Every morning after coffee, Nat Young gets in his black Toyota pickup truck and cruises the cliffs, searching for Santa Cruz’s best waves.
He doesn’t track the conditions online. He hears by word of mouth the swell size and direction, the wind forecast. He knows the tides, and has developed a keen sense for which of Santa Cruz’s dozens of breaks will have the cleanest waves.
Sometimes it’s simple, and he dives into the ocean at the first spot he checks.
“A lot of times I get picky, and I could literally end up driving from six in the morning to noon, looking for waves, and then end up surfing the very first wave I looked at,” Young says.
At 24, the freckled blond is already Santa Cruz’s most accomplished surfer yet, with three seasons on surfing’s highest level of competition. Young enters the upcoming season ranked No. 10 in the world, the second-ranked American behind Kelly Slater at No. 9.
Young begins the 10-month season March 10 on Australia’s Gold Coast, then goes to places like Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, South Africa’s Jeffreys Bay and Oahu’s North Shore.
When he’s home on Santa Cruz’s Westside, Young surfs every day—two to three times a day. On his cement patio, around a dozen wetsuits hang on makeshift racks, dripping dry in the sun. A plastic shed houses 60 surfboards from his sponsor Channel Islands Surfboards, and he picks from their various shapes and sizes the right board for the day’s conditions.
To most people’s surprise, Young hit the tour in 2013 with enormous success, reaching two major finals in Portugal and Australia’s Bells Beach and winning the Rookie of the Year award.
He describes the past three years as up and down, his year-end world ranking bouncing from No. 8 in 2013 to No. 13, then to No. 10 the following years.
This year, Young says he wants to win a contest.
“I’ve been on tour three years and I’ve only been in three finals. It’s like you only have one opportunity a year, so you have to take advantage,” Young says. “I think surfing is one of the hardest sports. So many factors are out of your control when you’re in a heat.”
“Everything I can control, whether it’s my training, or my equipment, is huge—knowing your equipment and being on top of it. Picking the right waves: Should I go on this? Or maybe the one behind is better, and trusting that you make the right call … I feel like when you put a lot of work and time and effort into the preparation of it, those decisions come a lot easier.”
Young grew up playing soccer, baseball, golf, and basketball, and competed on Santa Cruz’s junior lifeguard team. He skateboarded and rode his BMX bike and was always at the beach.
At age 5, he stood up on a boogie board while on a trip to Mexico, then started surfing Cowell’s on a pink board. By the age of 6 he graduated to Steamer Lane, a world-class break known for its talented and macho crowd.
The simple explanation of how a regular all-American kid rose to the top of the surfing world is that he’s ferocious.
Peter Mel, World Surf League broadcaster and Santa Cruz surfer says of Young, “First and foremost, he’s about as competitive a human that I’ve ever met. There’s that. You need that, especially to have the success that he’s had at the level he’s at … He’s never a poor sport, but he does not like losing. He does whatever he needs to do to avoid that feeling.”
Mel’s son, John Mel, 16, calls Young a role model. Young has taken John, a budding pro surfer, under his wing. They lift weights and surf together regularly.
“He’s always wanting to win, and you can see how focused he is to win,” says John of Young’s intensity. “That’s what you need. Basketball, cornhole, ping pong—any of those he’s super competitive and you just know that he really wants to win, and he’s going to practice until he wins.”
Nat’s mother, Rosie Young, says even at a young age her son was fierce.
“We used to play games with him when he was little, like Candyland and Sorry!, and we used to have to let him win. He’d change the rules as we went along. He enjoys it. He enjoys competition,” she says.
When it comes to surfing, Young says he may not have the prettiest style, but when he’s on a wave, he doesn’t think about how he looks.
“I definitely put all my energy, all my strength, into every turn I do,” Young says. “I want to throw everything I have at the wave. When you’re doing that, putting all your power, that — that’s my approach.”
It’s a hot summery day in early January when I meet Young for the first time. The tide is high and not good for waves, so Young is at the gym. He’s just returned from a three-week break from training, after finishing 2015 with a frustrating early exit at Pipeline in Hawaii.
My boyfriend is a huge fan of Young’s, and in our hallway we have a large framed photo of him getting barrelled at Año Nuevo State Park. It turns out Young has the same photo, his first cover for Surfing magazine, hanging in his living room.
During contests, my boyfriend makes me stay up until 2 a.m. to watch the live webcast of Young’s heats. Sometimes in the wee hours we’ll go to our friend Levi’s house to watch, and Levi’s dad will join and reminisce about the time he saw Young surf at the Coldwater Classic. Long story short, Young is a celebrity in our household, and I’ve got the jitters. But when I meet Young at Santa Cruz’s Paradigm Sport, where he trains four days a week between contests with strength coach Joey Wolfe, I’m instantly at ease. He’s just a regular guy. At 5 feet 10 inches and 164 pounds, Young is muscular but blends into the crowd. He’s friendly and talks in intermittent bursts when he’s not doubled over, catching his breath between sets.
