Why I Started Surfing Late in Life
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Why I Started Surfing at 61

And why I must keep going back for more.

Kerrie Houston Reightley surfing
Alandra Porrazzo, Island Dream Productions

Do we all secretly wonder what will be our demise? Or is it just me? Conceivably, my undoing could have been at 61, from trying to learn to surf, on Maui. Thankfully, I lived to tell about it, and surfing is my latest sports addiction.

During a morning walk on Kaanapali Beach in Hawaii with my husband and 18-year-old son, Tanner, I saw a “Learn to Surf” sign and signed up, immediately. Back in our hotel room, trying to cheat fate, I practiced all the moves in advance, while balancing on a cushy bed, and watching surfing-at-any-age videos. My son rolled his eyes.

Kerrie Houston Reightley posing with her son and a surf board
Author and her son pose with a surfboard.
Alandra Porrazzo, Island Dream Production

At high noon, we headed to the beachfront surf club, where my new classmates included two elementary school-age kids, Tanner and three other teenagers. As we practiced surfing on sand, the kids caught on immediately. Meanwhile, I tested the instructor’s patience. “Lie flat on the board on your stomach,” he practically screamed. “Arch your back!” … “Lift your chest off the board!” … “Lift one knee up at a 45-degree angle!” … “Jump up, staying low, and turn your body!” 

Each time I jumped up, according to him, my legs — longer than his, I might add — were “too far apart” … I wasn’t “balanced right” … I didn’t bend my knees … I was “too far forward” or “too far back.” And, “Stop looking down, because that’s where you’ll end up!” It felt like a surf club torture chamber.

We finally headed to the ocean with our 9-foot-by-2-foot boards attached to our legs with an ankle leash. As the kids surfed in, my faulty ankle strap kept detaching, as the rough waters repeatedly catapulted me and the board, crashing back to the shoreline. Eventually, sheathed in more sand than swim attire, with bruised and bleeding shins, I scrambled to success. For two hours — in one of the best full-body workouts and most exhilarating experiences of my life — I paddled out, incessantly, and caught wave after wave.

Spoiler alert: I never actually stood up fully, and surfed — I only continually crashed and burned. I felt foolish, like a girl at a high school cheerleading try out who couldn’t jump up with legs spread wide, put her arms in a big V and land on one knee. Either way, I’m hooked and hardwired to return to Hawaii ASAP, and try again!

So, why must I go back for more?

My predilection for trying new sports started in elementary school, when my 6-foot-5-inch all-star-everything jock of a dad taught me to play baseball. One day, showing off for the neighborhood boys how I could switch hit, I slammed a baseball through our front window.

“Just you wait until your dad gets home!” my mom screeched in her lovely Indonesian-Dutch accent. When my dad arrived, I got a big hug and kiss. “I’ve always wanted a baseball player in the family,” he said. “But I never knew it would be my little Tebbie Lynn.” That was his endearing nickname for me.

Sports always equaled fun and adulation, although back then, kids were cut regularly from sports teams (and perhaps their dreams, too). In 1971, at 12 years old, 5 feet 5 inches and 105 pounds, I was devastated when cut from my junior high school basketball team.

I’m thinking now how that coincided with my parents’ traumatic divorce.

In 1975, before Title IX kicked in fully, opening up traditional males-only sports for women, I was one of the “10 most outstanding athletes” at my sizable inner-city high school. As a sophomore, I was number one and captain of my varsity tennis team. We weren’t given team uniforms but wore our own short shorts, or short tennis dresses, with matching frilly panties that showed. As a senior, I shared an MVP award on our varsity softball team, on which we wore hand-me-down junior varsity boys’ uniforms — including their used white “sanitary socks” and tattered belts.

I recall feeling proud to wear the boys’ uniforms, and not short changed. I was empowered, and humored, wearing the boys’ clothes, while retaining our Charlie’s Angels physiques, haircuts, makeup and frilly underthings — and still, unexpectedly, hitting the crap out of the ball.

No one ever told me and my friends — many also raised by single moms — that college sport scholarships were available for girls, too. I was heartened to learn, though, that since the early 1970s when Title IX was enacted, girls’ participation in high school sports has grown from less than 300,000 to almost 3.5 million in the 2018–2019 school year. Girls now make up almost 43 percent of high school athletes, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.

And I persisted, long after those athletic teen years. In my early 50s, after completing two sprint triathlons consisting of a 2-mile swim, 13.5-mile hilly bike ride and a 3-mile run, my friends said, “Your kids must be proud.”

The reaction from my kids, who were then ages 18, 14 and 8? “It’s not a big deal, Mom, you just do stuff like this.”

In my late 50s, my United States Tennis Association tennis team made it to the sectionals championships in Oregon. Now in my 60s, when I asked my son Tanner what he thought of our learning to surf together: “You’ve normalized what moms do,” he said. “I never think about it.” In the end, in surfing and in life, I’ll continue to be motivated by Maria Shriver’s quote: “Stop being ashamed of how many times you’ve fallen, and start being proud of how many times you got up.” I will remain that girl who still wants to show off for the neighborhood boys.

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