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San Clemente Surfer Never Late for Class

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It’s 7:30 a.m., and Jeff Lukasik of San Clemente has arrived for his first-period class. There are no reading assignments, there’s no need for pencils or pens and no one cares if he shows up barefoot.

Such is the life of a 16-year-old junior who receives P.E. credit for surfing every morning.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said.

In November, Lukasik won the 16 & under division of the Rip Curl GromSearch national finals in Dana Point, earning him a free trip in April to Australia to compete in the international finals.

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In March, he’ll try to help San Clemente win its ninth consecutive state championship at the National Interscholastic Surfing Assn. finals at San Onofre State Beach.

About the only person having more fun than Lukasik is the school’s 26-year-old surf coach, John Dowell, a San Clemente graduate who watches over 32 members of the surf team and close to 70 other students engaging in their early-morning P.E. activity near the San Clemente Pier.

“It’s pretty incredible,” Dowell said. “I’m at the beach every morning. I get to watch the sun rise, and it’s amazing.”

The students show up with their surfboards, wetsuits, wax and towels and get down to business.

“It’s a lot better than regular P.E.,” said junior Riane Sims, walking barefoot with pink toenails. “The water kind of wakes you up.”

Dowell or another P.E. instructor takes attendance by collecting cards from students with their names on them. Somehow, Dowell, who also works as a lifeguard, can identify students in the water.

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“I can pick out every single kid out there,” he said, watching about 30 surf next to the pier. “You know their wetsuit. You know their style.”

People back east who make fun of Southern California’s traffic jams, earthquakes and smog alerts would be on the first flight out if they had a chance to experience the lifestyle these teenagers enjoy, riding waves before the real school day begins.

Lukasik has taken surfing to a higher level, competing in numerous age-group competitions and attracting sponsorships. He hasn’t paid for wetsuits, shorts, T-shirts, sunglasses, pants, sandals or shoes since he was in the seventh grade.

But nothing beats having surfing as his P.E. class. Lukasik remembers in middle school having to run around a track as part of physical education. He knows football players who must run when they do something wrong. His lone punishment might be paddling around the pier on his board.

“It’s way more mellow,” he said. “In football, you’re running laps and lifting weights. Here, you just go into the water and do what you want.”

There are other Orange County schools with early-morning surfing programs, such as Huntington Beach, Newport Harbor, Dana Point Dana Hills and Huntington Beach Edison. And the participating students seem motivated not only to surf but to attend school afterward.

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“It’s a great way to start the day,” Dowell said.

Watching the athletic and acrobatic moves of Lukasik early in the morning is all the entertainment anyone would need. He has grown 8 inches since he was a freshman, putting him at 5 feet 8 with increasing upper-body strength.

“He’s an aerialist,” Dowell said. “He does airs on the waves.”

San Clemente is loaded with top surfers, including senior Tanner Gudauskas, one of the best in the nation.

“Tanner is amazing,” Lukasik said. “He devours everybody.”

Lukasik, though, can’t wait for his trip to Australia and the chance to test himself against teenagers from Brazil, New Zealand, France, South Africa and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, he’ll keep enjoying his P.E. class at the San Clemente Pier.

“I get to go to a lot of cool places,” he said. “I get to surf every day, and I get credits for school.”

California dreaming is alive and flourishing.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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