Wolfe, the gym’s owner, is a former minor league baseball player. He’s trained Young since 2010, when Young was 18 years old, 20 pounds lighter and just entering the qualifying series, the “minor leagues” of surfing.
“When Nat came to me he was already flexible,” says Wolfe. “His thoracic rotation is off the charts. He’s played baseball, basketball, golf. He’s an athlete first. So having someone with incredible body awareness, who’s already played other sports, it’s about getting him stronger.”
Young likes to train with friends, and on this day he’s lifting with Santa Cruz lifeguard Paul Steinberg and Tyler McCaul, a professional mountain biker from La Selva Beach.
After a foam-roller massage and dynamic stretching warm-up, Wolfe leads the trio through a strength-building routine: kettlebell Turkish get-ups, medicine ball pushups, bodyweight core exercises, and others. In one drill, Young holds the ends of a heavy rope, balances on one foot on a BOSU ball and beats his arms up and down like a Taiko drummer.
Each day the training changes.
Surfers need strength to handle the g-forces of carving aggressive turns. But they also need to be flexible and fast to launch off the wave’s lip and land aerial maneuvers.
Wolfe says he’s careful that Young stays lean, so Young squats less weight than the professional baseball players, for example, but Wolfe doesn’t place much emphasis on sport-specific conditioning.
“For rotational power, that’s no difference for a baseball player, a fighter, a surfer. It’s all the same,” Wolfe says.
Young says that without his mother, he never would have become a professional surfer. Until Nat turned 17, Rosie Young drove him every weekend for six years to Southern California, where all the junior contests were.
“She had a Jeep and on one of the trips the door fell off,” says Young. “And then there was the Volvo. It got 280,000 miles in four years. It just died on her.”
Rosie Young was a legal secretary before quitting when Nat began his junior career. She spent thousands of hours on the cliffs, videotaping him surf.
She edited the tape into short films, which he’d watch on repeat.
“They were his teacher,” Rosie Young says. “Wherever he surfed, I’d film—up the coast, Pleasure Point, the beaches here. Wherever he went, I went with my camera.”
She says Nat becoming a top 10 surfer was never the goal when he was young. She was friends with other surfers’ parents and enjoyed traveling with her son. His father Dennis, a talented Santa Cruz surfer who died in 2012 of cancer, would take him on surfing trips, she says, and was not a “helicopter dad.”
“He had joy in just watching Nat. He didn’t give much advice, except recommendations on boards,” says Rosie, who joins fans across the world to watch her son compete on live webcasts from her home in Santa Cruz. “If he has a heat at two in the morning, I’ll set my alarm for 1:30 so I won’t be all groggy,” she says. “The ones in Europe are the worst.”
Kieran Horn, a former Santa Cruz surfer and now O’Neill’s marketing and business director in Holland, managed Young in his junior career. He didn’t coach Young, but gave advice on boards and helped him prepare for international trips.
Even at 12 years old, Young was clearly a “man among boys” in contests and already had the fundamentals to become one of the best surfers in the world, Horn says.
Young is known for his backside surfing—with his back to the wave—his strong bottom turn and aggressive vertical attack of the wave’s lip. Broadcasters regularly gush about his powerful “tree-trunk legs.” Off each top turn, his board throws an explosive spray of water, an indication of his strength.
Before Young, Santa Cruz produced a series of backside goofy-footers in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Anthony Ruffo and Chris Gallagher.
“[With Nat], it was like, here’s another backside guy, but to another degree,” Horn says. “Having that bottom-turn to top-turn combination at that young of an age, that is something really important to have competitively. So yeah, it was clear that there was great potential at a young age.”
THE BIG HOPE
Around Santa Cruz, strangers recognize Young and say hi. On Instagram, he has 131,000 followers—and his Facebook page, last updated in 2013, has nearly 5,000 likes.
But he’s not yet a household name, even in his hometown.
As his mother, Rosie puts it: “He’s not like Justin Bieber who can’t walk out of his house. There’s no paparazzi walking around. I mean, there’s probably people in this town who don’t know who Stephen Curry is, but that’s because they don’t watch basketball.”
According to Peter Mel, American surfing is in transition. At age 44, Kelly Slater is still going strong, but he may retire soon. Last year’s retirement of Florida’s C.J. Hobgood, a 17-year tour veteran and former world No. 1, began a changing of the guard. Two new Americans will join the championship tour in March.
Hawaii also includes some standout surfers, such as world No. 15 John John Florence, who has won two championship contests, but Hawaiians are not considered Americans by the World Surf League.
“As far as American surfing goes, he [Young] is our next real big hope. … There’s not a ton of Americans. So he’s the guiding light for all Americans, not just Santa Cruz, but the entire nation,” Mel says.
“I don’t know if he actually thinks like that, but I know that there’s a lot of fans on tour and he’s gonna hold that flag.”
FOLLOW NAT YOUNG: The contest window for the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast is March 10-21. Young’s first heat will be against John John Florence and Jack Freestone. More info at worldsurfleague.com; download the app for alerts when contests are called.