The Surf Gene
Are great surfers born or made?
Style is an immeasurable variable, one of those “you know it when you see it” sort of things, made up of body position, arm movement, parts of the wave utilized, fluidity, and the amount of energy put into movement. The combination of all those factors make up style, making it nearly impossible to measure in a tangible way. But it can be surmised that style is something that comes naturally and is learned from imitation: We watch people and consciously or subconsciously incorporate all of their styles into the way we ride waves.
Perhaps this is why those from countries with newly developed surf cultures lack the kind of style that we see in places with lots of top-notch talent—the difference between, say, the surfers of Guatemala or India and the surfers Australia or the U.S. Without the opportunity to consistently surf with stylish, elite talent (or even watch them in movies), it’s difficult, if not impossible, to develop into a truly stylish surfer. Sure, there are other factors involved—including rudimentary equipment and poor wave quality—and there are exceptions, but by and large, style is something that is largely determined by who we are exposed to. And if this is true, then certainly the spawn of pro or elite-level surfers have an advantage.
“People tell me I surf like my dad,” says Coco Ho, “but I don’t try. I don’t sit and watch him in a movie and go, ‘Okay, I’m going to put my right arm there.’ I don’t do that ever. But I feel like you can inherit it. You look at Kolohe and you look at little Noah Beschen and you look at me and Mason, and you see it. Mason gets barreled like dad and people tell me that I have a cutback like dad.”
The advantages for professionals’ children may go beyond learned style though. From a very young age the children of pros are not only surfing with their parent, but also with their parent’s friends, often also top-notch surfers.
“The main advantage my kids had is probably just going to the beach so much and surfing with me and all their uncles a lot,” says Mike Ho. “Kids that surf around good surfers just get better. I’ve seen that a lot: when guys hang out with other guys that are good, next thing you know they’re stepping on their toes. Surf with good surfers and you get better.”
“The other big advantage is having the right equipment,” Ho continued. “I tend to be a freak about equipment and I’ve always gotten them the best stuff I could get them.” There are other consequential advantages inherent to being the son or daughter of an established pro. Aside from a lifestyle hemmed in surf travel, daily sessions, and consistent critique, the children of pros are granted a membership card to an elite club. The surf industry is a tight-knit, incestuous community, meaning the connections a former pro bestows on his kids often mean early sponsorships (“We were probably sponsored since before we could even surf,” says Mason Ho) and sometimes even an upper hand in competition (albeit most times unintentional, judges notice a famous last name).
“I go to other countries and people already know me because they knew our dad,” says Coco Ho. “I’d go to France and people would treat me like they knew me and be like ‘I’m your dad’s great friend from back in the day.’ Going to all these countries and meeting all these people and feeling like I’ve already been there and I’m already comfortable there because all my dad’s friends are there—that was definitely a good advantage.”
This naturally leads to more opportunities, but it also bestows upon these kids a sense of self-confidence, and that often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are praised for their prepubescent greatness and enter the water with an inflated sense of self, which often manifests into actual greatness.
Nepotism, deliberate or otherwise, may be just as great an ally for the aspiring pro as is their stellar genetic inheritance. Here we can draw a parallel to surfing’s southern-bred brethren, NASCAR, where it’s fairly common for children of superstars to follow in their fathers’ footsteps (i.e.Jimmie and Jarit Johnson; Ralph Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc.). But unlike surfing, NASCAR is less a sport of physical aptitude and more a sport of honed ability, fearlessness, and mental skill. The capacity to do well then, is almost certainly not a genetic predisposition, but rather a clear result of early entry into the sport, a lifetime of nurturing, and a connection to the inside. The same could be said for surfing.
“My parents taught us how to surf when we were probably 3 or 4,” says LeeAnn Curren. “Surfing was in my life since I was born. First my dad put me on the front of his board, and after that I would surf with my brother in the shorebreak. Then because you have a name that is already kind of famous, you get more attention, even when you just start surfing—people hear about you and want to see how you’re doing.”