photography by TODD WRIGHT
Their rooms are littered with trophies. They wear clothes given to them by sponsors. And many of their surfboards are custom-made.
None is older than 17 and the youngest – 11-year-old Laird Myers – has, in the eyes of the surf community, the greatest potential of them all.
It’s not easy to become an elite surfer in Virginia Beach. The surf breaks here don’t offer waves like the ones on the West Coast – or even on the Outer Banks.
These surfers hire coaches to videotape them in the water and critique their every twist and turn. They travel to places like Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Costa Rica, where they seek out the beefy waves that don’t often visit their hometown.
Some say they want to be pro surfers. Others are eyeing other pursuits. But all of them are taking their surfing as far as they can go.
Laird Myers had an autograph session the next day.
There was just one thing he had to do first: Learn how to write his signature. These are situations you encounter when you’re an 11-year-old surfing phenom.
So his parents got him some poster board and a marker, and he practiced his John Hancock over and over.
“I practiced half the day, just getting it together,” he says. “It’s good now. I don’t use cursive, though.”
Laird is the youngest of Hampton Roads’ top young surfers – and has the greatest potential, according to those in the surfing community. He’s already signed three national contracts with apparel companies. And his parents have put him in homeschooling to see just how far he can take this surfing thing.
“The path he’s on, maybe he can get there,” says his father, Matt Myers. “But he’s 11. And lots of stuff happens between now and then.”
If Laird has any say in the matter, he’ll be surfing’s world champion.
“When I’m older, like 20,” he says.
As of July, he was tied for fifth among surfers on the East Coast for the under-14 boys division for Surfing America Prime East. And he won back-to-back shortboarding titles at the East Coast Surfing Championships in the 9-and-under division, in 2011 and 2012.
His smooth and powerful surfing style is well beyond his years. It’s odd to see someone so young and small – he’s 4-foot-8 and about 80 pounds – pull off moves that talented surfers typically don’t master until they’re well into their teens.
He also looks the part of a prodigy. Black wetsuits are standard fare among surfers; at a contest this spring, Laird’s was bright orange and blue.
Laird’s parents have known for years that he had a special gift.
When he was 6, a hurricane swell came to town. Waves were 8 feet tall. His parents thought it was too big for Laird to surf, so he stayed at home in Croatan. But he sneaked out of the house, grabbed his board and somehow found his way past the breaking waves.
“This kid weighed 50 pounds probably,” says Matt. “I don’t even know how he made it out there.”
A neighbor spotted Laird and told him, “Son, I’m not so sure you should be out here by yourself,” Matt says.
Laird stayed in the water and caught the waves.
His parents later decided they couldn’t come between him and the ocean. So they agreed to homeschool him, as long as he keeps his grades up.
He’s now a rising sixth-grader at the Mom School of Study Hard and Surf a Bunch. “It’s good,” he says. “It’s less school and it takes shorter time. And I get to surf more.”
Though his schedule is flexible, Laird wakes up at 5:30 almost every morning. Matt suspects it’s because Laird likes to get first pick of the breakfast offerings – especially blueberry muffins.
“He knows if he gets up early enough, he’s got free rein,” Matt says.
On a Sunday in May, Laird’s at the 1st Street Jetty. It’s Day 2 of the Steel Pier Classic surf contest. But he’s not surfing today. He won his first heat in two events the day before, allowing him to advance straight to the finals Monday.
The boy with dark brown hair and hazel eyes is wearing a baseball cap, sucking on a mango smoothie and giving his first interview ever.
This has been a week of firsts – the autographs, the interview. And he landed his first “air reverse” – spinning nearly 360 degrees in the air and landing backward on the wave – the week before in the Outer Banks.
“I was stoked,” he says. “I claimed it.”
“It’s when you put your hands up,” he says, thrusting both fists into the air to demonstrate.
He’d been practicing the move for a few weeks. “But I tried it like a billion times,” he says.
The fun of surfing, however, can become muted by business interests. Laird’s starting to feel the pressure that comes with sponsors and national contracts. “I have to do good or get dropped from the team, basically,” he says.
