Surfing saved Salvadoran Olympic hopeful Bryan Perez from gangs and despair

Surfer Bryan Perez prays before competing in the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador.
Bryan Perez prays before competing during ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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In a country starved for heroes, El Salvador found its latest at the end of a rutted dirt path where the land stops and the Pacific Ocean begins.

And it happened largely by accident.

Bryan Perez was among the gaggle of shoeless, shirtless kids who took pocket change to look after the cars of surfers at that rocky beach when a tourist broke a board and, unwilling to carry it home, gave it to the skinny boy as a gift.

Surfer Bryan Perez rides a wave
Surfer Bryan Perez competes in the ISA World Surfing Games, the final qualifier for next month’s Olympic Games in Toyko.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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Perez, who was 9 then, cried the first time his father pushed him into a wave, but he eventually learned to ride them on that broken board and, a little more than a decade later, he has emerged as one of the sport’s brightest young stars. Yet, it’s his rise from deprivation and his escape from the gangs that killed his sister and his best friend that have made him, at 21, a symbol of a new El Salvador.

“He shows with his life that it is possible to get out of poverty, stand out and be a successful person with a promising future,” said Salvador Castellanos, a popular TV newscaster who runs a faith-based program that offers surfing as an alternative to gang life. “That makes him a model for local youth who see that another reality is possible for them.”

“Surfing is the most beautiful sport we have. When you surf you forget everything. You just be in the wave and feel the wave and ride the wave. If you’re having a bad time in your life, you go surf [and] you forget all those things and just enjoy the moment.”

Salvadoran surfing star Bryan Perez

It’s also made Perez arguably the most popular athlete in El Salvador, one whose quest for a berth in next month’s Tokyo Olympics was featured on national television each night and chronicled in the country’s tabloids newspapers every morning.

Bryan Perez celebrates with his teammates
Surfer Bryan Perez celebrates with teammates after advancing in the ISA World Surfing Games.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve seen him grow up, progress,” said Jimmy Rotherham, the first surfing champion from El Salvador and still a legendary presence there. “From all the kids in the country, he’s the one that you knew, definitely, was two steps ahead of the whole pack. So it’s very inspiring to see a kid like that coming up from really humble beginnings and put El Salvador on the map.”

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The future facing most young people is a grim one in Rio Mar, a small, quiet community of concrete-block houses with dull paint jobs and zinc roofs nestled up against a rich natural treasure: a beach that produces some of the best surfing waves in the world.

Yet, it’s a rose with thorns because the area is rife with the sadistic gangs that made Central America’s most densely populated country the deadliest place in the world without a war inside its borders.

As a grade-schooler Perez, one of eight children, supported his baker father by selling his bread in the streets and working as a cuida carro, a small-time extortion racket popular in Central America in which children look after parked cars for money or small gifts. Pay up and your car will be fine. Stiff the kids, though, and you could return to find a cracked windshield or flat tire.

Surfer Perez stands with his board in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador
Surfer Perez stands with his board in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador where he grew up next to some of the best waves in the world.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I learned English there,” Perez said. “I was just like ‘Hey! What’s up?’ You try to speak and then I got better and better.”

The small gifts he got — sports shirts, baseball caps, sunglasses — were even more valuable because Perez and his brother used them to negotiate a truce with the gangs. Surfing, however, offered the safest most permanent escape — and not everyone made it out alive.

Salvadoran surfers continue to honor top female surfer Katherine Díaz, who was killed by a lightning strike during a training session.

“There were two kids that were actually pretty good,” Rotherham said, referencing Perez and a boy named Miguel, whom everyone knew as Chelito. “This kid always had it on Bryan, always beat him in the competitions.”

Until he stopped showing up.

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“He was my best friend. We grew up in the same town,” Perez said. “But I never heard from him again.”

Chelito joined a gang, then disappeared.

“I heard he’s dead,” Perez said softly. “When I heard that I was like, ‘Wow, that could have been me or my brother.’”

It wasn’t the only loss he would endure. Perez quit school at 12 to avoid the gangs that recruited there, but two years later the violence found his family anyway, with a stray bullet piercing the roof of their home, fatally wounding Perez’s 2-year-old sister. By then Perez had begun to take surfing seriously, but after his sister died, he rarely left the house.

Surfer Bryan Perez watches the competition
Surfer Bryan Perez watches the competition in the ISA World Surfing Games.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“That year was the hardest of my life,” said Perez, whose parents also separated at about the same time. “There was too much going on. I was so depressed it was hard to get surfing again. I didn’t have the energy to compete and get focused.”

That tumultuous year, 2014, which Perez marks by placing a 14 at the end of his social media handles, was a turning point in another way, too, because of a couple of people who wouldn’t let him quit. The first, he said, was Robert Barr, a bald, cigar-puffing surfer from the U.S. who thought the teenager’s raw talent was worth investing in. The second was Marcelo Castellanos, Salvador’s son and the founder of a residential surf academy near Perez’s home.

Barr got Perez his first two sponsors and took him away from the gangs to California, where he competed internationally for the first time. When he returned to El Salvador, he moved into Castellanos’ academy.

“Many young people are lost to the gangs. But surf tourism and sports are opening doors,” Castellanos said. “They may choose a bad path, but now the opportunities are obvious and you can choose to be part of the surfing family rather than a gang.”

Surfer Bryan Perez stretches before competing
Surfer Bryan Perez stretches before competing in the ISA World Surfing Games.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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Perez took advantage of the opportunity, pouring himself into a training regimen that starts before sunrise most mornings and includes surfing, mediation, breathing exercises, gym and video sessions, yoga and trips to a local skate park — anything to keep him occupied.

