Student-Surfers: Making the Grades to Ride the Waves

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Booth will be carrying a heavy academic load when school resumes in September. As a junior at Laguna Beach High School, he will be taking English, U.S. history, architecture, chemistry and a math class called introductory analysis.

And if the past three years are any indication, he will no doubt maintain a 4.0 grade-point average. But don't think studying will prevent the straight-A student from doing what he loves doing best--surfing.

"In the morning, I'll go out about 6 o'clock--as soon as it gets light--and in the afternoon, I'll surf after school until it gets dark," Booth said, as he sat on the sand not far from the Huntington Beach pier early one foggy morning last week.

As a member of the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. (NSSA) national surf team, Booth performs as well in the water as he does in school.

The No. 2-rated surfer in the association's junior division has his bedroom filled with about 60 surfing trophies, including those for first place in the association's 1984 and 1985 National Championships, second place in the 1984 World Amateur Championships for juniors and first place in the 1985 U.S. Amateur Surfing Championships for juniors.

Although he normally surfs at Oceanside and Salt Creek in Laguna Niguel, Booth was getting a feel for the waves at Huntington Beach last week in preparation for the Op Pro Surfing Championships, which runs through Sunday. Booth is one of eight top scholastic-surfing association members competing--for experience only--in the Op Pro, the largest and one of the most prestigious surfing events in the United States.

Blond, Tanned, Trim

"It's helpful if you get used to the waves before a contest," explained the blond-haired, tanned and trim 16-year-old, sporting gray and baby blue sweats, courtesy of one of his surfing sponsors.

Soft-spoken, clean-cut and personable, Booth defies the stereotypical, negative image of the surfer: Think of Spicoli, the long-haired, dope-dazed, "Hey, bud, want to party?" surfer in the teen comedy, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"--the kind of guy who makes it to class only when the surf isn't up.

Booth grins at the image.

"I think Spicoli fits it (the stereotype) to a T: a guy who doesn't really care about anything, just a beach bum, a guy who hangs out at the beach all day and just surfs."

Improving both the image of surfing and the quality of surfing nationwide were the goals of the scholastic-surfing association when it was formed in Orange County in 1977.

"The one goal we had was to clean up the image of surfing," explained Chuck Allen, one of the co-founders of the association and the newly named head coach of the national team.

Allen, executive vice president at Mercury Savings in Huntington Beach, is the volunteer coach of the 25-member championship Huntington Beach High School surf team. He also serves as coach-adviser for the school's 200-member surf club and the school's accredited physical education surfing class. The class is open to 85 students, and, as Allen jokes, "all 200 try to get in it."

The Oklahoma-born Allen, who took up surfing 10 years ago when he was 38, became involved in coaching surfing about nine years ago after he and his family moved from San Juan Capistrano to Trabuco Canyon. "All my kids were surfers, and, of course, they were upset because it (their new home) was inland," he said.

To pacify them, Allen agreed to help start and coach a surf team at El Toro High School. "We got a little surf team going, about 25 kids. It was totally off-campus. They (school officials) tolerated us--that was about it."

To help give surfing more credibility, particularly among educators and business people, Allen and a group of five high school teachers, including Tom Gibbons of Marina High School and John Rothrock of Edison High School--formed the National Scholastic Surfing Assn. and held their first organizational meeting in late 1977.

In 1980, the volunteer-run, rather loosely organized association, which has sponsors from within and outside the surfing industry, hired Australians Ian Cairns and Peter Townend as executive directors.

Came Out Against Drugs

Cairns and Townend, who left the association last year, were ideal choices to run the group. Not only were they the two top 1976 world champion surfers but, as Allen said, "these two guys were also really the first professional athletes in any sport to come out publicly against the use of drugs."

Cairns, now 33, says he has always resented the negative image of surfers. In Australia, he noted, whenever he would see a cartoon about welfare, it would always depict a surfer. But rather than rebel against the negative image and be twice as bad, Cairns said, "I've tried to do something positive about it."

The association, which is open to junior high, high school and college students, offers a number of programs, including:

- Scholastic surfing competitions, which are a series of contests open to student surfers who maintain academic standards set by the association.

- Scholarship program, which gives members the opportunity to receive awards ranging from $100 to $1,000.

- High school and college team competitions.

- Cultural exchanges, which provide an opportunity to travel internationally and to instruct others about association programs and ideals.

Association members are required to maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average, and if they do not maintain at least a C average, they will not have a chance to make the national team, which, Cairns says, is the dream of virtually every association member.

Indeed, the 28 members of the elite association national team are, in Cairns' words, "treated like stars."

"They get sponsored for wet suits and clothing, their sponsors use them for advertising and we take the team to Hawaii on Christmas and on one international trip each year," he said.

National team members must not only be top scholastic-surfing association surfers and have good grades but they also must have personalities that meet criteria weighed when choosing members for the team, Cairns said. "We really emphasize the personality aspect of this--being a good representative for yourself, surfing and the NSSA."

So coveted is a spot on the national team that Cairns has seen numerous cases in which association members make deliberate attempts to improve their grades in order to qualify.

New national team member Dino Andino, 16, a San Clemente High School senior, is one of the most dramatic examples.

A 4-year association member, Andino saw his dream of joining the national team dashed two years in a row because his grades prevented him from competing in the national contest in order to qualify for the team. "My grades were real bad," he said, "like Ds and Fs."

