It was 8 a.m. on a small, windblown morning in Mission Beach. Surfers gathered at the boardwalk to check the waves, but there were no takers. This was a morning for sleeping in, not for paddling out in the cold to race closeouts and battle northwest wind chop. They would have gone back to bed if it weren't for a group of teenage surfers biking down the boardwalk at top speed. "Where the hell are you kids going?" yelled an older surfer. One of the kids shouted back, "It's the Poston Show!"
By the time they hit the sand in front of Belmont Park, the pack had swelled to about 20 groms, college kids, crusty locals, and a few curious non-surfers who just happened to get caught up in the commotion. Everyone stood around, morning coffee in hand, staring at a lone figure bobbing around in the lackluster peaks, waiting eagerly for what would come next.
Justin Poston stood up on his first wave--a closed-out left--and did two casual pumps before blasting through the lip into a backside air-reverse. The kids on the beach erupted while the older surfers just smiled and shook their heads. "Unbelievable," one of them muttered to no one in particular. Poston had something that no one else had, or more accurately, a combination of somethings. He had a close stance and powerful style from the house that Martin Potter and Tom Curren built. But his surfing was also avant-garde, pushing the limits with grabs and rotations as only a handful of surfers at the time could.
"People would trip out on his raw talent because he was such a freak," says Billabong's then Director of Marketing, Paul Gomez. "He could take the worst surf ever, and make it look like the best day in history. And when it was the best day in history, he didn't even care. It might have been because it wasn't challenging for him. That's probably why they called it the 'Poston Show,' because if you were out there, you would never be able to find that barrel, or do that air in those terrible waves. But he could."
Justin was born and raised in the shadow of Belmont Park's Giant Dipper, fronted by the rather average sandbars of Mission Beach. He was a third generation San Diegan, and by all accounts, ripping apart his local spots was ingrained in his DNA. He surfed his home breaks better than anyone, by a mile, but he struggled to translate that talent into the kind of surf career enjoyed by his Momentum peers.
"Justin was a pro surfer before the Momentum films, but without telling anyone, he quit surfing professionally and became a plumber," says Poston's lifelong friend, Jason Weatherly. "He always had to try to get by with the money that he was paid, and he wasn't always getting his checks. He wasn't even getting close to the kind of money that a lot of the main guys were getting. He was getting $300 a month. There are old videos of him surfing with Shane Beschen and the Rusty team in San Miguel, and he was surfing as good if not better than all of them. But it was different back then. That was before surfers had agents and people to negotiate for them. Justin is a lot like Dane Reynolds in the sense that he's pretty uncomfortable around most people. He didn't have the best social skills, so when someone like a team manager came at him in an aggressive way, he didn't know how to react. He did really poorly in those situations, and pretty much represented himself in the worst way possible, which lead to him always getting the bare minimum."
If there is any definitive statement that can be made about Poston, it's that he loved to surf. If being a professional surfer meant that he would get to spend more time in the water, then that was what he wanted to be. But when things didn't go his way, he wasn't one to make it known--not even to his best friends. He did what it took to keep the lights on and his feet wet, but with talent like that, even Poston couldn't keep his surfing in the shadows forever.
After Momentum, Ross Williams, Shane Dorian, and Todd Chesser began spending summers in Mission Beach to work on their small-wave act. Inevitably, they witnessed the Poston Show, and were shocked that one of the most talented surfers in the world had managed to stay hidden in the mediocre peaks. They wanted to change that. After a chat with Taylor Steele, Poston secured a section in Momentum's sequel and a sponsorship with Billabong. His profession was surfing once again.
When Momentum II was released, it cemented the original cast as the best surfers in the world, and took the Poston Show from the Mission Beach boardwalk to the VCRs of stoked groms all over the world--almost his entire section consisted of one morning in front of his house. But while those early films launched the careers of many surf icons, it didn't signify much of a change for Poston. Massive contracts and media adoration never came. He went on a few trips over the years, filming for Taylor Steele's Focus, Good Times, and The Show, but he turned down many opportunities to travel, hiding himself from surfing's spotlight.