“Surfing is the most beautiful sport we have,” said Perez, whose inquisitive eyes and wry smile give him a permanently mischievous look. “When you surf you forget everything. You just be in the wave and feel the wave and ride the wave. If you’re having a bad time in your life, you go surf [and] you forget all those things and just enjoy the moment.”

His competitive breakthrough, however, was as providential and unexpected as the broken board that introduced him to surfing.

A teenager who had ranked just 758th in the World Surf League standings the year before, Perez was invited to compete in the 2019 Pan Am Games after another surfer dropped out. He wound up finishing third and has moved up more than 700 places in the world rankings since then.

The Olympic trials for surfing are being held in El Salvador. The seeds for this were planted decades ago by young Californians looking for good waves.

“We saw him grow up, pretty much. You could definitely see he had some talent,” said Rotherham, whose family owns a pair of surf resorts on either side of the beach where Perez got started. “He can read the waves. He’s got a really good style.

 Bryan Perez sips on a coconut with family at his father's refreshment stand
Surfer Bryan Perez sips on a coconut with family at his father’s refreshment stand in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

”Overall the kid’s super nice, super humble. Nice family. He’s got the whole [deal].”

But for all his mastery of the waves, it’s the way Perez carries himself on dry land that has led everyone from headline writers to the Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele to simply call him Bryan, a familiarity reserved for few favored athletes.

“It’s a small country and everybody knows each other. That’s the good thing about El Salvador. We’re together,” Perez said with a shrug. “I am a simple person. Just a guy who loves what he is doing and is super grateful.”

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Marcello Castellanos insists it goes a little deeper than that.

“He has earned the respect of many people. That has opened doors for him,” he said. “He has opened a path of hope for the new generation, inspired many to fight for their dreams and has also given joy to the country.

“But what really makes Bryan who he is is his humility, that he is always willing to learn and improve. He has an inner light that can be seen in his eyes.”

Bryan Perez answers questions from the media at the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador.
Bryan Perez answers questions from the media at the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

His popularity was apparent at last week’s World Surfing Games, the final qualifying event for next month’s Tokyo Olympics, which was held in the warm blue-green waters and thick humidity of Perez’s home beaches at El Salvador’s Surf City. COVID-19 protocols limited the crowd mainly to other hard-to-impress competitors, yet whenever Perez was in the water, quiet conversations in Hebrew, French, Spanish and a half-dozen other languages were peppered with one common word: Bryan.

“He’s loved by everybody. It’s just his way of being,” Chilean surfer Nicolás Díaz said.

A stretch of Salvadoran shoreline called Surf City is the location for the final qualifying rounds for surfing’s debut as an Olympic sport this summer.

Perez’s luck ran out on the penultimate day of the competition when he got caught waiting for a wave that never came and was eliminated by Peru’s Lucca Mesinas and Miguel Tudela, who are both going on to Tokyo. Before emerging from the surf for the last time, Perez put down his board and lay on his stomach, alone with his thoughts in the shallow water.

 Bryan Perez reflects for a moment after being eliminated
Surfer Bryan Perez takes a moment after being eliminated from the ISA World Surfing Games.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When he finally made his way up the rocky beach, many of his rivals — along with event volunteers, journalists, police officers, lifeguards and anyone in sight of the ocean — broke into applause. Even in losing, Perez had won.

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“It’s a shame,” said Mesinas, who found himself apologizing for winning. “I have strange feelings. I’m happy because I qualified for the Olympic Games, but I’m very sorry Bryan didn’t.”

Two days later the pain was still fresh, but the smile had returned to Perez’s face as he visited the beach at Rio Mar and the parking lot where it all started. On this morning, a couple of skinny cows were the only others there.

 Surfer Bryan Perez walks past a cow foraging in trash
Surfer Bryan Perez walks past a cow foraging in trash in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I stayed here so much,” Perez said of the empty lot and the improvised skateboard ramp he and his friends built in front of a long-abandoned restaurant.

His father, a talented surfer in his own right, now runs a small refreshment stand in the shade of the nearby palm trees, serving mainly coconut milk and Coca-Cola.

“It’s a gift from God, that’s he’s great and strong,” Carlos Alas said of his son, who began using his mother’s maiden name after Alas and Maria Perez separated. “I’m not proud because he’s representing El Salvador. I’m proud because, day after day, he keeps fighting to succeed, to get better.

 Surfer Bryan Perez sits in the room where he grew up with his mother Maria Perez
Surfer Bryan Perez sits in the room where he grew up with his mother Maria Perez in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“He’s an example for the kids.”

The first Olympics to include surfing was a big topic of discussion for surfers competing at the ISA World Surfing Games, but will the Olympics go forward?

And that may be the one thing Perez takes more seriously than surfing.

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“Surfing for me changed my life. My family’s lives, too,” he said. “I’m one of the best surfers in the world and I used to be the kid that watched cars. Every morning, waking up, I can’t believe what’s happening to me right now.”

“When I don’t surf,” he continued. “I want to show all the kids everything is possible. Like my family told me, if you have a lot, you need to be humble and grateful and respect everybody. Because you don’t know what happens next, tomorrow.”

One person’s broken surfboard can become another person’s salvation.

 Surfer Bryan Perez holds his nephew outside his mother's store
Surfer Bryan Perez holds his nephew outside his mothers store in the Rio Mar community of El Salvador where he grew up.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)