Fitness

Athleta Journal: Learning to Surf Before I Turn 45

May 20, 2015

Follow journalist and fitness junkie Jessica Hundley over the next few weeks on her journey to conquer the waves before her 45th birthday in our new series: Athleta Journal. Don’t miss Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

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Jessica is wearing a Kaleidoscope Rashguard and Orange Sherbert Scrunch Shorts

It started like this. I was driving north, up the California coast, rounding a particularly lovely curve of the 101 freeway, just as the Santa Monica mountain range gives way to the first shimmering glimpse of the Pacific. Soon, I was hugging the ocean, the beaches of Ventura and then, Santa Barbara just to my left, highway pavement running parallel to sand and sea.

And at almost every beach I passed, there were the ever present black dots amid the white peaks of the waves, surfers- either bobbing serenely in the swell or sweeping down crests with a casual grace. As I zoomed past, a thought came. “I want to do that.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d had this idea, but for some reason on this drive, this day, the thought had a firmness and finality that I couldn’t ignore. I had moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast nearly 15 years before and although I love the ocean, had been a varsity swimmer in high school and a life guard in college – surfing had always seems somehow out of reach, a hobby reserved only for the sun-bleached, the Malibu-raised – those daring, mellow, hang-loose types that are a distinctly SoCal breed.

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It also, I have to admit, seemed somewhat terrifying.

But the idea stuck, held fast in my head – a challenge to myself – a bet. I would learn to surf. In fact, I would learn to surf, at least enough where I could stand on the board and ride at least one wave without falling, before my 45th birthday.

This was in March. My birthday was in June. So, I had to start and I had to start soon. I looked up nearby lessons and finally stumbled across I-Surf, a women’s only surf camp that took place on the same beaches I had passed on the freeway. Classes were limited to 5 people. All ages were welcome. The teacher, Tom, was reassuringly sun-bleached and smiling in his photo. I signed up.

A week later I was standing on Mondos Beach, a horseshoe-shaped cove which boasts a soothing gentle break, supposedly perfect for beginners. Tom was reassuringly sun-bleached and smiling in person. My classmates were, comfortingly, of varying ages and of equal (lack of) skill. Two UC Santa Barbara besties, two moms in their late 50s wanting to surf with their sons, a woman from South Carolina, on a job in California for the next three months, and me. Me – squeezed tight into my new wetsuit, feeling tired, feeling bloated, staring down at I-Surf’s day-glo pink beginner boards with a vague nausea and a mounting dread.

Tom had us practice first on the sand. Laying down on our boards. Jumping up. Laying down, jumping up. It was hard. The key was to do it fast and steady, landing upright, one foot placed in front of the other, knees bent, body balanced. Once we had jumped up and laid down repeatedly, arms aching already, Tom took us into the surf.

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And here – and I am not trying to be poetic or romantic when I say this – but I instantly, immediately fell in love with surfing. I fell in love even before I managed to finally stand, nearly two hours later, pushed into the exact right wave at the pivotal moment by a sun-bleached, smiling Tom. I fell in love with surfing as soon as my board hit water and I began to swim out to that kind, encouraging, sweetly welcoming Mondos Beach beginner break.

I fell in love with the feel of the water beneath me, the sky above, the sound of the waves hitting shore. I fell in love because I knew somehow, instinctively, that surfing was going to teach me things that would be imminently invaluable. These were going to be lessons I needed to learn. I fell in love with surfing because I was suddenly certain I was going to discover something entirely new – about nature, about my body and about myself.

I was a surfer now, and things would never be the same.

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Photo credit: Todd Weaver

Read Part 2 of Jessica’s journey. 

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17 Comments

  • Reply Michelle Sommers May 21, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Great job Jessica! There is nothing that compares to that feeling of riding your first (of many) waves. Learning later in life to surf is more difficult but it’s so much fun and worthwhile. Hope you are able to keep the stoke and keep surfing:)

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta May 21, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      Michelle, Jessica will be following up with a series of posts documenting her journey! Check back next week to keep reading. 🙂

  • Reply Helen May 22, 2015 at 4:25 pm

    Inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story Jessica!!

