October 16, 2009: Addicted to the Drop

Manhattan Beach, California – Today was my last day of surfing that I will have for the next several months. I was sad thinking about it since I truly love being out in the water, not only to surf but also for the calming affect it has on me. It’s so difficult to articulate, but simply put, when I’m out there everything is as it’s supposed to be.

I’ve fully incorporated surfing into my workout regimen, not just for the physical demands, but also because of the many technical similarities it shares with snowboarding. It also keeps me in a good emotional and mental state, one that will not be so easy to maintain once the snow starts flying and the stress of competition and qualification criteria are in full force (but hopefully I can refer back to it as my ‘happy place’ in those times of stress). It also forces me to confront my fears and become more aggressive in a risky environment while being comfortable in that state, an issue I’ve had with the speed of racing. Plus it’s so fun!

There is something so amazingly peaceful about floating out in the water. No negative thoughts can linger (well outside of the fearful ones when a large, intimidating wave is coming right at me and I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the ones that do manage to penetrate my mind have their say then just float away as quickly as they came. I can’t keep a bad thought in my head. Even if I come to the ocean with all sorts of problems whether relating to snowboarding or just life in general, it all seems to go away once I hit the water. Sometimes when I feel particularly stressed (most likely related to snowboarding) I have the urge to go to the ocean and offer it up. Just give it up and let it go and let the waves carry it away from me. And I feel much better and clearer afterward. I really don’t even know what I think about when I’m out there. When the waves are coming I’m totally focused at the task at hand (similar to being in the Zone), but when I’m waiting and sitting on my board watching the horizon, I’m not thinking about anything.

So once I again I’ve gone off on a long tangent. But I did want to write about today’s session in the water because it was probably one of the best days I’ve had and I want to remember and refer back to it during those times of competitive stress when my entire being gets completely absorbed by the pressure of the qualification criteria for the Olympics. I’ve had two great weeks of surfing small waves, and I’m getting pretty good at positioning myself correctly to catch them where it’s almost easy. (I’m still wiping out a lot so I don’t consider the entire sport of surfing easy by any means.) What I do on the wave is another story entirely, but at least I’m getting the first half of surfing down. Three days ago I surfed for three hours, the longest session I’ve ever had, and while my desire to continue was still strong, my arms were so tired that they felt like lead weights flopping around in the water. But afterwards I felt confident in my abilities, and looked forward to three more days of small but fun surf.

Well a storm rolled in forcing me to just watch from the sidelines since the waves were huge and way beyond my capacity, but I did witness some great surfing. It was cool to see such talent live; up to this point I’ve been limited to surf videos and hokey surf movies. It was truly inspiring, yet definitely put me in my place as to how close I am to that level (very far) and what it’ll take for me to get there (a lot). Today was forecasted to be only slightly smaller than yesterday, and when I got to the beach and watched the sets roll in I didn’t feel confident about going out. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to paddle past the whitewater, let alone have the guts to try to ride some of the biggest waves I’ve ever been in. Had it not been my last day of surfing for a very long time, I would’ve just worked on my tan. So after much anxiety and trepidation, I took the plunge.

I made it out to the lineup surprisingly easy. I got the timing right and didn’t have to fight my way through the fast whitewater or get stuck in the breakzone. One of my fears in surfing is being where the waves are breaking since I still haven’t mastered the art of duckdiving (forcing the board underwater to get underneath the fast moving water) and my fish board is so buoyant that I struggle to push it down. Every time I see a looming wave about to break in front of me, one form of profanity or another escapes my lips, usually beginning with ‘oh (expletive)’. So I was extremely happy when I didn’t have any mishaps on my first paddle out.

I’ll have to admit that I was terrified being out there. Everything looks four times as big in the water than when watching from the beach, and my pulse was racing and I’m sure my eyes looked frozen with fear. But I saw a wave coming and I just sucked it up and paddled hard for it, and I actually caught it. But when I looked down the face, I freaked out at the steepness and pulled out. It was the steepest face I’ve ever been on, and I chickened out. I was so disappointed with myself because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to catch another wave.

Fueled by the disappointment I charged for another wave and felt my board catch. The face was even steeper than the first but I didn’t hesitate and popped up, ignoring my better judgment and just hoping for the best. Blind faith. For a split second I felt my body overextend itself and then freefall, but miraculously the board stayed underfoot and when I ‘landed’, I compressed hard down onto my back foot. But I held on as the board took off and rode the wave, and it was absolutely amazing. It was the biggest wave I’ve ever been on. It also jacked up my back a bit but I didn’t care.

So with the biggest smile on my face I kept going for wave after wave. Some I caught, others I didn’t, some I wiped out royally (one time I thought I was going to dislocate my shoulder again underwater – yikes!). But I learned that I need to pressure that front foot to get the board into the wave and move past tricky sections, and I need to stay low after I pop up to stay balanced and more evenly distribute my weight. I had some really great waves! And despite the fact that I also had some really gnarly, ragdoll, washing machine type falls where I was pulled so far under that everything went black and quiet, I wanted more. I wanted to get into those big waves and test my limits and see what I could do. I let go of my fear and just let determination overtake me. I wanted to feel those scary freefalls and landings. I wanted that adrenaline rush. I was addicted to the drop.

I was also addicted to competing for waves. The water was pretty crowded, and before today in such a testosterone filled environment, if I saw someone paddling for a wave I would immediately back off since I figured that person was better and I didn’t want to get into their way. But today was different. Today I had confidence and aggression and the competitive fire to go after what I wanted. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but I went for it. I tasted that desire to win and I wanted to beat people to the waves.

Unfortunately my fear of getting stuck in the breakzone came back to haunt me because after one ride that took me to the whitewater, a huge set came through and I got caught. Needless to say I swallowed a lot of after-storm seawater, ripped off layers of skin from my finger, and got swept back to shore. I debated quitting for the day but I forced myself to go back out. And after ten stressful minutes of paddling through whitewater and a couple of successful duckdives, I made it back to the lineup, exhausted.

I feel like I made a huge step up in my surfing in today’s session alone. Not just on the technical aspects and size of wave (which is still considered small by most), but especially on overcoming fear and just going for it, which is exactly what I need to do in snowboarding. Coach Mark had told me at the end of last season that it was good for me to put myself in situations that were out of my comfort zone, and I definitely think today qualified. I’m looking forward to bringing all of this to when I snowboard in four days.

At the risk of sounding too girlie and too corny, at one point during the day when feeling the elation from my best wave ever, my eyes welled up from an overload of emotion from the beauty of the environment, my breakthrough in surfing, and just the joy of being alive. It truly was a perfect day.

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