Great to be a grom: young surfers have gone from punchbags to future world beaters | Jock Serong

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In the old days, aspiring surfers faced dangerous and abusive rites of passage but now those with promise are cultivated rather than kicked

One of the most profound shifts in surfing culture over the last generation has been in regard to the way young surfers are perceived. Progression, in any other sport, is made up of increments that have long been laid down: footballers, netballers and cricketers join junior clubs and rise through levels defined by age until they reach open, or adult, competition. Surfing differs in that the vast majority of people who take part in it dont compete.

There are clubs but, again, theyre contest-oriented and thats not where the bulk of the interest lies. So comparisons are useless and seen from the outside, its hard to imagine how surfing has changed.

For a long time, advancing as a surfer was a painful and haphazard business. In the bad old days you learned the craft by getting your hands on a used board frequently waterlogged and dinged so that shards of fibreglass protruded and could cut you open. You begged the assistance of parents and older siblings to lug the dodgy craft down to the water and then you hoped like hell you didnt get in anybodys way lest they stuffed you in a foreshore rubbish bin or threw your bike in a tree. Bastardisation was a time-honoured tradition, observed by each passing generation. You did your best to stay away from the men they were overwhelmingly men who came swooping into the shallows from further out.

There was also no sense of a career. In the early 1970s a group of audacious young Australians decided to go to Hawaii and call themselves professional surfers. Nevermind that there was no such thing at the time. They would compete for money. They would hit up companies for sponsorship. They would sell their adventures to the magazines. The sheer gall of it was reflected in the phrase that that came to define them: Bustin down the door.

It worked for a long time all the way up to Mark Richards four world titles between 1979 and 1982. Marks father, Ray, had let him leave school in fifth form to chase the dream, with the proviso that if it didnt work, he would have to get a trade. Richards, Ian Cairns, Pete Townend and Wayne Rabbit Bartholomew threw caution to the wind and somehow succeeded.

The ranks of recreational surfers, meanwhile, were dominated by secrecy and brute force. If youd found something good, you kept schtum. If you broached someones paradise, whether intentionally or inadvertently, youd find retribution gouged into your car doors. Being a grommet the name given to junior surfers in this environment was a necessary transition to adult surfing, but it was dangerous.

Each of these shibboleths has fallen with the passing years. Thanks to the internet, theres not much thats secret any more and, while visibility spreads the crowds everywhere, it also means that only the most retrograde ogres are concerned about hiding their local gem. In fact the kids seem completely cool about sharing. The brutality and vandalism that was once excused as a rite of passage is now mercifully rare.

Learning is a joy now, not a flirtation with serious injury. Impacts are still inevitable but beginner boards are made from harmless, squishy foam. There are surf schools with accredited coaches to patiently explain the mysteries of catching waves and standing up. Fifty-year-olds who missed out the first time round are now learning alongside primary school kids. Secondary schools have surfing in the syllabus. And there barely seems to be a kid left who hasnt tried it at least once.

Much of the credit for the reinvention of learning to surf rests with organisations such as Surfing Australia. Its chief executive, Andrew Stark, speaks of surfing as whole-of-life activity in other words your aerobic capacity or your anterior cruciate ligament wont take you out of it at 30, as they may do in football or running. So its worthwhile for the government to invest in programs like SurfGroms, which is all about participation in early primary school. From there, the state peak bodies and the clubs have built a pathway into junior competition and performance programs: Surfing Australia now has a high performance centre at Casuarina beach on the Gold Coast, where promising groms learn to do aerials by somersaulting on trampolines and their every move in the water is monitored by video cameras and specialist coaches.

It follows that, for those who have star potential, the traditional grommet diet of hot chips (which is where grommet evolution crosses over with seagulls) is receding into history. Those groms on the fast-track are taught the nutritional realities these days and among the pile of discarded bikes in the beach car park youre more likely to find them washing down goji berries with kombucha than burning their gums on Chiko Rolls (though energy drinks continue to dominate athlete endorsements). The promising junior Kyuss King has a nutritionalist for a mum: Were really into our diet, he says. We eat organic. Im talking really, really healthy.

Kiara Meredith (red) and Summer Macedo (yellow) prepare for a junior event at Merewether beach in February. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian

The upshot is that Australias best juniors kids including Ethan Ewing, Jack Robinson, Isabella Nicholls and Macy Callaghan are encouraged to see their surfing as a potential career. It sounds obvious, but a generation ago this was the worst kind of heresy. Surfing was something you did until the dole ran out careers were either professions or trades.

Entry into elite surfing ranks, which Ewing has just achieved, requires expensive, gruelling travel and a lot of strategic sense choosing which events in which parts of the globe are worth chasing to build up the qualifying points. Its not something a talented kid can just blunder into.

But the support is greater too: its possible now to have a major sponsor at 10, earlier if youre one of a famous bunch of siblings. Its also possible to do your schooling online as you travel the world.

Groms are seen as having tremendous purchasing power, achieved through pestering their parents. So the corporates watch their trends carefully, and the surf media give them a generous run. Surfing World magazine runs a grommet issue now and then (advice in the current one includes, Say thank you, wear sunscreen and check your pockets before giving your washing to mum.).

If youre despondent about the future, study a grom for a while and rediscover your optimism. Theyre no longer a kind of pestilent subspecies of Australian beach culture. More often than not, theyre smart, focused people. They represent our lost youth, that inexhaustible state when a five-hour session could be fuelled by nothing more than a massive bowl of breakfast cereal.

When nothing mattered but the emulation of your heroes, and somehow being seen by the girl or boy of your dreams, coming off the top in a fan of explosive spray on the best wave of the afternoon. With your hair just right.

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