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Scholastic surfing growing world-class surfers on Maui

By Staff | Apr 11, 2019

Paloma Banto competes for Maui Preparatory Academy.

Maui County is the only place in the USA with a scholastic surfing league.

Maui County is also the best place in the USA for a scholastic surfing league.

It’s the Goldilocks island, with just the right mix of people, land and meteorology to grow world-class surfers. (How else can we explain Kai Lenny, possibly the greatest surfing waterman we have ever seen?)

And then consider the talent pool; Maui kids – like Eli Hanneman, Tyler Kirby, Axel Rosenblad, Ty Simpson-Kane, Tony Nunez – are setting a global bar of performance.

With lightning-quick speed, bursts of creativity and wings, Eli is a phenomenon. His World Surf League YouTube video has 360,000 views. (If my mom, high school friends and wife watch my videos, I’m content. You’ve got to be GOOD these days for people to watch you). Check Eli’s video and you’ll see the future.

Ty Kirby just won his division at Honolua Surf Co’s annual Legends of the Bay locals contest at Honolua Bay. His explosive, committed and radical style shows shades of Andy Irons.

Axel Rosenblad carved his way to dominance at the first Maui Interscholastic League (MIL) contest at D.T. Fleming Beach Park, keeping up his record of multiple MIL championship victories over recent years.

Ty Simpson-Kane made his mark this winter with a heroic performance at massive Peahi – perhaps the youngest of the current Maui generation to charge so hard.

Tony Nunez just won the Koki Beach contest in Hana in surging three- to four-foot surf with clean winds. His style is his trademark, with fast, round, smooth, complete turns. The judges love sustained speed through maneuvers, and Tony delivers flawlessly.

With this level of talent, on an island abundant with surfing spots, competitive high school surfing is on the rise.

School surfing happens in the spring. It’s the perfect time of year, when the raw XL power of winter swells is transitioning into longer days, variable conditions and punchy swells. Students are in their final quarter of the school year, so they are strong from winter sports like swimming, basketball and paddling.

The 15 schools in the Maui Interscholastic League meet for four contests between February and April. The contests are ten-hour-long beach carnivals, lasting from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and including teams of up to 16 boys and girls per school competing in shortboard and bodyboard divisions. Contests are held at D.T. Fleming Park in the Northwest, Lahaina Harbor in the Southwest, Ho’okipa in the Northeast and Koki Beach in the East.

I started as a school surf coach on Maui in 2010. Back then there was no school-sanctioned surfing league. Hi-Tech Surf Shop owner Kim Ball used to host an annual contest at Ho’okipa each spring, but it was a one-off. The Rusty surf company would fabricate hats and shirts for the kids, and Kim and his crew would make medals and write news stories. It was a wonderful event that lasted almost 20 years. But it was basically Kim and his friends donating their time and talents to run a contest for Maui students.

That model evolved. Thanks in large measure to Kim Ball’s years of tireless advocacy with principals, administrators and athletic directors, the MIL officially adopted surfing about five years ago.

It was a fantastic evolution.

Today, student-athletes can proudly develop their skills and passions while representing their school communities. Hundreds of students who previously pursued their individual sport in small groups are now learning with teammates, coaches and judges about nutrition, fitness and strategy. (They are also all sleeping together on the floor of the Hana High School wrestling room the night before the Koki Beach contest. True bonding.) These teams have become sources of pride, community and relationships for young people throughout Maui County.

The Maui Interscholastic League was visionary and bold in launching surfing on Maui. It should stay committed to the sport, because it’s good for our kids. It should also consider how best to grow this school sport throughout the state.

None of the other islands have picked it up yet.

The Big Island is so big and empty, and the surf is somewhat fickle and raw; it may take time to build the right model there, but it’s possible.

Oahu is dense, complex and home to many different sports leagues. The resistance there to stepping out of line and trying something perceived as unorthodox is the highest. (Though what could be more orthodox in Hawaii than the Hawaiian Sport of Kings?)

Kauai may be the best candidate isle for a second surfing league. With a critical mass of schools (five-plus), the most consistent surf in the islands and a matchless surf culture, Kauai would be the perfect place for surfing to become a school sport.

What’s required is someone like Kim Ball. A doer, a communicator, an advocate, a connector. Someone who is passionate about infusing the Hawaiian Sport of Kings into schools and into the classroom, because it can build the self-esteem of our rising generation.

Kauai, is there anybody out there? If you can build a league, then Maui and Kauai can compete in a state-level competition for the championship.

A Hawaiian Scholastic Surfing Champion? Now that’s a column I’d like to write.