A Swell Life

Surfers gather on the beach

Six decades of surf, sun and fun with USD’s oldest club sports program

The winds on an unseasonably cold San Diego spring morning are westerly and freshening, and that’s not a good thing for the ever-growing throng of USD Surf Club members gathered in front of their oceanfront compound in South Mission Beach.

Bundled up against the chill, a small group splinters off from the main pack and crosses the boardwalk toward the sand to get a better look at the surf. Clearly, they’re not happy with what they see: small, wind-blown waves rear and buckle in random fashion up and down the beach; their size and shape severely compromised by the blustery conditions. Not a bad day to be on a sailboat, but a surfboard? Ehhh, not so much.

Given the less-than-favorable assessment, it would be understandable if the club members decided to give their planned surf session a pass, opting instead for much less physically demanding pursuits, like, say, downing a warm cup of coffee or an acai bowl at the Mission Beach Coffee Break, a popular eatery just a few blocks down the road.

And that’s when it happens: one intrepid soul changes into a wetsuit, grabs a board and charges across the beach into the surf, yelping excitedly all the way to the water’s edge. Then two others follow. Then three. Then seven.

Soon there are more club members bobbing up and down in the choppy waters than there are waves to surf, and from the looks of things, they couldn’t be happier. Every ride is greeted with hoots and hollers from onlooking club mates, and the performance level elevates with each passing swell.

“We’re all just really stoked to surf, no matter what the conditions are,” says USD Surf Club President Forrest Dein ’14, while suiting up to join the fray. “We push each other to get better, but it’s not super intense like other sports can be. There’s just such a good vibe with this group, and I’m really happy to be a part of it.”

With more than 30 members in its ranks, the 2013-14 group joins a successful lineage of USD surf clubs with roots dating back to the late 1950s. As the university’s longest-tenured club sports program, the club has grown from a small band of fun-loving “Cheerful Turtles” to its modern-day iteration of environmentally conscientious ocean guardians. Sure, the surfboards and styles have changed notably over the decades, but the club’s core values of community and camaraderie remain constant.

“One of the great things about the USD Surf Club is how much fun the members have with each other, in and out of the water,” says Gary Becker, director of USD’s Campus Recreation programs. “I used to compete against them when I was at UCSD as a student, and they’ve always been a really good group who are passionate about surfing and the ocean.”

The allure of riding waves remains as powerful now as ever for past and present USD surf club members. Whether they’re age 19 or 79 or somewhere in between, each and every one has benefitted from the pursuit of a life aquatic.

And it’s a swell life indeed.

The Cheerful Turtles

The wheels on Jim Bracklow’s ’41 Ford labored to gain purchase on the soft sands of Torrey Pines Beach, and he was more than a little apprehensive that his pride-and-joy might get stuck en route to the beach party he and his fellow San Diego College for Men surf club mates — aka the Cheerful Turtles — had orchestrated.

Sure enough, the Ford ground to a halt halfway to its destination; wheels spinning helplessly as Bracklow frantically searched for anything he could find to dig the car out of trouble. “I loved that car, and boy was I scared that we would get it stuck and the tide would come in,” Bracklow ’57 recalls. “Good thing I had a few of the boys with me to dig it out, or I would’ve had some explaining to do. We loved to drive on the beach, but I’m not saying it was legal.”

As a member of the university’s first surf club back in 1957, Bracklow loved to spend his days away from campus bodysurfing and skin diving in the abalone beds off La Jolla Cove. When the sun would set, he and his surf club mates would drive their cars up the beach and find the perfect spot for a bonfire; ideally with members of the San Diego College for Women along for the ride. “It was a lot more strict in those days,” Bracklow says. “We had socials and would call on the girls for dates from time to time, but we much preferred to be down at the beach. That’s where the fun was.”

And speaking of fun, there had to be some kind of memorable story behind that catchy club name, right? “Gee, I can’t remember for the life of me how we came up with Cheerful Turtles,” Bracklow offers, then adds with a grin, “I’m sure it was for a really good reason, though.”

Surfing Arizona

When then-USD Surf Club President Mike Curtis ’71 received the Western Intercollegiate Surfing Council’s (WISC) schedule of contests for the 1969-70 season, he was excited to see that an additional event had been added. He then glanced at the contest location, and was convinced he was seeing things. Tempe, Ariz.? Seriously?

“They had just built this wave park, one of the first of its kind, and were looking to promote it nationally by having contests there,” says Curtis, who still surfs as much as his schedule allows. “At first, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I mean, who gets a chance to surf in Arizona?”

