A few years ago, at a North Shore outer reef, Koa Rothman found himself in a tough situation: staring down a 30-foot wall of roaring whitewater. He was caught inside by the biggest set he’d ever seen, and there was little to do but ditch his board, dive under the carnage, and hope that he would eventually resurface.
It was a brutal beating. Underwater, his ears were filled with sharp cracks and pops, which he’d later realize were the sounds of leashes and boards snapping. He tried his best to keep calm. He knew his life might depend on it.
“I was 16 years old at the time,” Rothman, now 20, calmly recalls. “That was a really heavy experience for me, but looking back on it now, that’s when I realized I could stay focused and calm in some really big waves. From then on, I knew I could handle it.”
Since that day, Rothman has earned a reputation by charging the kind of waves that would bring most surfers to their knees, including the monstrous Teahupoo barrel that graced the cover of our 2013 Big Issue. But he’ll be the first person to tell you that he’s not immune to fear.
“Of course I get scared,” Rothman explains. “But you have to learn to let your fear push you. It can actually help sometimes. It gets your adrenaline going and keeps you focused, which helps you go a little harder. It also helps having friends out there with you who are comfortable in those conditions as well. I know that they’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs if things go wrong.”
With surfers like Kala Alexander, Mark Healey, and Rothman’s brother, Makua, looking out for him, Rothman is in good hands, all things considered. But their influence extends beyond the big-wave realm. Like his mentors, Rothman has also become a force of nature out at Pipeline as well, getting some of the best waves at the famed reef on any given swell.
“You’ve got to love the way that Koa surfs Pipe these days,” says Healey. “He just puts his head down, finds the best waves, and charges. You see so many young surfers who don’t really push themselves as hard as they should, but that’s not the case with Koa and his crew. He’s really shown just how committed he is over the last few years and I think he’s impressed a lot of people.”
While Rothman wants to continue honing his game at Pipe and the many big-wave breaks along Hawaiian shores, he’s also eager to prove himself in waves of consequence beyond his backyard.
“There’s so much out there,” Rothman says. “So many waves, people, and places. I’m just looking forward to seeing it all and catching the wave of my life along the way.”