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Surf Moms: Is NSSA replacing AYSO?

By Jenn Diamond

Monique Hight, photo courtesy of the Hight family

As surfing integrates into mainstream America, the beach is fast replacing the soccer field as a gathering place for family weekends. And as surfing blossoms, opening up a new frontier of competitive and lifestyle career-opportunities for girls, there is more pressure than ever for kids to perform. But behind all the photo shoots and cross-training and coaching, it’s just about mom sharing the stoke of surfing – isn’t it?

Young girls, many under the age of 15, are depositing contest checks into their college funds, landing modeling jobs, and receiving thousands of dollars worth of gear, clothing and accessories. A few have even ventured into the world of television and music and at least one is now studying at an Ivy League institution. Behind their success you’ll almost always find a surf mom (or dad). Usually driving an SUV plastered with Billabong and Spy stickers, the surf mom is a unique hybrid of chauffeur, coach, trainer, publicist and parent. They will go to extreme lengths to encourage, nudge, cajole and sometimes push their daughters into the world of competitive surfing. Sean Kehoe takes his daughter’s surfing seriously – very seriously. While other 11-year-old girls are being shuttled off to play dates and Girl Scouts, Kirra “Kiki” Kehoe is in the water at Malibu.

“We are always conditioning,” said Sean. “We surf at least three times a week, depending on weather conditions, and we swim five days a week. You have to gear up with a strong background in swimming and ocean safety.”

Physical training isn’t the only way these youngsters are getting ahead. Former pro surfer, Dale Hight studies the videotapes his wife Kathi takes of their daughter, 17-year-old Monique of Dana Point, CA. The pair scrutinizes each tape, taking apart each ride and suggesting technical improvements.

Aside from being chauffeur and videographer, Kathi also plays sports agent. “I deal with all of her sponsors,” she said. Monique does a fair share of modeling for these companies, often appearing in full-page ads. The companies send her boxes of gear and accessories. “She gets around $10,000 worth of stuff from them each year,” said Kathi. In addition to traveling to contests and photo shoots with Monique, including a recent job in Costa Rica for O’Neill, Kathi is also in charge of updating the local media with Monique’s latest contest results and photos.

Hadley, Kirra, and Monique with their moms

To help Monique juggle her ambitious contest and modeling schedule with home schooling, Kathi also wears the gloves of chauffeur. “Even though she has her license, I still do most of the driving,” said Kathi. “That way she can sleep on the way up (to contests) and in-between heats.”

Driving Miss Ripper seems to be a common theme among surf moms. “I've done lots of driving through the years,” said Mary Ferguson, mom of 16-year-old Hadley. “I’m constantly checking for waves and dropping her off and picking her up at the beach. I take her to surf contests all over the place.” Like other surf moms, Mary is the one in charge of logistics. “I generally organize our schedules and make the phone calls to the local ESA director and make sure she is registered in time for contests. I wake her up early on contest days, get food, water, sunscreen and make runs to the grocery store if necessary. I've also helped with the care of her boards, teaching her how to keep them in good shape, making plans ahead of time for when a new one might be needed.”

The surf mom (or dad’s) job isn’t strictly limited to behind-the-scenes however, and some parents enter center stage when their daughters are competing.

“My dad paddles out with me when it’s big, like 10-foot faces, during a contest and he helps me through them,” said Kirra. While parents like Sean will sometimes help get their kid into larger surf, that’s not the only time they may be spotted in a lineup.

“Getting your kid waves is the biggest challenge as surf dad,” said Sean. “You’re dealing with everyone from grown men and ripping teenagers to people who can’t surf and get in the way. To learn how to surf and be a great surfer you need water time, you need 50 waves in a session, not five.” According to Sean, another challenge is when the locals don’t respect a contest and surf in the area, cutting the kids off. “Most dads feel helpless. The only choice they have is to put on a wetsuit, paddle out and sit out there until (the locals) leave; sit on them, snake them until eventually they get tired of you and they just catch a ride in and get out. Usually they get booed on the beach as they walk up to their car.”

In every youth sport, enthusiastic parents yelling and cheering from the sidelines is the norm and disputing bad calls is expected. But how far is too far?

“While it’s not as prevalent to have ‘little league parents’ in organized surfing, they surely do exist,” says ESA Executive Director Kathy Phillips. “We have had one or two incidents that stand out, but I must say it’s most always the dad, not the mom, going off,” she said. “Both mothers and fathers are guilty of questioning a judge’s decision from time to time, but we have a system in place so that they can sit down with the Beach Marshall or the Contest Director and blow off steam and review the score sheets with the Head Judge if necessary.”