He tries not to worry about it, though. “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point of doing it?”
Jordan Montgomery’s passport raises eyebrows on his surfing travels.
He might be the only Virginia Beach surfer born in Saudi Arabia. He lived in Dhahran, where his father worked as a government contractor, for the first four years of his life.
“I get pretty funny looks in the airport sometimes,” Jordan, 16, says. “Because I’m a freckled, pale little kid.”
Though he’s stacked with surfing talent, competing didn’t come easy to him. He enlisted a sports psychologist to cope with the stress of surf competitions and bring out his best surfing. He also doesn’t fit the stereotype of a laid-back surfer, preferring a more structured and organized environment.
“He’s starting to put it all together,” says Roger Smith, a local surf judge who nominated him for this year’s Eastern Surfing Association All-Star team.
Jordan’s surfing is easy on the eyes. The thin teen with braces is the picture of versatility; he’s got every surfing maneuver up his wetsuit sleeve. And he delivers those moves with flair, knowing how to sell them.
There was a time, though, when Jordan could be his own worst enemy. He’d stress out about performing well and let his competitors get inside his head. “If something didn’t go the way I wanted it to go in a heat, I’d flip out,” he says.
He started seeing the sports psychologist more than a year ago. Now he talks about mentally detaching himself from the results of surf competitions and finding his focus.
“I do my best surfing when I’m calm – not when I’m stressed out,” Jordan says.
Smith described the old Jordan as two different surfers. When he surfed for fun, his talent was obvious. “But when the horn would go for his heat, I didn’t see the same surfer out there,” he says. “He’s managed to punch through all of that and come out a really good surfer.”
As of July, Jordan was tied for eighth among East Coast surfers in the under-16 age group in Surfing America Prime East. He also received an invitation to the Surfing America USA Championships in two age groups this year.
Jordan is single-minded in pursuit of his surfing goals. He eats healthy foods and avoids soda. He went to a surf judge certification course so he could know what judges look for and how they score surfers. And he’ll wake up in the middle of the night to watch a surf competition happening on another continent.
In the backyard of his family’s Chic’s Beach home, Jordan’s mother asks him a question posed to many a teenage boy. She already knows the answer; she just wants a visitor to hear Jordan say it.
“Don’t you want a girlfriend?” Jeanine Montgomery asks.
“No, I have a one-track mind,” Jordan replies. “I know what I want to do in life.”
She playfully presses him, teasing out some more.
“I care about surfing and treating my body right,” Jordan says, “and doing what I need to do to be successful. I’m just not into the normal high school thing.”
Last summer, after his freshman year at Norfolk Christian Schools, Jordan enrolled in an online high school. It gives him more flexibility to surf and travel to tournaments. He Skypes with teachers and does one-on-one tutoring sessions.
“It was strange at first, but you get used to it,” he says.
He gets mostly A’s and B’s, and stays on the straight and narrow. He says he’s never looked up to surfers who are troublemakers – and doesn’t want to be one.
“I’ve always been that Goody Two-Shoes,” Jordan says. “But I’d rather be that than a bad kid.”
There’s a guitar in Laney Brooks’ closet waiting to be strummed.
It was her grandfather’s, refurbished and given to her last Christmas. One of these days, she’s going to learn to play it. Just not today or tomorrow.
“She just hasn’t had time,” says her mother, Cindy Brooks, “because she’s been so busy surfing.”
There are just too many waves to catch, too many tournaments to compete in.
Laney is among the best young surfers that Hampton Roads has to offer – and the only girl competing at her level. The 15-year-old also has become known for launching into waves so big that they make her male peers think of something else to do.
“She’s the best young female surfer in Virginia Beach by far,” says Sebastian Moreno, a former semi-professional surfer who has coached her. “There’s really not any girls that come close to her.”
Laney hasn’t always been stoked to surf in competitions. For a time, she believed that contests brought out the worst in surfers.
