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.


Mason, Mike, and Coco Ho. Photo: Ellis

Style is an immeasurable variable, one of those "you know it when you see it" sort of things, made up of body position, arm movement, parts of the wave utilized, fluidity, and the amount of energy put into movement. The combination of all those factors make up style, making it nearly impossible to measure in a tangible way. But it can be surmised that style is something that comes naturally and is learned from imitation: We watch people and consciously or subconsciously incorporate all of their styles into the way we ride waves.

Perhaps this is why those from countries with newly developed surf cultures lack the kind of style that we see in places with lots of top-notch talent--the difference between, say, the surfers of Guatemala or India and the surfers Australia or the U.S. Without the opportunity to consistently surf with stylish, elite talent (or even watch them in movies), it's difficult, if not impossible, to develop into a truly stylish surfer. Sure, there are other factors involved--including rudimentary equipment and poor wave quality--and there are exceptions, but by and large, style is something that is largely determined by who we are exposed to. And if this is true, then certainly the spawn of pro or elite-level surfers have an advantage.

"People tell me I surf like my dad," says Coco Ho, "but I don't try. I don't sit and watch him in a movie and go, 'Okay, I'm going to put my right arm there.' I don't do that ever. But I feel like you can inherit it. You look at Kolohe and you look at little Noah Beschen and you look at me and Mason, and you see it. Mason gets barreled like dad and people tell me that I have a cutback like dad."

The advantages for professionals' children may go beyond learned style though. From a very young age the children of pros are not only surfing with their parent, but also with their parent's friends, often also top-notch surfers.

"The main advantage my kids had is probably just going to the beach so much and surfing with me and all their uncles a lot," says Mike Ho. "Kids that surf around good surfers just get better. I've seen that a lot: when guys hang out with other guys that are good, next thing you know they're stepping on their toes. Surf with good surfers and you get better."

Noah, Shane, and Koda Beschen. Photo: Ellis

"The other big advantage is having the right equipment," Ho continued. "I tend to be a freak about equipment and I've always gotten them the best stuff I could get them." There are other consequential advantages inherent to being the son or daughter of an established pro. Aside from a lifestyle hemmed in surf travel, daily sessions, and consistent critique, the children of pros are granted a membership card to an elite club. The surf industry is a tight-knit, incestuous community, meaning the connections a former pro bestows on his kids often mean early sponsorships ("We were probably sponsored since before we could even surf," says Mason Ho) and sometimes even an upper hand in competition (albeit most times unintentional, judges notice a famous last name).

"I go to other countries and people already know me because they knew our dad," says Coco Ho. "I'd go to France and people would treat me like they knew me and be like 'I'm your dad's great friend from back in the day.' Going to all these countries and meeting all these people and feeling like I've already been there and I'm already comfortable there because all my dad's friends are there--that was definitely a good advantage."
This naturally leads to more opportunities, but it also bestows upon these kids a sense of self-confidence, and that often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are praised for their prepubescent greatness and enter the water with an inflated sense of self, which often manifests into actual greatness.

Nepotism, deliberate or otherwise, may be just as great an ally for the aspiring pro as is their stellar genetic inheritance. Here we can draw a parallel to surfing's southern-bred brethren, NASCAR, where it's fairly common for children of superstars to follow in their fathers' footsteps (i.e.Jimmie and Jarit Johnson; Ralph Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Dale Earnhardt Jr., etc.). But unlike surfing, NASCAR is less a sport of physical aptitude and more a sport of honed ability, fearlessness, and mental skill. The capacity to do well then, is almost certainly not a genetic predisposition, but rather a clear result of early entry into the sport, a lifetime of nurturing, and a connection to the inside. The same could be said for surfing.

"My parents taught us how to surf when we were probably 3 or 4," says LeeAnn Curren. "Surfing was in my life since I was born. First my dad put me on the front of his board, and after that I would surf with my brother in the shorebreak. Then because you have a name that is already kind of famous, you get more attention, even when you just start surfing--people hear about you and want to see how you're doing."

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Dino and Kolohe Andino. Photo: Ellis

But cynicism and claims of nepotism aside, pro surfers are paid to surf because they're great at it. And not all--in fact, most--of them, aren't the spawn of former superstars. Many, however, have parents who surf, and most have parents who are least marginally athletic. And it seems that's key. The genetic foundation must be laid, then motivation and training determine who reaches the very top.

LeeAnn, Nathan, Frank, and Pat were privy to the advantages of good genes, talented parents, and a lifestyle that supported developing as surfers. "I see my style in all of them," says Tom Curren. "They're young still, but I definitely see it in their surfing style. Surfing is such a natural part of their life. They are able to get boards, go to the best beaches, plan their surfing along with their schoolwork. They have a lot of advantages in that way."

But it doesn't stop there. Tom's father, Pat, was a legendary big-wave surf pioneer and shaper in the '50s, meaning Tom's kids are the second generation of surfing greatness. They are among the first surfers with two doses of inherited ability.

"When I was growing up my dad used to make my boards, which was really cool," says Tom. "I think he was a little surprised I did as well as I did, I was just really into surfing and my kids are the same way--they just love it. They think about it all the time. My motivation now is to make sure they get to go to the places they want to go, and they get to be a part of this great life surfing. They all have different ambitions: some of them want to do contests, some of them want to do other things, so I think it's really important when we're all together to try to enjoy the time we have with family and their grandfather, and try to get them connected with him."

So as new generations of surfers are spawned and we're able to further validate our hunch that surfing is something that's born into you, science will simultaneously get us closer to understanding the roles of specific genes. In the meantime, we're left somewhere in the middle. When asked whether surfing ability is a product of nature or nurture, Tom Curren had a quick and emphatic reply: "I'd say nurture. Definitely nurture...Well...It's both, right?"

The Curren Family In Santa Barbara