I began surfing this year.
My husband and I drove from the United States to our current location in Uruguay; we have been traveling Central and South America for over a year. Prior to this journey, there were a few years when I dabbled in surfing. On average, I probably went in the water for a grand total of a week per year. But over the past 14 months, I estimate that I have surfed (or, more accurately, “gone in the water”) about four out of every 10 days. At times, that looks like surfing for two to four hours a day for two weeks straight. At other times, it means paddling around for 20 minutes just to “get in the water.”
I’m not writing about surfing because I think it’s cool to brag about waves ridden, because, in reality, I suck. I understand that getting good at surfing takes time, and I’m not exactly in the prime of my youth. I still fall in the “beginner” category despite having spent some serious time in the water; on a spectrum (let’s say that 1 is foam board in whitewater and 10 is catching tubes at Pipeline) I probably come in around 3. As with anything involving outsiders in a new turf, the water is not always a nice place: I have been yelled at by teenagers who I am old enough to mother, been the target of intimidation tactics by gangs of boogie boarders, and been straight out bullied. I respect the concept of putting in your time, so I can take it. And one of the most difficult but rewarding components of learning is putting oneself out there–out there in that sticky area sitting on the edges of comfort.
I recall in the beginning just wishing I had the ability to paddle out and catch a wave, and part of the challenge was absolutely related to the annoyance of it being a male-dominated sport. Well, now I can paddle out and catch a wave. That’s progress, and developing skills with a physical component has strengthened my connection to a part of myself that was long forgotten: “I am athletic!” It’s also enabled the discovery of a part of myself of whose existence I was unaware, the part that is strong, aggressive, fearless–perhaps the side more often associated with masculine attributes. It was a side of me that, for many years, stirred up feelings of discomfort and therefore had been sidelined. As a woman in her mid-thirties, I placed being “athletic” on the back burner and paid more attention to other, more socially accepted, aspects of my personality. I had little connection with my own physical strength. It has meant a lot to me — this process of learning to surf.
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I imagine that I began disconnecting with my athletic side around puberty, and it was officially forgotten as I entered my twenties. I was an athletic kid. I was the girl who ran the fastest mile, was proud to get the Presidential Award on the national physical fitness tests, and looked forward to field day. Blue ribbons hung on the mirror in my room. Man, I always killed it in the 100-yard dash. But next up was high school, and an increased interest in clothes, friends, boys, and all that other sticky adolescent stuff. The athlete was buried under Wet n Wild lip gloss and Manic Panic hair dye. My early twenties were spent buying new clothes, going to happy hour, texting guys, and working a job to which I felt no connection. Don’t get me wrong–this time in my life was a lot fun. Eventually there would be grad school and years of intense focus on my career: achieving licensure, better jobs, furthering myself on an intellectual level. But my visits to the local New York Sports Club consisted of 40 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weights; and, in reflection, those visits were mostly to do with vanity.
In my process of learning to surf, I think a lot about how adults don’t usually learn new sports. Why is that? As we age there seems to be an ongoing fear related to finding ourselves outside our zone of comfort. It is also hard because we don’t feel good about our bodies. It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist. Is this is due to the pressure to “be good” at something? Or the idea that activities without a measurable result are “a waste of time”? It’s difficult to start something new, and it’s even more difficult to stay committed when you don’t see immediate progress. But even though learning to surf is one of the hardest things I have ever done, it’s been the most rewarding. I am able to connect with myself while spending time in spectacular environments. We so often talk about, or hear about, the importance of furthering ourselves intellectually and spiritually, but it is rarely recommended that one take up a sport.
I fall a lot. I wipe out all the time. I attempt to take inventory, post-fall, as to why it happened. What can I do differently next time? It is a process and, at times, it is flat-out not fun. Not fun at all. But surfing is still different than boxing, or yoga, or running, which I experimented with over the years. Those were fitness-minded pursuits–but when I surf, I’m simply playing. I feel good. The challenges of learning to surf reconnected me with my inner athletic child. There is satisfaction in feeling the strength of your body, and the mix of fear, adrenaline, frustration, and satisfaction that comes from achieving your next goal.
In Peru, once, utter frustration and anger drove me to a temper tantrum. I declared that I would never surf again. That spontaneous expression of intense feeling had absolutely nothing to do with surfing. The great thing about engaging in a physical activity is that you have a place to direct that powerful energy. It doesn’t have to be analyzed or complicated. Just get out there. Get back in the water.
Sara Moran is an Art Therapist and Yoga Instructor who has worked in various areas of social services for over a decade. She spends her time reflecting, practicing, connecting, creating, and learning. She has a passion for advocacy and assisting others find their voice through creative outlets.