“I thought we should be having fun out there,” she says. “We shouldn’t be beating ourselves down with all this pressure.”
But she’s become more sure of herself – and aggressive – in tournaments.
She won her first big tournament on her 13th birthday and, as of July, Surfing America Prime East ranked her sixth among girls in her age group on the East Coast.
Laney has long blond hair, blue eyes and a mouth full of braces. And if you look closer, you’ll find the marks left by her fearlessness.
There’s the 1½-inch scar under her chin, from the summer after fifth grade, when she launched a bike off a ramp, flipped over the handle bars and landed on her chin. She broke her jaw in two places.
Another scar sits near her right eyebrow. A gash from a surf contest left her with 10 stitches. She went straight from the hospital to a friend’s party, getting dressed in the car.
On this Saturday afternoon in May, Laney’s finished surfing for the day. She has just competed in the junior women’s longboard heat at the Steel Pier Classic, doing well enough to advance to the next round.
Laney seems as if she’s in her element, soaking up the camaraderie of the surf gathering. But she says that she sometimes feels as if she doesn’t fit in with either the surfer girls or the girls at school who don’t surf.
She’s a bit of a punk rocker. She loves electronic music and wearing jean jackets with patches, band T-shirts and her blue-jean high-top Converse sneakers.
“My style is a little bit B.A.,” she says.
Her teenage years haven’t been without struggle. She has ADHD, which prompted a school transfer to get her schoolwork on track. The change of scenery helped.
Nothing beats the atmosphere at the beach, though.
At her family’s beach chairs, a little girl approaches Laney. The girl, a 7-year-old surfer named Camden Hoover, tells Laney how well she did in her heat.
“Do you want to go shortboarding with me?” Camden asks. This isn’t uncommon; the younger girl surfers in Virginia Beach look up to Laney.
She lets Camden down easy.
Not right now, Cammi. Some other time, OK?
Laney finishes the interview sitting on the sand, just a few feet from the water’s edge. She’s watching the surfers try to make the best of a bad surf day.
She runs her feet through the sand. Each has several cuts.
Are they from surfing?
“No, they’re cuts from skateboarding barefoot,” she says.
Of course they are.
Hunter Skolnick doesn’t consider himself an artist.
But watch him surf and judge for yourself.
He’s the creative surfer, the one who doesn’t drop into a wave with a plan for what he’s going to do. He and the wave make that decision together.
On the short list of young surfers at the top of the local surfing scene, Hunter’s probably the most improved, the late bloomer who fully embraced the sport after leaving competitive snowboarding behind. He goes head-to-head with surfers who, just a few years ago, were beating him handily.
Hunter’s style resembles that of a skateboarder – on a ramp made of water. While some surfers throw spray with powerful turns, he likes to catch air, launching his surfboard up and off the wave.
“It was fun to be more creative,” he says. “Instead of working on turns, I’d just be working on a bunch of airs.”
Surf judges like that, too. Since last year, he’s gotten within striking distance of winning two regional surf contests, getting second place in one and reaching the semifinals in the other.
Riding waves was not Hunter’s first passion. The 17-year-old with brown hair and a smile full of teeth comes from a skiing family.
“He may be a better snowboarder than he is a surfer,” says his father, Jeff Skolnick.
But a pivotal day in the eighth grade delivered Hunter into the hands of surfing. He got knocked out while trying out for an exclusive school for snowboarders in Vermont. A concussion and sprained ribs meant no more snowboard competitions for Hunter. He took the next flight home.
“Everything happens for a reason, right?” his mother, Beth Skolnick, says.
Hunter’s an introverted teen, someone who prefers a solitary bike ride to a rowdy party. And he’s no problem child. He steers clear of troublemakers, unloads the dishwasher when his mother asks, and didn’t even want his own car (though he’s happy his mother didn’t listen).
“I sometimes want him to get in trouble because he’s so stinking good,” she jokes.
Hunter seeks out peace and quiet, serving as a calming influence on his younger sister.
