Celia Balf/Hurley

What happens when a soccer player learns how to surf

Since I was 4 years old, I’ve always been a “dry-land” athlete. I’ve dug my cleats into artificial turf, stained my white soccer socks with fresh grass stains and sprinted around tracks until the bottom of my feet began to feel like springs.

Soccer eventually became the sport I identified with. Grass or turf, indoors or outdoors, it was the game I loved and what would eventually pay for my college education. I remember one day during my junior year of college at the University at Albany, for recovery, our coach made us do a swimming workout. It was at that moment that I had to admit that not only did I not like water, but that I also had no idea how to swim. This was me, the junior captain of the team, the always so strong and confident center back, who had to tread water in the shallow end while I watched my teammates cross-train in the deep end.

[More from Excelle Sports: After the Whistle Blows: What happens when athletes are forced to give up the game that shaped them]

Despite my inability to swim, I like to think of myself a relatively athletic person. I work out every day and have a pretty impressive youth soccer trophy collection at home. But, water and water sports have never been my thing. So when the Hurley Surf Club invited me to spend a day at Long Beach outside of New York City and learn to surf even more, I thought this was my opportunity to turn things around.

On a 80-degree day in Brooklyn, N.Y. I hopped in a car to head to Long Beach to learn how to catch waves with professional Hurley surfers, Kai Lenny and Will Skudin. Pause right there. What did I just sign up for? I HATE the water. And let’s casually add into the mix that these were hot, talented professional surfers. OK, sure. I am a brave, athletic journalist. I got this, right?

Media members being welcomed at Hurley Surf Club. (Hurley)

Well, let’s just say Long Beach, despite being just 40 minutes from New York City, did not feel like New York. First, there was sand—white, beautiful sand. There was space, healthy food (not a bodega in sight) and happy, smiling people. Where was I? I was pretty distracted by everything around me that I almost forgot that in less than 20 minutes I would be thrown into the water, where there could be sharks, and I would either have to sink or swim.

We went through a surf-lesson crash course, learning how to paddle out on the board, how to slide your body down so your feet wrap around its tail and then how to jolt your body up, much like a burpee. I know how to do burpees, I thought, how bad could this be?

Pre-surf advice from Kai Lenny. (Hurley)

Without much time to grab an inhaler or text my mom that I was freaking out, I was told it was go time. As we approached the water, I couldn’t help but keep getting tied up in the board’s string that you wrap around your ankle for safety. Finally, though, I got into the water.

Despite my gnarly Hurley wetsuit, my toes were freezing. Sure, I have had cold toes before in soccer when we’ve played through snow and horribly cold, rainy games, but this…This was tough. I immediately got splashed in the face by a wave, and I guess at that moment I was officially awake. I mean, how could you not be? Salty water whipping you in the face and then coating your lips in just one splash? Talk about some kind of alarm.

I felt pretty secure when I was laying flat on my board. I had one of the surf instructors holding onto my board and talking to me about how much he loved the ocean, surfing and the lifestyle. I am not going to lie, it was pretty peaceful out there. While we were waiting for a good wave, it was almost like hanging out in the locker room before a soccer game: Everyone was just anticipating the game or the heat, chitchatting and enjoying the moment. The instructor told me he was going to push me into the next wave ,and I had to to stand up when he told me to. ‘OK, Coach,’ I thought to myself.

I felt like I was a little bird being thrown out of the mother’s nest at this moment. I knew that all I had to do was push my body up and stand in a squat position and ride the wave to the surface, but what if I completely wiped out, smashed my head on the board and just got eaten by the ocean? Sorry that was dark. But really, the open ocean is scary, and despite having all these people around to make sure I don’t drown, it was a lot of trust I was giving to these strangers and the ocean.

My first attempt, I fell right on my bottom, unable to balance fully on my two feet. My second go, however I was able to stand up. I felt like Tyler Right cruising into the beach. Hurley, do you need to sponsor a new athlete? Sign me up.

All jokes aside, in a lot of ways, it didn’t get easier. I still found myself overthinking the initial stand-up movement, but eventually, once I got the pop-up down, it reminded me of that feeling when you make a game-changing play in soccer and everything in that moment stops. It’s like you can’t even hear the fans, your coach or your uncontrollable breath because you are that present—that’s what surfing is like.

Celia Balf catching her first wave. (Hurley)

Three years ago, I was the Division I soccer play trembling in the shallow end of a hotel pool. Now, this “dry-land” athlete is growing some fins.

Jump To Comments
  • Rachel Balf

    love this article, psychology and zen all wrapped up in one