RIDING HIGH

Like so many young athletes his age, Conner Coffin has reached a point in life where the line between fun and work threatens to fade into obscurity. At 12, Conner is a national champion; earlier this month he won the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s open boys division title against talent from Hawaii, the East Coast and California’s two conferences. This puts him in the company of professional surfer Bobby Martinez, who had been the last Santa Barbara boy to win the national title. More importantly, Conner’s victory indicates that he’s riding high on a wave headed toward a professional career, if not international stardom. With a four-foot high trophy towering above his mantle at his Montecito home, his future is steadily focusing into greater clarity.

“If I have a chance make pro after school I’d do it,” says Conner, a Montecito Union School alumnus. “Everybody says I want to be a pro surfer and I’ve always said that too, but now I really know.”

Ocean Versus Classroom

In the coming fall, Conner would be an incoming eighth-grader at Santa Barbara Junior High School, but his parents, Krista and Rich, have been pulled him out so he can home-school. The decision was partly due to the fact that Conner hated the junior high, but also because he prefers the freedoms of the ocean to the trappings of a classroom.

“I get all A’s, but I just don’t like school,” Conner says. “When I go to school I feel like have to listen to everyone else. I feel like if I did it by myself I could get everything done faster and I think I’d have more time for surfing.”

Last year, mom Krista gradually noticed that the junior high wasn’t the right place for him – the run-ins with “thugs” and constant competition for teachers’ attention. A small pond like Montecito Union, the Coffins learned, is not the same as the big sea of the junior high. “Conner’s really an independent kid but he gets really bummed out by the downtime,” Krista says. “As long as he wants to spend more time with us, we’re glad to spend time with him.”

Still, with Conner and a 10-year-old son, Parker, who is an NSSA state champion in his age class, Krista plays a tricky balancing act. How does she foster her sons’ surfing potential and still make sure they have something to fall back on? “I want them to respect education and not have all of their eggs in one basket,” she says.

For Krista, it’s a big wave to catch – the brothers’ lives are consumed by surfing. “I joke with my friends that we’ve created monsters,” says their uncle, Jason Baffa, who with their dad taught them how to surf. During a recent interview at their house, Conner sits at the dining room table in a Hurley tee shirt (one of his many sponsors), his hands streaking through his sun-bleached hair that curiously comes down at the bangs in the shape of a crashing wave. Meanwhile, Parker lounges on the couch next to Uncle Jason, a surf moviemaker (“Singlefin: Yellow”), taking in surfing highlights on the television. World Championship Tour elites like Kelly Slater and Bobby Martinez streak through the screen as the boys throw out surfing lingo in loving recognition.

The brothers have surfed practically their entire lives, since 1998 at least. At 7, Conner was already working with J.P. Garcia at Gold Coast Groms, a development school for amateur surfers. The boys have spent so much time in the water, you’d wander whether they have gills or webbed feet. They surf almost every day, under the tutelage of SEALS Surf School coach Isao Tomatsuri, whom they call “Toma.” Dave Letinsky, a Groms partner, secures the boys’ sponsorships, which include Channel Islands, Sex Wax and A Frame Surf Shop.

Work and Change

For a 12-year-old, one year can bring a lifetime of change. In his first two trips to Nationals, Conner had failed to advance in upper rounds. He arrived at Nationals in June having placed third in the NSSA State Championship and was shadowed by up-and-comers like San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino (son of former surfing pro Dino) and Ezekial Lau, of Hawaii. But Conner’s family noticed quickly that his work ethic and development had him prepared for a good showing.

“Coming out into a contest he’s way more focused physically and mentally,” says Parker, an incoming fifth-grader at Montecito Union.

To prepare for the waves at Lower Trestles, Conner practiced at Ventura’s C Street (better known as Inside Point), which like the swells he’d see at Nationals feature high breaks with performance potential in both directions. Lower Trestles provided a favorable landscape for Conner to exhibit his smooth style and penchant for big waves. “After the first tournament I knew what it was like, so for the second one I wasn’t that surprised,” he says. With media attention on Andino and Lau, Conner also had the advantage to sneak on his opposition. “I didn’t have the pressure on me that they had,” he says. When the time came to face Andino and Lau in the final round, Conner had 40 seconds left in the time trial to come up with a good enough wave and secure the number of points needed to win.

For his part, Parker’s Nationals showing was a letdown. He arrived ranked number one in the country in his age class, but he didn’t reach the second round. “I had a good regular season,” he says. “But I would have preferred to win nothing during the regular season and win nationals. You want things to go a different way, but sometimes it doesn’t.” In the end, Parker says he lacked the focus that had been so instrumental in his brother’s triumph. “Sometimes I don’t know why, but I don’t have it in my mind and I lose it,” he says.

Even in failure, though, Parker managed to disguise his disappointment with adulation. “Parker was very supportive,” Conner says. “When I got out of the water after my last wave he ran up to me and was the first person to congratulate me.”

The Daily Grind

In the last five years, the Coffins have become accustomed to long road trips and lots of time away from home. From June 22, when the first part of Nationals began at Salt Creek in Orange County, to July 1, the last day at Lower Trestles, the family lived out of suitcases in their hotel room. By the time the boys got home, they were exhausted and were still recovering almost a week after. The weight of travel is compounded during the school year. “When you return from a trip late at night on Sunday, you have to go to school all day on Monday and by the time get you get home, you just want to crash,” says Parker, who adds that sickness from fatigue beset him during some regular season contests.

At the boys’ age, turning pro isn’t automatic, either. As they grow up, competitors get older and the talent pool grows larger. In the pros, even legitimate surfers have to grind out a living on inconsistent flows of income and prohibitive travel costs.

In case Conner and Parker do decide to turn pro, Krista and Rich have encouraged their sons to set aside their tournament earnings and invest their money. A victory in an NSSA contest brings $100 and Conner took home $500 for the Nationals title. Because Hurley prefers to keep clients’ financial winnings confidential, the Coffins didn’t say how much the brothers had won so far. Sponsorships also bring added incentives, such as academic grants.

Once Conner finishes school, he says he wants to join the World Qualifying Series, the first stop before competing in the World Championship Tour. If he hopes to get there, he knows he’ll need focus, but he’ll also have to be laidback.

“My goal is to just have fun,” he says. “In contests, I find that I do my best if I just have fun.”

Sometimes fun and work are part of the same idea.