  • Reply Janet May 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

    You look right with that surfboard Jess…conquer the waves!!! You look pretty cute in the Athleta-wear, too. 🙂

  • Reply Carrie May 25, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I have two adult children. Both young men now. They grew up in and with pool sports but never surfing.
    My oldest introduced me to surfing two years ago in Santa Barbara at Rincon. I was transported by the beauty of the water, the pelicans and seals around me and the challenge of catching a wave. The joy is in the integrated experience of the natural environment with the fluid movement of wave, board and body.
    Since then, I have surfed twice with my son, but have had a great desire to make surfing a habit. Last fall I purchased a good wetsuit, booties and hood w/visor. I signed up for a surf lesson several weeks ago and due to catching a cold, postponed it. I took the lesson yesterday and was able to stand and maneuver my surfboard! Joy!
    Upon catching the waves, I noticed I needed to increase fluidity of my movement from pressing the back up to an arch, bring the knees under the body, hopping to the feet with feet perpendicular to length of board and then standing. Ballet has been my lifelong habit and I began yoga during January of this year. I am therefore familiar with generating a fluid movement through focusing on center of gravity and core strength. Reflecting on the experience I think the discipline of yoga is a better cross fit for surfing.
    This morning I checked the local surf reports and began looking for a surfboard. My 55th birthday is in June.
    My first surf experience was similar to yours Jessica, with an instantaneous delight, but the implementing of a habit takes time at different stages in life.
    Thank you for your story.

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta May 26, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      Carrie, thanks for sharing your surfing experience! We love your yoga tips – there can definitely be a beneficial cross between the two.

  • Reply Jessica Hundley May 26, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks for all the kind words everyone – writing this series has been rewarding in so many ways. As you’ll see from my next post, my experience so far is not quite as romantic as I make it sound in this introductory article.
    Surfing is HARD – but I am LOVING it.

  • Reply Lee June 1, 2015 at 4:12 am

    I started my daughter who was 9 at the time with surfing lessons and summer surf camps. After watching her for a couple of years, I started renting a big soft top and would float around in the water while she was at camp. Slowly, and I mean slowly, I started to learn how to surf. I was 43 at the time. Eventually, I bought a board, then another board and became addicted. Since we live in NJ, the surf season is really short, unless you are willing to surf when in icy temps. I am 52 now and can’t wait for summer to start and get in the water. It is now a mother daughter activity. We have taken 3 trips to Costa Rica for surf camp (where I corrected many of my self taught mistakes). We also take family vacations to Hawaii every summer and surf as much as we can. I know the day is coming soon when my daughter won’t be able to go on the surf trips with mom. We have met many people of all ages who have them same joy of surfing. I hope I can find more like minded “middle aged” women like myself to continue my surf trips. Your story is encouraging. Keep us posted on your journey!

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta June 1, 2015 at 9:57 am

      Lee, it sounds like surfing created a very special relationship for you and your daughter. Your story is encouraging as well! 🙂