“As to ‘little league’ exploits, the worst I ever witnessed was when a dad slapped his child, who had just come out of the water, because he thought the kid had not surfed well in the heat,” said Phillips. “Needless to say, the adults on the beach immediately helped the child to the officials’ area and blocked all access off to the father who had to be escorted off the beach and was forever banned from ESA surf competitions. That was very troubling and actually caused the ESA to adopt a ‘code of conduct’ policy.”

Hadley has seen some bad behavior from parents and adds that usually something else is coming into play.

“Some parents do seem to be kind of crazy surfing parents, like they want their kids to fulfill their own dream or something,” said Hadley. “But, for the most part surfing is such a relaxed sport that parents usually seem to be really supportive of their kids. Surfing’s not just about competing; it’s about expressing yourself.” Her mom agrees. “There is a balance between showing encouragement and support and pushing too hard,” said Mary. “I know Hadley. If she’s having a tough day at a competition I try to gently show encouragement and reminders of goals and why they’re important. But I will occasionally check in with myself and make sure those are my daughter’s goals and not mine and to always remember the importance of the difference.”

When it comes to competition, Sean admits that his multiple roles can pose some difficult situations.

“Kids are kids. A parent is a parent and a coach is a coach,” said Sean. “If the parent decides to take the job as a coach it becomes their responsibility to get the best performance out of the kid, whether a girl or a boy,” he said. “Sometimes that means you need to put a little pressure on them to push them through the fire to help them excel to the next level. That’s the reality.”

Kirra, photo courtesy of the Kehoe family

Today, Kirra is the 2003-’04 West Coast Champion in her division, is ranked second in Women’s Longboard and is second in Mini Grom Girls Shortboard. And, as if competing in 15 surf contests, 14 swim meets, five lifeguarding events annually isn’t enough, she has taken on an alternate persona as young rapper, Shirley Good, and already has one album under her belt.

“I was in second grade and I wanted to do the school talent show,” said Kirra, “I asked my Dad if I could rap and put a dance together so we re-mixed Shaggy’s “Angel” and I competed.”

“She was a smash hit,” said Sean. She has since recorded an album produced by Doug Carrion, former bass guitarist of The Descendents, and began her second one this past spring with the music producers from the movie, Shark Tale.

Another surf daughter flirting with the spotlight is 21-year-old Molli Miller who was cast on MTV’s “Surf Girls” reality TV show in 2003. “Supporting her goal to be one of the Surf Girls during her senior year in high school was the toughest decision,” said her mom, Brenda. “Looking back, I believe the life experiences she gained have given her an understanding of the world and to the surfing industry that she would not have had otherwise.” After “Surf Girls,” many sponsors approached Molli. That year she was in a contest almost every weekend and won the 2003 USSF US Championships. But she was burning out. “I found myself doing contests not because I enjoyed them but because I felt like I should,” she said.

While the amateur ranks may appear to be the breeding ground for tomorrow’s models and TV stars, the competition circuit itself can still lead to careers outside of pro surfing. Esther Hahn looks like any average competitive surfer – sun-kissed hair, bronzed skin, and a smile worthy of its own toothpaste commercial – but this 18 year old from Southern California is finishing up her freshman year at Yale University where she is pursuing a degree in mathematics. Her surfing helped her stand out in the admissions process – yes Yale has a surf team and yes one’s competitive record is factored into the admission process – but she says her mom is the reason she is where she is today.

“My mom really helped me to get into Yale by overseeing my homework and keeping me on a very tight schedule,” said Esther. “I never fell behind with school work while traveling for contests. She also never let me quit. There were so many times when I just wouldn't want to either surf competitively anymore or wouldn't want to study anymore, and she never let that happen.”

Even away at college, Mom’s continual support is obvious. “My mom sends me the best care packages of California produce,” said Esther. “She also sends the sunblock and much-needed surf wax – which is really important since I'm too busy to frequent a surf shop out here.” While Esther appreciates the snacks and supplies, she said “It’s the hand-written notes about the waves pumping at home that keep me going and really looking forward to going home.”

*** Did you know that Kelly Slater used seven pages for acknowledgements in “Pipe Dreams”? While it’s obvious that he loves his mom, he had a virtual army of people to thank for getting him to where he is today.

After hearing the stories of just a handful of up-and-coming surfers, one thing has become clear: Young or old, male or female, competitor or soul surfer, surfers around the globe share one common trait. Whether it’s in the form of advice, encouragement, coaching, training, driving, feeding, educating, loving, hating, providing gear or a new surfboard, each of us thrives on and depends upon continual support from someone – for these young women it’s sometimes dad but most always mom.

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