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.
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.
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.
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.
Read Part 2 of Jessica’s journey.