The Surf Gene

Are great surfers born or made?

Pat, Tom, Frank, Nathan, and Leeann Curren. Photo: Ellis

This article appeared in our April Issue, themed the Science of Surf. To purchase the issue, click here.

In 1989, World Champ Tom Curren welcomed into the world a daughter, LeeAnn. Tom lived in France for several years with LeeAnn, her mother, and later a son, Nathan, before the couple separated and Tom moved back to the States. LeeAnn spent her childhood surfing the beachbreaks of Southern France with her younger brother, only visiting her father once or twice a year. LeeAnn developed as a surfer, eventually earning herself a slot on the Tour at age 19, and impressing the world with her impeccable style and grace.

Back in California, Tom remarried and had two more children, sons Frank and Pat, whom he raised in Santa Barbara. The boys grew up surfing with their father, gleaning the kind of intangible benefits and insight that constant contact affords. Today, both Pat and Frank are standouts on the Junior level. But all four of Tom’s children have undeniable ability.

The Currens serve as the perfect Litmus test for the surfing gene. In various combinations, nature and nurture have coalesced to create a family full of surf talent. It begs the
question, were the Currens born with the genetic makeup of inherently talented surfers? Or is their ability something that was simply nurtured into being?
It is a question that scientists have spent the past few decades trying to crack believing that somewhere in our complex genetic equation lies the secret formula for sporting supremacy. Experts have looked at the genes of elite-level runners and other sporting champions, analyzing the over 20,000 strands of human DNA in hopes of discovering which is responsible for athletic greatness.

Despite the numerous, multifarious studies that have been conducted, scientists have yet to identify the exact genetic makeup that accounts for athletic ability. But that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, we must concede that our genes are a vital component to physical excellence. Simply watch a children’s soccer game: some will take to sport with ease, while others can train until their blue in the face with no hopes of ever reaching the elite level, forever restricted to compete against their previous personal best. Then, take something like the over-representation of West African descendents in Olympic short-distance track events, or the similar skew toward East Africans among marathon runners.

To better understand this particular phenomenon, a group of scientists conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject. In 1995 The Heritage Family Study, as it was called, analyzed the physical capabilities and genetic makeup of 742 adults over the course of five years in order to better understand the way their genes affected their bodies’ response to exercise training. The results were complex, but basically revealed that genes account for half the variation in performance between individuals. In other words, when you compare the physical performance between people, heredity is as important as all other influences combined. The study also revealed that when twins underwent the same aerobic or anaerobic training programs, they exhibit similar adaptations to the training, whereas fraternal twins or siblings have greater variation in their adaptations. Genes, it seems, play a role in at least laying the foundation for sporting ability.

In the early 2000s there was buzz about gene known as ACTN3, which was supposedly linked to sporting potential. Simply put, possession of this gene indicated whether a child has the genetic predisposition to excel in sprinting and power sports, or whether they are more suited to events requiring endurance. Companies were quick to capitalize on this, offering a genetic test that would allow parents to determine which sport their child was more likely to exceed at and push them in that direction.
This gene is just a small piece of the puzzle, however. And while there is evidence that we can inherit a predisposition to excel in certain athletic areas, this “single-gene-as-magic-bullet” philosophy has been scoffed at by many sports scientists. We know now that multiple genes fuel athleticism, and scientists are just beginning to learn which are most vital. Professor Keith Davids of Queensland University of Technology has studied the topic of genes and sporting ability extensively, and says, “I discredit the notion of the presence or absence of one single gene deciding whether one can become an expert athlete or not. A genetic foundation may play a part in an individual acquiring suitable traits (e.g. strength, flexibility or endurance). But each individual needs an environment for the expression of such genes, if they existed.”

Ford and Matt Archbold. Photo: Ellis

So perhaps children of highly apt surfers are simply raised in an environment where they are most likely to fully develop their skill. “Seeing my dad surf helped me for sure,” says Ford Archbold, son of legend Matt Archbold. “He’d just be going surfing every day so I just got to do that, where other kids whose dads don’t surf don’t get to. I was always right by the beach, and my dad was always revolving his life around surfing, so I got to grow up in that.”

While experts claim there are many trajectories to achieving athletic performance, many have concluded that the highest likelihood of occurrence is when favorable genotypes are exposed to highly specialized training environments. The combination of genetic foundation and training from an early age is key. But being the spawn of an elite-level surfer doesn’t guarantee success, just as being the spawn of a nonathletic klutz doesn’t guarantee a life doomed to physical mediocrity.
The truth is, when it comes down to it, expert athletes simply accumulate more hours of training than non-experts—and children of surfers, especially extremely apt surfers, spend more time in the water, earlier in life, at a diverse variety of waves.

“Parents have the role—and arguably the more critical role—of providing the developmental environment for developing athletes,” says Joe Baker, Sport Scientist at York University. “The amount of support (emotional but also financial) they provide during early development is not a trivial thing. Without sufficient motivation it doesn’t matter what genetic raw material you have. No one spontaneously leaps off the couch and becomes an expert at anything—surfing, chess, music, whatever—so the ‘seeds of expertise’ need to be planted early, largely through supportive parents and siblings, appropriate peers, and access to important developmental factors like good coaches and exceptional training facilities.”

Take this contrast: Dino Andino nurtured Kolohe from a very young age to be a surfer—training, coaching, and guiding him to be a top-notch competitor. Matt Archbold, on the other hand, says of his son: “Ford started surfing when he was 9, but I didn’t ever push him. I didn’t want to steer him away from it. I let him do his thing. I don’t believe you should push your kids.” Both approaches, however, produced highly talented young surfers, who’ve developed their own careers as professional surfers. Granted, Kolohe has had greater competitive success than Ford, but they both undoubtedly surf far beyond average. Given scientists’ contention that training must accompany genetics, what if Matt had nurtured his son to be a competitive machine—would Ford have gone head-to-head against Kolohe for Junior titles and a slot on the Tour?

The problem with conjectures in this department is that there isn’t a control; there is no way to find out how any of us would have turned out had any of the variables been changed. And to add to the complexity of the puzzle, unlike most sports where we can at least agree that inheriting a particular body type will encourage success, there isn’t one dominant body type for elite level surfers—Kelly Slater is 5’9” 145 pounds, Dane Reynolds is 6’0” 180 pounds, and Owen Wright is 6’3” 150 pounds.

So the next question then is: If a child inherits the capacity to be good at sport (meaning they have coordination the foundation to build muscle tone), and they begin surfing at an early age, will they by default, be a good surfer? This is where the equation is interjected with yet another variable. Unlike other sports such as running—with clearly measureable indicators of expertise—good surfing is less quantifiable and highly subjective. When boiled down, good surfing, it can be argued, is merely a matter of opinion. All the research on genetic testing, sporting ability, strength, and endurance is all well and good if we think of surfing as simply a sport: a matter of acquiring the right muscles, and mastering particular skills and maneuvers. But surfing is as much a feat of physical ability as it is an act of grace and style.