditching first and second period for south swells, and who now find themselves as school administrators, it is this sort of fate they have avoided for their students.

Since 1978, the California-based National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) has had those dangers in mind. Requiring that students maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA, the NSSA now has more than 80 contests with students competing from all over California, Hawai‘i, Florida, the Carolinas and New Jersey, and has maintained a philosophy that academics and wave riding are not mutually exclusive.

Despite California’s love affair with surf culture, surfing still remains a club sport in the Golden State. Despite this, the level of competition remains high, with many high schoolers emerging from successful NSSA experiences to become professionals in some manner. With some students believing surfing to be their best shot for success, they are homeschooled to allow for mid-day surf sessions. Other students maintain their normal lives as high schoolers while given certain allowances by their school for competitive pursuits. It was partly this sports tradition that brought Lea Arce to California to study. “After I finished my masters in education in San Diego, I taught in Orange County for a year,” remembers Arce. “I saw how those California high school clubs organized themselves, and I kept in mind that I needed to do the same thing when I got back home.”

When Arce was hired at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus, she got to apply both her academic and non-academic training. “What we did was figure out all the things that took a lot of paperwork, like coaching, fundraising, liability, transportation and countless other things,” she says. Under Arce’s guidance, the team has won three state championships against its nine interstate rivals, and has attended the NSSA Championships for four years as a team. This past summer saw their best team result, fourth place behind powerhouse Southern California teams San Clemente, Newport Harbor and Huntington Beach. When the O‘ahu Interscholastic Association and Interscholastic League of Honolulu (which represent public and private school sports, respectively) figure out what Kamehameha Schools already has, Arce’s students will compete against surfers from all around O‘ahu, and hopefully neighbor islanders, in a statewide competition.

During surf team practice, Arce has the experience organized for her students. “We’re limited to a team of 25 kids, boys and girls. We have qualifiers at the beginning of the school year and start competing in October,” she explains. “These contests are a lot to put together, but thankfully Wendell Aoki, the president of the Hawai‘i Amateur Surfing Association, does a lot of that work. That means we can focus on getting our kids ready to compete.”

On a Saturday practice with the girls on the team, Arce takes on the role of both coach and maternal figure. When a female longboarder catches a knee-high wave, makes a clean bottom turn, and subsequently spends the rest of her time on the open face adjusting her swimsuit top, Arce admonishes loudly enough for all her girls to hear: “What’s the number one rule, ladies?” As they smile and hunch their shoulders, she answers for them, “Get a suit that keeps it all together!”

With Arce putting in double duty as a biology teacher and track and field coach, the coaching of the Kamehameha team is divvied up between several adults: professional surfer Jason Shibata, Waves of Resistance author Isaiah Walker, surf journalist Daniel Ikaika Ito, as well as numerous parents and other volunteers who do what is done in other youth sports: whatever it takes to get the kids competitive. They also bring their student-athletes to volunteer at various charities and fundraisers throughout the year as a way to give back and, when competing in California, tour the kids around college campuses.

High School Surfing

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In sports movies, the coach character is usually played one of two ways: as a rational, reliable, parental figure, or as a, well, more competitive type. Assistant coach Daniel Ikaika Ito falls into the latter category. A 1999 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, he is now a journalist in the surf industry, writing for ESPN, Surfer and Contrast magazine. “Being on the surf team back in high school was the start of all that for me,” he says. “Back then, before there were teams competing, we approached the administration outraged, saying, ‘This is an injustice!’ We were Hawaiian kids and we wanted to compete. But in retrospect that might not have been the best way. It was Lea that brought so much together for us.”

For Arce and Ito, the surf team got very interesting in 2008, when surf phenom Ezekiel Lau became a freshman at the Kapālama campus. “I remember seeing this bolo head kid with big ears just ripping,” says Ito. As Arce describes it, “We knew Zeke was amazing, and he comes from a great family, so we used his talent to elevate the rest of the team. In 2008, I presented an organized structure to our administrators, and they worked with us to really make this institutional at the school.”

What Arce and her team of coaches did worked. At the 2012 NSSA championships held at Huntington Beach, recently graduated Ezekiel Lau took top honors as the Men’s Open titleholder. Though he might have done this on his own without the team, he also maintained a solid educational background as a normal high schooler, something many of his competitors in California forsake for a young life in the water. Also competing were Kamehameha students Cayla Moore, sister to world champion Carissa, and freshman Charlie Akau, two standouts in an emerging, nationally competitive team of young Hawaiian surfers.

“For some of these kids, nobody ever taught them about how to take care of the ocean, about how it all starts with respect,” Ito says. “If you see a piece of trash, pick it up. If there’s something that’s not right, you should say something about it, and believe me, I do. On a couple of occasions I’ve had to tell some kids how far away from pono they were acting, but it ended up working out.”
For Arce, Ito, and numerous coaches soon to be competing statewide, there are countless teachable moments that can be delivered to prepare kids for lives of learning both in and out of the ocean.