“I think that’s why he likes surfing so much,” Beth says. “It’s therapeutic – the sound of the water, the sound of the ocean.”
He’s not totally at ease talking about himself, but opens up a little. None of his friends, he says, would be surprised to learn that he has ADD. “I like focusing on seven things at once,” he says. It took him several years to learn how to thrive in school despite the ADD, but he’s done it. And he lands mostly A’s and B’s now.
“I like school more than most kids,” says Hunter, who will be a senior this fall at Cape Henry Collegiate. “I just think it’s interesting.”
He’s having fun in the school’s stocks club, mock-buying and selling stocks to see who makes the most funny money. He likes the real stuff, too. He has begun buying items on eBay, then reselling them, as well as unloading whatever he can find at his family’s Virginia Beach home. He recently bought a camera for $70 and sold it for a tidy profit. He uses the money for “teenager surfer stuff,” he says, such as registering for a recent surf competition.
He approaches life the same way he drops into waves. If he wakes up and wants to ride his bike, he hits the street. When everybody’s eating burgers, he might order a salad.
“Hunter’s more of a free spirit,” Jeff Skolnick says.
Parker Sawyer should probably be in a racecar somewhere, taking turns at 100 miles per hour.
He comes from NASCAR royalty, after all. The 17-year-old Virginia Beach surfer’s family promoted NASCAR races in its early years and later built the 95,000-seat Richmond International Speedway.
“I fully intended on taking Parker racing,” says his father, John Sawyer. “We owned the biggest racetrack in the state. Somebody’s got to race.”
But that’s not how life played out. John’s father and uncle sold the racetrack 15 years ago for $215 million.
“And we all came back to the beach,” John says.
Now his oldest son is making a name for himself riding waves – and he does it with a quiet charisma. He’s one of three local surfers named to this year’s Eastern Surfing Association All-Star team.
But it took Parker some time to find his groove on a surfboard.
He’s built more for football. At 5-foot-10 and sturdily built, the shaggy-haired teen has the neck and shoulders of a tight end.
A growth spurt two years ago – several inches in less than a year – threw his surfing off kilter. It wasn’t until he landed a sponsorship with a local surf shop, WRV, that he started getting custom-made boards tailored for his frame.
“I got to know what I was riding better,” he says.
It made all the difference. He won the East Coast Surfing Championships junior longboard division in 2013, and this year claimed the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s open longboard East Coast title. In July, he got second for open longboard in a national NSSA competition.
Parker and his younger brother live with their mother on 60th Street, just four houses from the beach. Their mother, Louise Seawell, thought moving closer to the water would cushion the blow after she and John divorced.
She was right. But Parker lets things roll off his back. He quickly offers up the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do: attend Norfolk Academy, where he will be a junior.
At the start of his freshman year, he says, the academic curriculum quickly overwhelmed him. He considered transferring. You try writing a 15-page paper on Wuthering Heights.
But instead of leaving, Parker dug in. He cut down on time with friends. He sought out teachers for help. He went straight to the books after school.
“I definitely have a better grip on it now,” he says.
In fact, when first contacted about this story, Parker listened to the caller, then politely responded: “Could I call you back after I get done with my homework?”
Parker is mature beyond his years. He has an air of kindness and humility that makes others want to be in his orbit.
“There’s a ton of good surfers, but when you have a good attitude and you’re respectful, it goes a long way,” says John Kersey, who has known Parker since the boy was at the WRV surf camp, where Kersey was a counselor.
On this spring afternoon, Parker paddles into the water at the 1st Street Jetty, where all local surf competitions are held.
He’s competing in the Steel Pier Classic. It’s the second round of his longboarding division.
Wearing an orange jersey, he quickly catches one of the first waves of the group, tiptoeing to the nose of the board and back. He grabs several more waves, going to the nose and back on most of them – a key move in longboard surfing.
After the heat, when the scores come out, Parker doesn’t get first, though he does advance to the next round. His parents are surprised. One onlooker had already congratulated Parker’s father on the belief that Parker won the heat.
But Parker doesn’t pout or complain.