Can Santa Cruz golden grom Nat Young take the heat?
When you can call a world class surf break your childhood playground, you are like many Santa Cruzans. When you can call yourself a champion of that wave and the next big Santa Cruz export, you are Nat Young.
Standing at the steps to Steamer Lane on a placid afternoon when the sun’s pulsating more than the waves, it’s easy to forget how the spot morphs into a churning surf Mecca when the timing’s right. Spitting out wetsuit-armored soldiers battling each other for its perfect point breaks, The Lane is like the monumental rite of passage for many, and simply an ephemeral, unmet dream for others. With fins flying and crowds vying for the slightest piece of the surf pie, it’s easy to feel over it if you can’t hold your own or you just don’t want to deal with all the heads in the water. But for some, the feeding frenzy feeds their ambition.
Such is the case for O’Neill team rider Young. Sporting braces, a freshly shaven head (the result of a recent prank in Indo), and his mighty Stretch board, the 17-year-old goofy foot can lay the smack down at Steamer’s just fine. “Surfing The Lane helps my confidence. Everyone says it’s hard to surf, but I don’t think it’s too hard because I surf here everyday and I know the wave,” he states.
Despite an initial career as a sponsored boogie boarder, for which, he recalls, “everybody used to give me a bunch of crap,” Young first attempted shortboarding at Mitchell’s Cove, and he’s been moving his way toward the head of the lineup at Steamer’s since the age of 12. A standout grom amongst the local pack, he grew up revering Santa Cruz locals like Josh Loya and Kieran Horn, as well as Dane Reynolds and Kelly Slater. He’s got an infinite amount of drive, and in true prodigy form, lacks a driver’s license and isn’t old enough to weigh in on the upcoming election. But who’s got time for Obama vs. McCain, anyway, when Santa Cruz’s biggest face-off in surfing is going down this week at Steamer’s? Taking a breather from politics to take in the smell of salt water spray as this week’s O’Neill Cold Water Classic pits Young against a bevy of local and international heavyweights, onlookers are lining West Cliff for the annual event.
“In everything I do I’m really competitive. But I guess I feel that I want to win more here than at any other contest,” admits Young, who won this year’s top amateur bout for the highly-coveted NSSA National Open Men’s title at Trestles. At Steamer’s he’s got a packed hometown crowd watching right over his shoulder as he defends last year’s Oakley Pro Junior win, attempts to once again contend with the elders in the 4-star CWC, and just plain old represents.
“It makes me feel good,” Young says in response to the high hopes of those envisioning he’ll be the next Slater on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) circuit. “But the [World Qualifying Series] is super hard and there are a lot of good surfers, so I’ve just got to keep progressing and hopefully I’ll make it someday.”
“A lot of athletes have the ability to succeed but it is those that are focused and composed that are able to achieve great success,” states O’Neill Wetsuits Surf Marketing Manager Kieran Horn, 2007’s CWC Second Place Winner behind Jordy Smith, and someone Young credits as being one of his earliest supporters. “I believe this is what has helped Nat succeed and what will enable him to be a world class athlete.”
Having just returned from Portugal and Indonesia en route to the CWC, Young’s been honing his skills full time and is currently ranked second in the ASP North America Junior Men Ratings. With Santa Cruz splitting at the wetsuit seams full of aggressive ’core surfers (we all know plenty who religiously research online buoy reports before sunrise), he’s one of the few to successfully take that dedication out of town and down the contest path.
“I think guys don’t want to leave Santa Cruz because they want to stay up here in their own little paradise and surf perfect waves everyday, so they don’t have the motivation to go,” Young muses over the lack of SC brethren on the road, specifically Southern Calif. where the bulk of contests takes place. “I have fun surfing every kind of wave and it doesn’t have to be like The Lane,” he states. “Even when I surf beach breaks down south that are blown out and small, I can still have fun out there. Up here there’s a lot of point breaks, and a lot of contests are beach breaks so it helps me to surf down there. It’s just different and it’s fun because you get to practice different things. ”
That practice has paid off. With a vertical backside snap that’s driven the point home many times over, Young has, in a mere 5 years, grown into a seasoned contest surfer holding his own and scoring in disparate waters.
No one knows this better than William “Stretch” Riedel, the Santa Cruz shaper who crafts the cutting-edge boards he rides. Riedel was first tipped off about Young’s potential by Mavericks aficionado Josh Loya a few years back. After watching the then 14-year-old out at Steamer’s, he immediately took him into the fold. Stretch, who just shaped 20 boards specifically requested by surfers for the CWC, will have four local team riders duking it out in the contest. Joining Young will be Loya, Josh Mulcoy and Jason “Ratboy” Collins, each anticipated to wield the veteran shaper’s prized pieces.
“He has become more and more of a professional contest surfer,” Stretch describes Young. “At this point, he basically thrives on pressure. If there is no pressure he doesn’t do as well as he does when the pressure’s really on. A lot of riders will begin to doubt and second guess themselves in a heat, but he’s a machine.”
Just as Young continues to advance and come of age, the Cold Water Classic itself is on the cusp of expansion. The contest is changing into a 6-star rating next year, and will launch into a series of five events spanning five countries. Adding contests in Tasmania, Scotland, South Africa and Nova Scotia, the string of competitions will culminate in Santa Cruz. With more stars come more high profile contenders wanting to rack up points to better their standings and qualify for the ASP World Tour.
“The series includes five cold water locations which reflects upon O’Neill’s dedication to the core of the brand—the wetsuit,” Horn advocates. “It’s only appropriate the finale is in Northern California where the CWC originated and where O’Neill originated when Jack O’Neill designed the first wetsuits.”
Though the debate around contests in contrast to “free surfing” burns a personal fire within each surfer on both sides, and there are those like Stretch, who maintains, “I don’t really like contests because I feel it brings out the wrong things in surfing,” all eyes are on Young as the next Santa Cruz star. And like a sweet case of revenge of the sponger, the local boy who once took a lot of heat for boogie boarding is now taking heats—period.
Nat Young and Kieran Horn compete in the O’Neill Cold Water Classic this week at Steamer Lane,701 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz. Tuesday, Oct. 21 – Sunday, Oct. 26. For more information check out www.coldwaterclassic.net