Embrace the Change: Surfing and the Aging Process


An empty left in Long Beach, NY. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

An empty left in Long Beach, NY. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

“There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist. As the same person inhabits the body through childhood, youth, and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body. The wise are not deluded by these changes.” -Bhagavad Gita

I recently had a routine visit to the doctor, just the basic checkup I get every year. With my birthday recently passing, he asked my age, “39” I said with a bit of pride, feeling I must look fairly healthy for a guy my age. His response wasn’t what I expected. In an unenthusiastic, yet serious tone, he said “At your age you need to start having certain tests and blood work done to make sure you’re maintaining your health and not having any issues.” I felt a bit disillusioned, although I haven’t felt aging was something I had feared. The implication that I was no longer at a peak and possibly on a descent down the side of a metaphorical mountain to a valley of deteriorating health was sobering.


I’m not naive and I certainly wasn’t sheltered from the cruel hand of time throughout my life. I’ve experienced the declining health and the death of friends and loved ones more than a few times. I’ve always found these situations painful, no matter what my philosophy and personal beliefs on the subject of aging and death have been.


I’ve been surfing for over 25 years and, like the birth, life, and the eventual dissipation of a swell, I’ve come to understand our surfing life takes on various forms, just as the bodies we inhabit. If we are attached to any particular form our surfing has taken on, we will suffer, because eventually all forms change, diminish and eventually dissolve.


The budding grom, tenacious teen, radical 20-year old, the maturing yet competent thirty something, all of these temporary states we identify with as a surfer will surely be washed away like footprints along the sea shore. No one wants to hear it, we certainly have a hard time coming to terms with it, but there is no denying this truth: we will reach a peak level in our surfing performance and eventually our ability will decline from there.


“What about Kelly Slater!” you may say. Using Kelly Slater as an example makes about zero sense when it comes to most of our lives. We do not obtain his super human ability for riding waves, nor the benefits such a person has when it comes to being able to continually foster and maintain such skill. Simply put, we aren’t surfing the best waves in the world, on the best equipment available, with the best workout routines, the best health regimen and with a demi-god like skill for tearing waves to pieces. That said, even Kelly Slater will be subject to the perpetuation of time and the eventual decline of his peak surfing performance. No one can escape it, not even Kelly Slater.


Author Shawn Zappo mid way up the face, setting up for the cresting lip. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

Author Shawn Zappo mid way up the face, setting up for the cresting lip. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz


Man, this seems like a bummer of an article so far, huh? You may be pissed you even started reading it, but I think I have a point that is a positive one. Although I struggle with what I’m about to say as much as we all do, I propose the position of embracing the inevitable change. That’s right! Embrace that change like you would a lover, relishing every unique characteristic of it, melting into the present moment as if there were nothing else. Wherever you are with your surfing, that is where you are. So again, don’t wrestle with it or become attached to it. Passionately embrace it, enjoying every bit of it, while knowing it’s current manifestation will in time also pass.


A few friends and I took a trip up to Long Beach, New York yesterday, and my session was a tug-of-war between my ego and the reality of the affect my age has had on my surfing. I’ve always surfed well, I still do, but there is a difference in my surfing as I get closer to 40. I’ve noticed most recently my level of consistency has dropped, my body isn’t as agile as it once was, and my peak level of performance lasts no more than two hours. Also my ability to bounce back from injury is nothing like it once was. Of course I’m also realizing all those years of throwing myself down huge sets of stairs on my skateboard didn’t help the cause.


As I watched the young kids blasting airs with ease, it was blatantly apparent that my prime had passed and it was never coming back. But it’s ok, I’m still surfing and that is what matters. The joy I derive from the pursuit of riding waves is somewhat more pure than it was fifteen years ago. Each year a layer of my ego is peeled away, leaving space for a more uncontaminated approach to wave riding. When I can get past my ego’s need to compete with myself or someone in the line-up, I can appreciate surfing from a place of gratitude, leaving the aggressiveness of my former self behind.


As we age with surfing and we notice change, let’s not fear it, but embrace it. The fact is, having been blessed in the first place to dance across the face of moving walls of saltwater is a wonderful gift. Let the bullshit fall away as it will and one day we may be left with the unguarded stoke of our humble surfing genesis.

Down the line backside trajectory on a sea weed filled wall. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz

Down the line backside trajectory on a sea weed filled wall. Photo: Christor Lukasiewicz



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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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