Recharge

Salt Water Cure

How a former all-star athlete re-found her sense of self by taking up surfing during the pandemic

Until recently, I thought I was so far removed from the confident athlete of my youth, or the strong woman who stood on stage at Miss USA, or even the girl that believed she could conquer the world. Somehow I found her again at 7 a.m. on a pandemic morning while staring out at the ocean. 

I’m a fairly new LA transplant from New York. Prior to my move, I waxed poetic about all of the quintessential LA things I would incorporate into my life. I was going to hike everyday, drink smoothies every morning, and drive everywhere. But there was one Cali staple that I didn’t account for, and that’s my newfound love of surfing.

Yes, you read that right, surfing. Ever since Kate Bosworth took to a board in Blue Crush, I have said I wanted to learn to surf. Since 2002, I have been holding this desire to surf in my heart. What stopped me then was a very serious athletic career; I swam around the country on a travel team, taking to the blocks every year for the Junior Olympics since I was 10, and had a singular focus on being a powerhouse in the pool. But when it came to my surfing aspirations, every coach said no for fear of injury, so what followed were years of putting off something I’ve always wanted to do.

But there’s something about a global pandemic, and limited options for getting out of the house in a new city, across the country from everyone you love, that pushes you to try new things that lend themselves to social distancing.

I booked my first lesson 3 days after my 32nd birthday with the foolhardy goal of riding a wave, and getting some good IG photos. However, I was immediately humbled when I could barely figure out the mechanics of a pop-up while moving on a flotation device. But that first lesson gave me a nanosecond of a ride, and I was hooked.

That first lesson gave me a nanosecond of a ride, and I was hooked.

Since that first day, I’ve spent every weekend on the water, making progress with every lesson, religiously. But what I love more than riding a wave are the lessons I’ve learned, the community, and the peace I’ve found out in the ocean.

One particularly hard day as we approached a low tide morning with intense sandbars (or low rip tides for the uninitiated, aka how to get sand in every orifice and bruises all over your body), my coach looked at me and said, “let’s take a moment to be grateful, appreciate the things we can control, and know that the universe is working in our favor.” My coach has the tendency to be a zinc-covered Yoda. He manages to say things I need to hear, without even realizing it. On another morning where I was frustrated with work and feeling like I was fighting a losing battle, and it was showing up in my inability to focus and paddle out, without getting tossed from my board, he said, “you can’t fight the ocean, you’ll never win … but what you can do is be patient, see what hand you’re being dealt, and manage how you respond.”

My coach has this tendency to be a zinc-covered Yoda. He manages to say things I need to hear, without even realizing it.

If you didn’t know already, I am a Black woman, and I was genuinely intimated the first time I zipped up my wetsuit. Yes, I loved Blue Crush, but my idea of a surfer was a leggy blonde with perfect beach waves. I hadn’t seen many women that looked like myself standing next to surfboards, unless you count Michelle Rodriguez. Here’s the thing about this community: I may stick out like a sore thumb on Venice Beach, wobbling on my board in the lineup, but every single surfer out there cheered when I paddled into my first wave, or gave me props when I wiped out so badly that I had bruises on my face for a week but still got up, or high-fived me when I rode straight down the middle. I think an inclusive community is the only option when you all have an agreement that you love the same thing, an understanding that the ocean doesn’t give a damn about your skin color, socio-economic background, or even what kind of board you ride, and when you all show up to do something with a level of humble reverence and respect.

I may stick out like a sore thumb on Venice Beach, wobbling on my board in the lineup, but every single surfer out there cheered when I paddled into my first wave.

More than anything, I have fallen in love with what I’ve found of myself out there in the water. You know that scene in Hook where the kid looks deep in Robin William’s eyes and says, “There you are Peter, I found you.” That’s the way I feel. As Beyoncé said in Black is King, “you’re swimming back to yourself, and you’ll meet yourself at the shore.” I shed a single “glory tear” at the line because I’ve felt so far from myself, between career and personal life changes, the world seemingly waking up to racial injustice around me, and the isolation of quarantine. My life has been infiltrated by this new love that grounds me so deeply in myself, being present in the moment, and going with what comes my way, that I know I’m changed by surfing coming into my life. Sometimes I sit on my board, look out at the ocean, and think of what Luvvie Ajayi said about the fraught relationship between Black people and the ocean:

“Water either took our loved ones away or killed those we loved, or scarred us on the journey through the Middle Passage. Centuries after, we still carry the scars and the DNA memories of an ocean that has punished us time and time again. We joke about “Black folks don’t swim,” knowing it’s a trauma response. Whether we are descendants of enslaved people, or African born and bred, we harbor disdain for the ocean.”

As a former D1 swimmer and 8x Junior Olympian, I know all too well the complicated history of Black people with pools and the ocean. Yet when I look out at that water, at the horizon, I see opportunity. Water signifies life. Water signifies purity. Water signifies hope and the ability to be reborn.

When I look out at that water, at the horizon, I see opportunity.

This may feel hyperbolic to some or way too woo woo for others, but I promise you there is something to be said for finding a hobby, side hustle, whatever, that leads you to yourself. There’s a lot to be said about the mechanics, what to pack, all of the technical details, but this is my declaration of “the why” that keeps me going out there.

So if you ever find yourself up on a Saturday morning at the beach and you see a Black woman joyously riding a surfboard with a broad smile on her face, just know that I found myself on the shore and I’m never looking back.

MacKenzie Green is the Director of Social Media for BET+, a new streaming platform for BET/CBSViacom. She is also a graduate of Columbia Business School, and the University of Miami. She serves as a board member for the University of Miami Young Alumni Council, and is a proud graduate of the UCLA Riordan MBA Fellows Program. She’s also a proud member of Kappa Kappa Gamma and The Links, Inc.