Depending on whom you ask, you'll hear conflicting reasons as to why Poston wanted to remain obscure. Many say that he would have rather surfed 2-foot Belmont than a firing reef pass in the Mentawais. Others say that he could never get enough money from his sponsors to cover travel expenses.
"I don't know if he kind of relished being the underground hero, because he liked being part of the hometown posse, or if that was just the situation that he found himself in," says Weatherly. "But I think he definitely would have been uncomfortable if he had been a superstar. There were times when people came up to him asking for his autograph, and sometimes he handled it well. Justin could be playful with people that he was comfortable around, but if you didn't know him well he was very standoffish. He didn't want to be the face of any company, that's for sure."
"I really think that if it wasn't for a guy like Jason Weatherly, Justin would have been completely invisible," says Paul Gomez. "The Weatherly brothers and Taylor Steele really did everything in their power to try to break him out of his shell. He was a celebrity back home, and he was always the best surfer in his local area. So he really felt like a big fish in a small pond."
As the decade came to a close, and his peers continued on, winning world titles and starring in the best surf films of the time, Poston vanished like a specter.
"I was actually filming with Taylor the day it happened. I was going to meet him, Ross Williams, and Todd Chesser down at the jetty, but I went out and couldn't get to my feet. I had no idea what was going on," says Poston. "I tried to stand up and it was almost like my legs were noodles."
That was in 1993. It was six months before he got back in the water. Poston shrugged it off, thinking that it was a freak occurrence and continued filming for Steele's movies. Life was back to normal, until a few years later when the feeling returned.
"We were filming in Bali and I felt some numbness on my left heel," says Poston. "Then I started to have problems getting up and that's when I knew. When I got home I tried to surf again. But I could barely get up, and I had no control of my board. I couldn't believe it was happening again."
After an MRI, the doctor explained to Poston that the natural curve in his spine was the opposite of what it should be, and that the hours spent arching his neck to paddle had caused significant damage to his top two vertebrae. His spinal canal was halfway closed, and would only worsen if he kept surfing. The doctor told him the only solution was an operation that involved putting titanium between his top two vertebrae--an operation that doesn't come cheap.
Poston's already tenuous surf career was over in an instant. With no health insurance, and no marketable talent besides surfing, he found himself in a catch-22: If he tried to keep surfing, he could still collect checks from his sponsors and save for the surgery, but the doctor said he could become paralyzed. If he stopped surfing, he would get dropped by his sponsors and have no means to pay for the surgery. For a while, he did nothing, hoping that if he didn't tell anyone he would still get checks in the mail. But the ruse didn't last long and his sponsors soon dropped him.
In the aftermath of his surf career, Jason Weatherly got Poston a job at Solomon. He worked there for three years, and got health insurance through the company. Poston would have been able to get the surgery that he needed, but for reasons known only to him, he did not. By then he was married and had a young daughter. Weighing his options, he decided that perhaps there were worse things to lose than surfing.
Today, Poston's life looks much as it would have had he never starred in a Taylor Steele movie. He's almost indistinguishable from the average, blue-collar San Diegan, working at Henry's Farmers Market and living with his wife and daughter in a modest home in Bay Park, 10 minutes from the Belmont Park roller coaster.
After three long, dry years, Poston's frustration met its peak, and he performed a less-invasive procedure: he cracked open a beer, headed down to the La Jolla reefs, and paddled out in spite of it all.
Poston doesn't draw the crowd he once did. He rides a varied quiver, and is more concerned with having fun in the water than putting on a show--if he ever cared about that at all.
"Surfing is so much different now," says Poston, relaxing at his Bay Park home after a long shift. "I've actually been experimenting more with boards and fins. It's a totally different vibe. People say that once something gets taken away from you, that's when you start to respect it. That's definitely true."
It's hard to tell if Poston wanted to be a surf star and circumstance prevented it, or if all he ever wanted in life lay in front of the Belmont roller coaster. He spent this past July going to work and surfing Mission Beach while his Momentum brethren were in the Mentawais, kicking back on a postcard-perfect island between sessions at some of the world's most flawless waves.
"I think he has some regrets," says Weatherly. "I think if he had the chance now and could go back he would do a lot of things differently. But he's a way different person now than he was then. He's way more open with people now, including his friends and his family, and in that way I'm sure that he's happier."