While Santa Cruz’s waves attract the world’s best surfers, when it comes to homegrown surfers the city has had only two reach the World Championship Tour. That's the most elite level of the sport. But there is an up-and-comer on the horizon.
In Santa Cruz, surfing is serious business. Locals know where they can and can’t surf and where egos get in the way. But anyone who knows Nat Young will tell you he’s the nicest guy on land and in the water. The 21-year-old is a Santa Cruz native who grew up playing on Cowell’s Beach. “I guess when you’re down there all the time it’s pretty hard not to start surfing. I started boogie boarding and then everyone you know kind of gives you crap for body boarding so I started surfing,” said Young. From Steamer Lane to Waddell Creek, he pretty much spent every day in the water. By the time he was sixteen he became a professional surfer. At such a young age he had to start homeschooling so he could travel around the world to compete. “I was just having fun when I was surfing that’s why I continued doing it and it wasn’t really about going pro,” said Young.
In surfing going “pro” is like the minor leagues. The elite level is only open to the world’s top thirty-four surfers who compete on what’s called the World Championship Tour. Each of the ten events have cash prizes that can be as high as $300-thousand. This year one of those elite events was last week’s O’Neill Cold Water Classic in Santa Cruz. Thousands of spectators gather at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz to watch this contest. Over the course of a week – surfers eliminate the competition in rounds. Usually at an elite event, a pro surfer like Nat Young would be in the audience. But he won a wild card competition to become one of two locals to surf. Elite surfer Adrian “Ace” Buchan from Australia is glad to see Young compete. “I think Nat’s a great young talent, um, I kind of see a little bit of myself you know in Nat, we’re both goofy-footers, have a similar approach, I think he’s super driven. I can see he’s got a really strong will to win and I think that’s really cool, you know I got a lot of respect for him he seems to put in a lot of time to improving his surfing,” said Buchan.
Young has an advantage in this competition. He grew up surfing these waves. The home crowd is behind him. And he even won the Cold Water Classic a few years ago when it wasn’t an elite surfers event. This time around he came out strong, beating eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater. But in the end he was out in the third round. “I think he surfs The Lane better than anyone on the planet.” That’s Dave Prodan. He’s with the Association of Surfing Professionals. The ASP sets the ranking standards and manages the pro and elite events. He says that unlike other sports, surfers have to deal with the unpredictability of the ocean. “You could be the best prepared, best surfer on the day and if the ocean doesn’t cooperate with you, you very well could lose the heat. It’s absolutely a challenge for the surfers, they need to be very prepared both mentally and physically for anything that the ocean’s gonna throw at them on the day,” said Prodan. Prodan sees the potential in Young to get on the World Championship Tour. Santa Cruz hasn’t had a homegrown elite surfer in 16 years. Young would be the third. “It’s pretty much the highest level of surfing there is so to be on that and surf the best waves in the world and compete against the best guys in the world I would be ... yeah, I’m just really excited,” said Young. If Young does well in his final two competitions of the year it’s likely next year he will be joining the World Championship Tour.