Portraits of Sterling Spencer in Pensacola Beach, FloridaSterling Spencer. Photo: DJ Struntz

I've never felt very patriotic.

I blame my dad. He had grown concerned with my army phase, so one day he sat me under a tree and talked to me about Vietnam. His stories were sad. Graphic. This conversation would be the only vivid memory I'd ever have of the man, who then haunted me with this suggestion: "Son, if this country ever wants you, run away." I was seven.

Not long after that, the demons my father brought back from the war consumed him. He committed some horrible crimes, went to prison and died there.

I was in high school when the Cold War ended. Operation Desert Storm was next up in the Gulf, and America was amping. From saltwater sidelines I watched with a sort of emasculated admiration as children my age enlisted, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom. I got a passport instead.
Perhaps even more crass are all the roots I've claimed in 20-plus years of surf travel: "North Carolina," "East Coast," I've probably even hiccupped, "Swedish blood" at one time or another. But "American"? That's usually the last thing I divulge. And I bet I'm not alone.

At last year's Pipeline Masters, American surfer Kelly Slater conceded the World Title to Australia's Mick Fanning. In the subsequent interview, Slater called out Wrightsville Beach, NC's Sweetwater Surf Shop for their online support: "Those guys at Sweetwater…you guys are East Coast boys, and I saw you pulling for Mick. What's up with that [laughs]?"

Two things can be deduced from this otherwise trivial discourse: 1) You probably wouldn't find a pub full of Kelly fans on the Gold Coast this day; 2) Kelly never said "American boys" but rather "East Coast boys."

The truth is, we're a fractured culture to begin with. The first (2005) edition of The Encyclopedia of Surfing includes entries on "Australia" and "Brazil," but not the United States. Rather, "California," "East Coast" and "Hawaii" are distinguished. The latter even competes under a whole different flag — an acceptable fissure, but a nationalistic beta-blocker.

"Identity wise, we're typically surfers first and Americans second," says former SURFING Magazine Senior Editor Matt Walker, who made a graceful exit from the surf industry through his extensive work addressing coastal issues, which led to his own start-up magazine, Outer Banks Milepost. "If you were in a room with nine other people, and eight were cowboys from Montana and the other was a SUPer from France, you could bridge a lot of culture with the French guy, because you're the only two surfers in the room. The rest don't relate. And because surfers travel, we find out pretty fast there are other places out there that have value. So while most Americans might bond over Candlestick Park, our favorite place could be in a whole 'nother country, and our least favorite could be right here in the heart of Surfing U.S.A."

No wonder then, despite being the precursor to all things boardsport, surfing still hasn't managed to find much more than a foster home in the X Games. And the Olympics might as well be Greek mythology, despite all noble attempts by the International Surfing Association to put it there. So, when is it appropriate for a fan base of individuals to rally behind something that foils everything we've come to know about American sports?

The answer isn't pretty: War.

Winning his first ASP Men's World Title under tragic circumstances — a shortened season due to the 9-11 attacks — CJ Hobgood's proudest athletic moment might've been blemished by tears and conjecture. Instead, the good ole' boy from Satellite Beach, Florida, red-white-and-blew up his surfboard with paint and unveiled a telltale Superman aerial in SURFING's February 2002 issue. At the time, the maneuver alone commanded a salute. The message within the artwork was more subtle: In God We Trust.

"It seems like the most patriotic we get now is filling out our customs forms and writing 'USA' a bunch of times; but when 9-11 happened you couldn't be a lukewarm guy," Hobgood remembers. "You were either with America or you were supporting the terrorists. There was a line in the sand and everyone seemed to be behind that line. The World Title was really just an afterthought. We collectively made the decision to move forward and they put this trophy in front of my face, like, 'OK, this doesn't fit very well, but I'll try to walk around with it.' I became a huge culprit of painting the flag on my boards, but there was a lot of unknown: What does the world look like after this experience? Is it a stand-for-nothing-fall-for-anything kind of deal now?"

"We, as a culture, do equate patriotism with war a lot more than other places," says Walker. "Brazil doesn't invade countries. Brazilians are proud to be Brazilians independent of whether they've stomped anyone's ass or gone to protect somebody's freedom. Maybe the reason surfers are turned off by patriotism is it's been co-opted by this jingoistic mentality that American has to always be on top, beating everybody at everything."

There's the rub: the state of the union. Patriotism is a good thing when you're the underdog. Not so much when you're the alpha. Nice boards. Nice clothes. Well fed. Well groomed. You're that guy. The American. Top of the food chain, token asshole. Once in a foreign land, you're on the frontlines of the backlash.

"When my brothers and I first started traveling we were really conscious about not being the 'loud Americans'," remembers California pro Patrick Gudauskas. "There was that bad rap internationally and we wanted to change people's perspectives. So whenever we met someone in France or Brazil, we wanted to be such above-and-beyond killer people that they'd go, 'Wow, they aren't as bad as I thought.'"
Gudauskas and company's climb through the WQS ranks in the mid to late 2000s was the last big nationalistic push seen in our sport's elite ranks. Household in the States perhaps, names like Ben Bourgeois, Gabe Kling, Mike Todd, Nathaniel Curran, Shaun Burrell and Brett Simpson nonetheless needed to forge something beyond their individual reputations. Because considering who they were up against — they really didn't have any.

