Beach sports – Wave of passion
by Ryan McDonald
For a good portion of last year, Alex Fry ate breakfast in the car.
The Mira Costa High School junior did not have a problem with his snooze button. In fact, he had already been up for some time. He was in the water, squeezing in a surf before school. Fry is a top competitor on the school’s championship surf team, but unlike many of his fellow surfers, he was playing another sport, tennis, on top of it. Participants on the surf team usually hit the beach in the morning and start the day late, filling out the remainder of their schedule in periods two through six. Fry’s place on the tennis team meant that he did not have an extra period to spare, and so he crammed in time and meals where he could.
This year he has put tennis aside, making it Fry’s first year in which surfing will be his sole athletic focus. But he retains the spirit of an athlete willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.
Along with his contributions to Costa’s perennial powerhouse team, Fry has racked up impressive performances in National Scholastic Surfing Association events, including a third-place finish in his division at last year’s West Coast Championships.
His path to success reveals how much surfing has come to resemble other, more established sports. Fry has little in common with the loose-limbed slackers that formed part of the sport’s identity. Those who know him say that he stands out for the intensity of his focus.
Leo Schleyer is Fry’s teammate on the Costa team, and also his neighbor. He typically catches a ride with Fry when the two are on their way to a meet.
“He’s a super competitive person, probably the most competitive person I know. Sometimes before contests, we’ll be driving there, and you can tell he’s thinking about it. He’s sitting there, just super focused,” Schleyer said.
Schleyer said that Fry’s passion tends to make those around him better. Tracy Geller, head coach of the Costa surf team, described him as “a born leader.” The team has begun working out with a fitness trainer, and splits into groups for smaller sessions. But the groups were uneven: the one immediately after school was crowded to the point of chaos, while the later one was sparsely attended. Fry, Geller recalled, took it upon himself to talk to teammates about their schedules and help balance attendance at the workouts.
Despite the changes surfing is undergoing, it remains unavoidably different from other sports. (Whether it even is a sport has been the subject of dozens of magazine stories, from “Surfer” to “The Atlantic.”) Even when a wave is reduced to a decimal-pointed average, good surfing still requires liveliness and unpredictability. And at a time when more and more of the kids Fry faces in contests are approaching competitive surfing with a kind of parent-assisted monasticism, Fry lives a pretty typical life. He usually forgoes afternoon surfs to focus on homework. He still gets in the water every day, but does so in the frequently closed-out waves of the South Bay.
When I asked if he thought growing up here was an asset or a liability as a surfer, I half-expected him to reply with some bromide about learning to get to your feet quickly. What he offered instead revealed an understanding of surfing, as well as the world outside it.
“It’s an asset. Compared to kids that live in the inner city, where I live is a dream. But compared to the kids I compete against almost every weekend, the waves I surf are nowhere near what they have. And most of them are homeschooled,” Fry said.
His voice carried no hint of bitterness or excuse, just recognition of the facts.
Climbing the ladder
Fry’s dad Kurt introduced him to surfing he was about six, but there was no thought of world-tour domination in those early tours through the whitewater.
“I never thought I would be doing what I am now. It was just kind of like a hobby, for whenever I wasn’t playing other sports. It was just fun,” Fry said.
Fry is a natural athlete with springy legs, erect carriage, and a surprisingly strong grip. He embodies what Geller has identified as a key transformation in the sport: the increasing acceptance of surfing as a competitive endeavor, and the ensuing willingness of sport-inclined of parents to commit their children to it. (Along with tennis, Fry played club soccer, and baseball when he was younger.) Competitive surfing is now being suffused with a talent pool that a generation ago might have thought of it as just, well, fun.
Fry entered his first surf contest, with the local South Bay Boardriders, in fifth grade. The joy his initial successes brought revealed to him how much he enjoyed competition, and winning. He gradually expanded his sights, entering contests in the Western Surfing Association, and now describes himself as committed to the NSSA.
Attending these contests gave Fry his first taste of the challenges a South Bay surfer faces. The closest contest location is Huntington Beach. Others can require driving more than two hours, and he is thankful that his parents were willing to help him get there.
“We’ve always been supportive of him and his surfing. It’s fun to go watch him, even though he has a driver’s license now. You just hope he makes it out of first heat. It’s a bit of a bummer to go one-and-a-half hours for a 15-minute heat,” dad Kurt said.
These early experiences also revealed another obstacle: many of his competitors are reared on pointbreaks or cobblestone reefs, which tend to provide longer rides and more open wave faces than South Bay beach breaks,, and allow for more opportunities to practice maneuvers.
It can be hard to discern any such disadvantage from watching Fry surf. He is attuned to the tiniest shifts in the ocean. Once to his feet, he moves with the taut precision of a running back, goal in sight but constantly adjusting to things trying to knock him down. His carves and hacks land with such force that they seem to come from some place beyond his still-growing frame.
About the only maneuvers Fry does not do are airs, even though many young surfers increasingly define themselves with their aerial repertoire.
“I’m not sure if it’s a decision I made, or something that just kind of happened. I definitely think that my rail work sets me apart from a lot of kids who are doing airs. I don’t even know how to do airs, but I can still get pretty far in contests sticking to my guns,” Fry said.
Geller has encouraged Fry to explore airs, less as something required to win heats than as a way to inject excitement into his approach.
“Kids like Alex, they know exactly how to do the turn and the time to hit the lip to get the score. But it’s just a little bit controlled or safe. I’ve been encouraging him to just send it. Don’t throw away the wave at the end, just send it. If you’re going to fall, fall trying something new,” Geller said.
With another season of competition, Fry said improving his wave selection will be key to going further in contests. But this will hardly be the only thing on his mind. Along with his team and his family, there is a full schedule of classes to occupy him. Fittingly for someone who embraces challenge, Fry’s favorite subject is history, one he has struggled with at times, but nonetheless finds fascinating.
“We’ve always wanted Alex to be well-rounded. We want him to focus on school, and get good grades. Surfing is an important part of life, but it’s not the only part,” said Fry’s mom Nicole.