Bodyboarding's chaotic quest to be more than a 'sleeping giant'
"We were actually making surfing look like it was the poor cousin of bodyboarding."
Teza McKenna, the manager of The Bodyboarding World Tour remembers a golden age of bodyboarding. In 2012, bodyboarders were catapulting themselves through the air, launching themselves off of massive waves like horizontal rocket ships built of flesh and foam.
The sport was thriving, he says. It was poised to threaten the dominance of surfing, the sport's domineering sibling.
But like all rocket ships, bodyboarding came catapulting back to Earth. Moments of high-flying fame followed by rough landings have since plagued the ascendance of bodyboarding as it tries to escape surfing's shadow.
In 2012, bodyboarding's governing body at the time, the International Bodyboarding Association, was bolstered by $3 million dollars in funding, says McKenna. It was two "glory years" of money, professional-grade video coverage, and travel to big-name locations like the iconic big wave surfing spot known as Pipeline.
"With our million-dollar investments, we were actually making surfing look like it was the poor cousin of bodyboarding," he tells Inverse.
But by 2014 the funding dried up and the World Tour was canceled. Surfer Today characterized the reaction of fans as "rage, frustration, and desolation."
Now, under a new governing body, The Association of Professional Bodyboarders (APB), McKenna is looking to create a new era of glory days.
"Bodyboarding really needs another breakthrough moment," he says.
McKenna is an unlikely champion of bodyboarding — he's actually a surfer and a surfing commenter. But he's here for the non-mainstream wave riding sports, having worked with the Kitesurfing World Tour as well as the Bodyboarding World Tour.
A conversation with him leaves you feeling that surfing, long admired for its counterculture bent, is actually hogging a subversive identity that is better suited to bodyboarding.
"Bodyboarding has now become sort of an underground subculture," he says.
What makes bodyboarding a sport? – In a 2018 interview with Vert Magazine, McKenna called bodyboarding a "sleeping giant of action sports." Bodyboarding is not just a boiled-down version of surfing. It''s an entirely different discipline, from the intellectual aspects to the athletics ones.
Like all wave-riding sports, wave choice is essential. Bodyboarders, McKenna explains, chase a different kind of wave. "It's a super extreme sport where guys are flying through the air on shallow reef breaks and are putting their life on the line," he says.
Most surfboards are made of fiberglass. Bodyboards, however, are made from hydrodynamic foam. That makes for a more durable board that allows the bodyboarders to seek out a different type of wave than surfers do. They can target waves that break over rocks or shallow reefs; extremely shallow waves that would break most surfboards.
Bodyboarders are also known for radical maneuvers. McKenna likens the sport to gymnastics in the water, and you can see it in the sport's signature moves, like the "El Rollo" where the rider moves up the face of a breaking wave, rolls into its curling lip, and does a 360, only to land back on the face of the wave again.
The Michael Jordan of bodyboarding – There's no question that Michael Stewart, a 9-time world titleholder, is the Michael Jordan of bodyboarding. He's also the 15-time winner of the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic and has been crowned "Mr. Pipeline" for his prowess at riding any kind of wave in any fashion.
Accolades and big-wave chops aside, McKenna calls Stewart the Michael Jordan because of his attitude outside of the water. Stewart, he says, is a "deep thinker." In a seminar on bodyboarding, Stewart once began by describing the unique shape of individual water molecules before diving into the best ways to achieve speed in massive waves.
"Everyone wants to be Mike," McKenna says.
The spirit of bodyboarding – McKenna calls bodyboarders "left-brain" types with a creative edge. There's a degree of analytical thinking that's involved in bodyboarding due to wave selection. The best, like Stewart, showcase their athletic creativity by using the waves as launching pads for acrobatic maneuvers. They have a "good sense of adventure," he explains.
Above all, bodyboarders are resilient.
"Because they had a tough upbringing while the sport was going through troubled times, these guys don't have an ego," McKenna says.
It's unclear what will end the troubling times for bodyboarders. Money and popularity are helpful, sure, but it's not clear how bodyboarding can access them. For now, the sport has two conflicts that are, perhaps, related to its existential struggle with surfing.
On one hand, bodyboarding is far more accessible than surfing. McKenna believes that, for every surfboard, there are six bodyboards that sit unused in garages or un-purchased at seaside Walmarts. You've likely tried out the sport yourself, albeit a juvenile version known as "boogie boarding."
However, the ease of entry has perhaps cloaked the intense athleticism of professional bodyboarding. Not any average beachgoer can survive getting tubed in a wave that breaks way overhead or perform the gymnastic maneuvers that make the sport unique. It's occasionally seen as an entry-ramp to surfing – not the end goal in itself.
It's been hard for bodyboarding to shake that label in mainstream culture, McKenna says. The constant turnover of governing bodies, another is expected in 2020, doesn't help.
But as a subculture, the sport can lean into its extreme nature. Even as governing bodies and funding come and go (there have been four so far) the most intense acolytes keep coming back. Take the demise of the 2014 IBA World Tour as an example. As exasperated fans told Surfer Today they didn't need a governing body to get stoked: "I'm going to keep riding... Underground [is] where bodyboarding is best."