"When my brothers and I were coming up in the amateur ranks there wasn't a strong ASP Junior tour in America," says Gudauskas. "Whereas Australian juniors were touted: Ben Dunn, Owen Wright, Julian Wilson… every event, they had a predisposition from the judges and media of being the guy to check out. It became pretty apparent that the WQS was a black hole, so when the Americans who had been doing the tour took us under their wing, we really felt a sense of pride. After being identified within a group that was laughing together, going huge at night together, pumping each other up — succeeding really became a team effort for us. And someone was always carrying the American flag."

More like hiding it, waiting for only the most opportune moments to break it out. Gudauskas got his turn in 2006 with a breakthrough result at the 4-Star Vendee Surf Pro in France, his first WQS victory. A couple years later, he'd be on Tour. But where's the flag now? Mick and Adriano get draped every time they win an event, but when's the last time anyone saw Kelly dressed in the stars 'n stripes? Or anyone on the big stage for that matter?

"One of the proudest moments of my life was being able to raise that flag, both for myself and for all the American surfers trying to break the mold," says Gudauskas. "The canvas has changed now, though. Everyone's gotten their individual camp together. They're all tailor-made to be World Champions, and they blow right through the 'QS. Gabriel Medina has Brazilian pride, but he's very much his own [franchise], we don't think of Julian Wilson as an Aussie as much as a Hurley guy, and Kelly Slater's dominated for so long, he should shine a light on American surfing better than anyone. But he's considered more of a world freak."

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Washington-born snowboarder Vic Wild crushed the snowboard parallel slalom events to bring home two gold medals…to Russia. The guy was so over the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association's lack of support (and so infatuated with Moscow snowboarder Alena Zavarzina), he married the girl and switched sides for good in 2011. Wrapping himself in a Russian flag, Wild not only praised his new homeland for giving him a chance to fulfill his dream, but he infamously shat on the States with: "If I was still riding for the USA, I'd be back home with perhaps some mediocre job doing something mediocre."

That's the kind of quote that makes Christian Fletcher look like Captain America. So clearly we're not the only "athletes" who put love over country. The fact that young Californian Kolohe Andino has been spraying his sticks with stars and stripes lately does not indicate a trend — but rather there might be one or two surfers (but probably one) per generation who feels like that stuff is important. Until it isn't.

"It's healthy for people to know what you stand for, but think about when you travel," says Hobgood. "You want to go under the radar. Whether you don't want people to know you're American, or that you're a surfer, or that you love Jesus — for whatever reason you decide to lay low, you're able to connect with somebody. You start having conversations. Then when you tell them your story or express your beliefs, they respect you enough to listen. That's what really breaks down the walls."

Maybe our greatest contribution as surf travelers is to help reverse the grotesque, lecherous or otherwise ridiculous portrait of the typical American tourist. Forget that guy. He's a kook. Surfers, on the other hand, are adventurous, open-minded, generous and low-impact. Our money's not going to Big'uns McFatfuck and on up the corporate ladder; we're crashing at Roberto's for ten bucks a day and tipping double on a good massage. Like ambassadors of stoke, or modern-day missionaries infecting people with the dollar instead of smallpox, we don't ride tour buses and cruise ships, looking down at peasants on the other side of the glass. We dive into the culture. We share. We leave clothes, surfboards, gizmos and gadgets behind, showing what the ideal of freedom can be without all the pedantic exterior — hopefully listening more than talking and giving as much as taking. It's not even in the same universe as serving our country militarily; but we're definitely not doing any disservice. And if that's not a strident enough role, well… like Samuel Johnson said, "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

"People attach themselves to certain ideals and use patriotism to corral others to get support for that viewpoint," says Walker. "But individualism and patriotism aren't mutually exclusive. You can still love this country and criticize it. Regardless of the philosophical argument, the definition of an American comes from the existing population; how we choose to behave now is what creates an American identity way more than what people say you're supposed to do. Not everyone's going to agree on what makes America better. It is very much your perspective, going back to that cliché, 'The best surfer is the one having the most fun.' The same thing goes for patriotism."

More than 30 years after subconsciously taking what could've been the worst advice ever, I can't say whether I'm any more or less of a patriot than I was then, with my toy guns and camouflage action figures.

But I am proud to be an American today. I know that not from who I root for on a webcast or how many verses I remember from "The Star Spangled Banner," but because whenever I'm out of the country for too long — whether it's a week or a month or a saga — I start dreaming, then loudly applauding, American food. American television. American speed limits on American highways. That American girl down the street with the Southern accent, Italian surname, Latin complexion, Northwestern wardrobe and distinctly American moxie.

And I can't wait to come home. —Matt Pruett