The USD Surf Club had grown considerably in size since its early days, and now had enough members to field a team that would venture up and down the Southern California coast and compete against other universities affiliated with the WISC. Surfing Arizona would obviously be a first, but Curtis and his teammates were always game to try something new, and couldn’t wait to see how they’d fare in the man-made swells.

As Curtis remembers it, the journey provided as much excitement as the destination. “The contest itself was a cool experience. The wave wasn’t really that good and we didn’t win, but I remember we held our own,” he says. “The road trip out there is what I really remember, as much for the camaraderie as the crazy times we had. But then again, we seemed to have a good time wherever we went.”

A Champion Realized

Dylan Slater ’04 came to USD with the specific intention of excelling academically, earning his undergraduate degree and heading off to law school thereafter. With those lofty aspirations, it’s safe to assume that winning a national surfing title wasn’t high on his to-do list.

Funny how things work out sometimes. “I had been surfing competitively since I was 10, and had to make a decision at some point whether I was going to follow that path, or go to college instead,” Slater says. “I loved USD from the first time I visited campus, and really liked the small class sizes. I wanted to be somewhere I could surf, but that definitely wasn’t my top priority.”

After a few weeks on campus, Slater became friends with members of the USD Surf Club, who actively recruited him to join their ranks. It was clear to anyone on hand to witness Slater’s tryout that he was an amazing talent, and it became equally clear to Slater that joining the surf club just might be a perfect fit.“I had such a good time at that first tryout, and some of the people I met are still some of my best friends today.”

Slater capped off his illustrious surf team career with a win in the men’s shortboard division of the 2004 National Scholastic Surfing Association’s Collegiate Championships, becoming the first and only surfer in club history to earn the title. Now the vice president of marketing for surf industry giant Rip Curl’s North American division, Slater recognizes the irony of where life has led him, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I came to USD thinking I might be done with surfing as a career, but everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Being a part of the USD Surf Club is definitely one of the reasons why I’m where I am with Rip Curl, and I have absolutely no regrets.”

Gidget 2.0

Standing just a shade over 5 feet tall, it’s hard to imagine Keenan Lineback ’15 as a giant among her female collegiate surfing peers. But in this case, looks are most certainly deceiving.

Originally from South Carolina — where she earned the status of one of the East Coast’s most decorated female amateur surfers of the last decade — Lineback’s talent and tenacity make her a heavyweight at every surf club contest she participates in, and her consistent appearances on the winner’s podium come as no surprise to any of her teammates. “Keenan is such a great surfer, and she’s so humble about it, too,” says Surf Club President Forrest Dein. “She holds her own with most of the guys on our team, and it seems like every time she shows up at a contest, she wins.”

Lineback is also a captain on the USD Women’s Swimming and Diving team, and was named Torero Female Athlete of the Year for the 2012-13 season. These days, her busy schedule keeps her in swimming lanes more than the surf, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost her passion for wave riding. To the contrary, nothing gets Lineback more fired up than showing the fellas a thing or two in the water. “I’m such a competitive person, and I think it’s important to show girls interested in surfing that we can surf just as well as a lot of the guys,” she says. “I don’t want to just sit on the beach in a bikini. Surfing is for surfers, and gender shouldn’t matter.”

Ocean Guardians

While there’s no doubt that the surf club has left its own distinct and indelible imprint on USD culture since its humble beginnings nearly 60 years ago, there’s still work to be done, both in and out of the water. Dein is acutely aware of the club’s history and perception on campus, and wants this year’s group to set the bar higher for future clubs to aspire to. And that starts with protecting the vital resource solely responsible for the club’s existence.

“Our first priority should be making sure that we do our part in protecting the ocean,” he says. “I know clubs in the past have done beach cleanups and so have we, but I think it’s really important that we’re always thinking about how we can reduce our impact on the environment.”

Enter former USD Surf Club members and classmates Travis Bays ’04 and Gibran Garcia ’04. As co-founders of Bodhi Surf, a popular eco-tourist destination on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast, Bays and Garcia developed 10 basic tenets — known as the Ocean Guardian Pledge — designed around protecting the world’s oceans, promoting their importance and asking others to do the same. Active participants in USD’s efforts to promote and sustain positive social change around the globe, Garcia and Bays were eager to have an on-campus presence to promote their Ocean Guardian Pledge, and who better to do that than USD’s ocean guardians in-residence?

“When Travis contacted me about promoting the Ocean Guardian Pledge at the Changemakerfest
on campus, I thought it was a really great opportunity for us to take that next step in our commitment to protecting the oceans,” Dein says. “It’s really important that people know the surf club is about more than just having a good time down at the beach.” — Mike Sauer