But last semester while in continuation school to make up his school credits, Andino boosted his grade-point average to a 3.0.

For Andino, who recently won first place in the association's National Explorers Division, first place in the National Scholastic Open Season Division and second place in the U.S. Championships, cracking the books obviously paid off.

"Yeah, I love it," he said. "I'm so stoked!"

"A lot of people come in as C students, and we put a lot of heat on them, and they come up to Bs," Cairns observed. When it was discovered a few years ago that a couple of national team members were not attending school, "they were history," he said.

"We don't want to be thought of as policemen, but we don't mind making tough decisions."

Many Turned Pro

Cairns, who also is executive director of the Assn. of Surfing Professionals and event director of the Op Pro, said many former scholastic-surfing association members have joined the ranks of professional surfers.

The most famous scholastic-surfing association alumnus is Tommy Curren of Carpenteria, a two-time Op Pro champion, who reportedly earns $125,000 a year and who was dubbed by Sports Illustrated magazine as America's top surfing professional.

For the eight association members who will be competing against Curren and the other professionals at the Op Pro this week, "this is purely and simply experience," said Cairns, who recently stepped down as national team head coach but will continue coaching the team's surfing skills.

"It's an extremely valuable experience for them to go against the pros. It gives them a tremendous amount of competitive experience--and it brings them down to earth: I like to get them in there to see what the real competition is all about."

Cairns emphasizes, however, that "more than just good surfers, I like to think the product of the NSSA is good people. You've spoken to Jeff Booth--he's a great kid. He just happens to be a phenomenal surfer."

Although his 4.0 grade-point average may be atypical, Jeff Booth's surfing history is typical of the members of the association's national surf team.

He had made the transition from Boogie Board to surfboard when he was 8 years old. "My dad was an old-time surfer, and he just got me on his board at San Onofre and started teaching me," he recalled.

Booth, whose family lives only two blocks from the beach in Laguna, received his own surfboard when he was 9, and by the time he was 11, he said, "I started surfing every day."

By seventh grade Booth was surfing so well for someone his age that he caught the attention of his neighbor, Alisa Schwarzstein, a member of the scholastic-surfing association's national surf team, who encouraged him to join the group.

"He always stood out more than most of the kids his age," Schwarzstein recalled. "He looked like he had potential, and I just told him he ought to enter the (association's) contests."

Schwarzstein, now a sociology major at UCLA, turned pro last year and is the Assn. of Surfing Professionals World Tour Rookie of the Year. She has been surfing since she was 12.

"For me, my parents weren't really for surfing in the beginning," she said. "They didn't like the crowd. They thought of surfers as beach bums." But when they saw that the NSSA was giving away scholarships and encouraging members to do well in school, she said, her parents changed their minds.

Parents Are Surfers Too

Booth's parents, Robert and Carol, never had a negative impression of surfing. After all, they're both surfers themselves, having met at the beach in Dana Point in the early 1960s.

Robert Booth, in fact, has nothing but praise for the scholastic-surfing association, which he characterizes as "extremely professional and demanding of the kids."

"If you're really serious about your surfing, the NSSA is the most competitive, the most professional and, I think, throughout the surfing industry the NSSA is recognized as the premiere amateur surfing association in the country," he said. "Ian (Cairns) is really the force behind the NSSA. He's the guy that really sets the tone and standards for this. He's very demanding."

Jeff Booth agrees.

"What's so great about being on the national team is Ian's coaching," said Booth, who competed with the association's national team in the Assn. of Surfing Professionals pro-am contest in South Africa in June. "It's really beneficial for your surfing. He used to be world champion, so he knows what it takes. He can tell us the type of surfing it takes to be a top professional."

Jeff, who is considering an engineering career, said he is not sure which college he will attend when he graduates from high school in 1987. He says, however, that it will probably be "somewhere near the ocean--maybe Santa Barbara or probably San Diego."

But turning pro is also included in his plans for the future.

"Yeah, that's one of the things I want to do for sure," he said. "I kind of plan on doing that for a couple of years after high school, or probably get a year of college under my belt first. You have to do one or the other full time. It's either college or full-time surfing."

Booth insists maintaining his straight-A average in school comes relatively easy for him, but it's not without putting in two to three hours a night on homework. "I'm conscientious about my grades, and I always put time in on my studies, but it's a fun thing for me. It's not a strain."

No Part-Time Job

Unlike many high school students his age, Booth doesn't hold down a part-time job. "My parents figure as long as I'm doing good in school and surfing, I don't really need to work. They figure my time's occupied enough."

"The bottom line with what he's achieved--in not only surfing but also in his academic commitments--is it's been him," his father, Robert Booth, said. "To maintain a 4.0 and put in the amounts of hours in the water that he does . . . I just sit back and I'm amazed he does it, frankly. He's a neat kid. We're extremely proud of him."

But it's not just his son, Booth said. "It's the entire bunch of kids--they're just an outstanding bunch of people. I just marvel at what a great bunch of guys and gals they are."

Last week on the sand in Huntington Beach, Jeff Booth grinned and shifted his feet in the sand when asked which is more important to him: school or surfing?

"It's pretty balanced," he said. Then, pausing to reconsider, he laughed: "School's never the most important."

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