  • Reply Angela June 1, 2015 at 4:30 am

    Jessica, congrats on going for it! Yeah, surfing is hard. I think anyone who has chosen to surf later in life can completely relate to your story. I grew up in MN and one day decided to take myself on a solo trip to Costa Rica to learn to surf for my 33rd bday. Something powerful happened for me on that journey that changed my life. I was hooked on surfing and a shift happened in my priorities which resulted in a complete downsizing of my life. Fast forward 9 years and this April I completed my first season ‘wintering’ in the surf town I fell in love with in 2006. I finally bought my first surf board, and while I had surfed a handful of other times over the years, it was like starting over every year. This time I was doing it solo. No more surf instructors holding my hand. I spent months in the white water doing what I knew how to do, but had a growing mental block over paddling to the ‘outside.’ Finally on my 42nd birthday my girlfriends and I decided we were all going to paddle out for my birthday. I had made up my mind, and that was the day. When I arrived at the beach that morning, the surf was big. I was scared, but I just decided to take it one turtle roll at a time, no matter how long it took. Needless to say, I made it, and I’m sure you can imagine the bliss of conquering those fears and sitting out there with my friends, my surf buddies, taking in the beauty of the Costa Rican Coast in the sun, feeling completely alive at 42! This experience made me acutely aware of how rare I felt that kind of fear and the process it took to to go beyond my comfort zone and conquer those fears. I find that if we don’t seek out these opportunities later in life, we don’t encounter them that often, at least from a physical challenge standpoint. I see it far too often that women tend to give up on their lives and after they have children, or when they reach a certain age. I truly believe that continuing to evolve and grow is the key to personal happiness and happiness within relationships. Thank you for inspiring women everywhere, and opening up the discussion for others like us to share. Surfing has so much to teach us! When I left CR, I was just starting to catch waves by myself on the outside. It wasn’t pretty, and I took some beatings, but I can’t wait to get back to my board and my favorite break in November!! I think I’m really going to get it this time!!! Cheers to you, I Can’t wait to follow your journey!!!

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta June 1, 2015 at 9:56 am

      Angela, beautifully said! Women should always keep seeking out new experiences and challenges. What a brave and inspiring choice you made to “winter” in a new place.

  • Reply Barb June 1, 2015 at 4:42 am

    I too am turning 55 on June 4. I’ve had 2 life altering illnesses over the past 10 years. Breast cancer and the aggressive treatments that go with it and an unexpected 5 hour surgery to my gut 2 years ago that has changed my life. My goal each time was to get back to the gym. I’m in better shape now than ever. I believe trying something out of the box is good for your mind, body and soul…no matter what your age. For all of the “young” women reading this, keep moving, learn new things and never question your abilities. Thanks Jessica for the inspiration. I wish I were in California to surf with you. For now please excuse me as I am out the door on my way to a cardio weightlifting class. Lol.

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta June 1, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Barb, you are inspiration to us! What a great reminder to keep getting out there and trying something new. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  • Reply Wendy June 1, 2015 at 5:39 am

    Go Jessica! Reading this post means so much to me. I was a novice surfer before becoming pregnant, having my son, and injuring my hip in the process. I’m heading to Hawaii in about a week and will be getting back in the ocean after more than a year of physical therapy. I’m not sure I would have worked this hard to recover if surfing wasn’t the carrot dangling in front of me. Your story could not have come at a better time. Looking forward to next week’s post.

    • mm
      Reply Team Athleta June 1, 2015 at 9:53 am

      Wendy, good luck with your return to the ocean! We’re sure your hard work at physical therapy will pay off.

  • Reply Nandini July 31, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    How inspiring! I’m one month away from a surf camp trip to Costa Rica with two girlfriends to learn and we’re all late 30s/early 40s. I’ve got my Athleta rash guards and ready to hit the water!!!

  • Reply RhondaA July 31, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    I love this thread. I grew up near the beach in S. CA. Went to college in San Diego where I learned to scuba dive & sail. Fast forward to now and I live in Land locked Colorado. Though I love to get back to La Jolla cove to swim I wanted to try a new water sport before I turned 50 earlier this month. So I took up crew. I
    have been rowing with the Boulder Community Rowing Club. I do not have it all down yet. I am a novice. But I love the arms, back, butt and legwork out combined with core. The feel of an 8 person sweep boat gliding along steady and smoothly cutting the water, while all the oars catch at the exact same time. I I am not a dancer, but we dance and scream across the glistening waters of Boulder Reservoir as the sun rises and the bald eagle, blue herons, Canadian geese all are present to watch us perform. I row three morning a week. I supplement my rowing with pilates & yoga to help my body elongate and stretch out the kinks. It is so important and meditative to me soaking up the sunrise, breathing big gulps of air, all while pushing those legs harder in the foot stretcher to get our rating up in the boat. Rowing is my rhythm and I am addicted to those 5:15AM on the water starts. Summer on the water is paradise!

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