Most college students who go to Mexico over spring break are there to party. We sought out a right hand point break in Oaxaca instead. The name and exact location aren’t important details. What is important is that head-high walls wrapped around a big rock and curled across a sand-bottom cove, then continued to reel along the main beach for some distance.
The takeoff was steep, but not unfriendly, providing the speed necessary to bounce through the somewhat slow middle section. Once you made it to the inside, the unfolding wave quickly transformed into a racetrack as it mirrored the straight line of the beach, flirting with the possibility of closing out. To make waves, I felt like I had to jump between different surfing personas. The takeoff demanded power and commitment, threatening to send you over the falls if you did not paddle decisively and pop up quickly. The middle section was an exercise in flow, foresight, and conservation of momentum. Small weight adjustments and trimming were my instruments of choice, and I almost imagined myself tiptoeing through the section. And the inside asked only for speed, insisting that I suck as much of the wave’s energy into and through my board as possible as I pumped and highlined for as long as I could. Completing a wave, even a small one, was a thoroughly satisfying endeavor.
On the few overhead waves I attempted during the first couple days of the trip, I hesitated a second too long and found myself pulling off the back, intimidated by the steep takeoff and the chance of being dumped into the flats before having time to get to my feet. I saw some of my friends, and all of the locals, taking off on those set waves, and I knew what I needed to do; but my mind wouldn’t let me commit.
Finally, a wave came right to me. It had a bit of chop on the face, and looked a little fat, but I knew that it would steepen up as it approached the takeoff zone. I could feel it start to lift my legs and the tail of my board as I waited in position, facing the beach. I shifted my body weight forward and paddled with long, hard, slightly desperate strokes. I caught the wave, and just as its momentum began to push me, time sort of stopped. I hung at the top of the wave, back arched, arms tense, knees spring-loaded, poised, just waiting. Everything was about to happen in the next few milliseconds, and any more hesitation would guarantee an over-the-falls wipeout. There I was, knowing what needed to be done, yet unsure what I would do.
Looking back on that moment, I realize that I was in a position we all face in surfing, and perhaps elsewhere in life, too. We find ourselves on the edge of a decision, looking down the face of a wave, up into someone’s eyes, or ahead into a possible future. We are outside of our comfort zone. We are scared, even though fear is paralyzing, and paralysis probably means failure. Perhaps we’ve failed before in similar situations. I believe that in our responses to these moments, we make a statement about who we are. About whether or not we are resilient. About how important it is to turn past blunders into achievements.
I refused to let this moment and this wave get away from me. Muscle memory bounced me to my feet as I set a steep angle down the face, leaned forward, bent my knees, and made the fastest drop of my life. The wind in my ears reminded me of skydiving — a ridiculous comparison, but still pretty cool. My ride was clean, but I was so stoked that I forgot to cut back or turn as the wave slowed down through the middle section. I outran it and fell, missing out on most of the wave, but I didn’t care. One of my friends, a far better, harder-charging, and more composed surfer than me, paddled by on her way back to the takeoff zone.
“That was a couple feet overhead,” she said, smiling approvingly. “Nice one.”
Sure, in the grand scheme of things, it was nothing more than a decent set wave on a bigger day, and I didn’t even complete the ride — but I felt like I’d won the freaking lottery. My stoke knew no bounds. The moment that asked a question about who I am had come, and I had answered.
That Oaxacan point was the gift that kept on giving. We had some swell every day, and it was fun at any size. We surfed for hours on end, paddling out for each day’s first session before sunrise, and finishing each final session long after sunset. I caught dozens of waves that I surfed longer or “better” than that first overhead one, but it nonetheless stood out as my favorite of the entire trip.
That wave reminded me that the joy and fulfillment I get from surfing don’t come from being good at it. My enthusiasm and love for surfing far exceed my skill. I am enraptured by the gorgeous, tumbling walls of water, each with so much power and potential. I get stoked when I see the smiling faces of my friends as they glide by and I yell “pull in!” at them, even when there isn’t a barrel section. And I love the phenomenal, fleeting chances that surfing offers all of us to face our own limitations, and go a little bit beyond them. May it always be so.
Originally published at seamavenmagazine.com.