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Prince of Tides

San Clemente surf champ Kolohe Andino finesses the gnarly waves of success

Kolohe Andino surfs in Teahupoo, Tahiti
photography by Ryan Miller/Red Bull Content pool

Kolohe Andino comes out of the water at Lower Trestles, his blond hair and orange jersey dripping wet as the sun starts to make its way closer to the horizon.

It’s the first round of the Oakley Lowers Pro, a surf contest in late April that brings some of the world’s best surfers to the beaches south of San Clemente. Andino surfs the last heat of the day, posting a higher two-wave total score than any of the other 100 or so competitors from around the world.

But Andino’s day is far from over. Later that night he hits the Stance headquarters up the hill for a film premiere called “Brother,” a surf movie showcasing his life that would draw hundreds of fans who look up to Andino, one of the world’s top competitive surfers. The film’s title is a nod to Andino’s nickname, given to him by his family after his younger sister was born. His motive for doing it?  Just “a good reason to go travel with my friends,” he explains.

Those friends joining him on the trip to exotic surf breaks include fellow San Clemente residents Luke Davis and Ian Crane; they grew up competing on the amateur circuit.

“I like scoring good waves with my friends,” he says. “I’m just a surfer; that’s all I am.” As if to underscore that point, at the movie premiere he isn’t to be found in a secluded, roped-off VIP area where you’d expect the star of the film to be. Instead Andino sits near the front, surrounded by all the frothing groms – those salty young surfers whose life revolves around the sport and culture – their heads tilting up in awe toward the big screen.

What did he want people to take away from the film? “I’m like everyone else,” he says.

It’s a sentiment seeded in frustration, coming from the 21-year-old surfer who’s had the weight of the surf world on his shoulders since he was a kid. The spotlight burns on him like the scorching sun, with commentators, media and surf fans relentlessly focusing either on why he’s doing so well when he has his stride, or why he’s faltering when he gets knocked out of a contest early (his fate when he was edged out of the Lowers Pro in a round-two heat).

There’s a reason the praise, questions and constant criticism simply won’t stop: Because whether he likes it or not, “Brother” isn’t like everyone else.

Andino started surfing after his father, Dino Andino – also a famous surfer who had a stint as one of the best surfers in the world – pushed him into waves at age 5. There was always something different about the younger Andino, recalls Janice Aragon, executive director of the National Scholastic Surfing Association, who first noticed the up-and-coming surfer when he started doing the amateur circuit at 8.

“He always just had that special talent that I don’t see very often. I watched him growing up through the ranks; I could tell immediately he was going to shine,” says Aragon, who has seen thousands of kids come through. “He was just this determined little guy, always reaching for the stars.”

At 15, he became the youngest surfer to earn an NSSA national open men’s title, and he shattered a record for the most championships held by a male surfer after earning nine titles through the years. He’s considered among the 10 highest-paid surfers, with yearly earnings estimated by many sources to exceed $2 million, mostly from sponsorship deals with national brands including Target, Red Bull, Oakley and Hurley.

But with that success came the pressure. “He was always on top. Obviously, people expected big things of him,” Aragon says. “That’s why he puts the pressure on himself. He always has. He was always reaching for perfection.”

Even as a youngster, he was a thinker, an over-analyzer. Aragon once asked him what he’d be doing if he wasn’t a pro surfer. His answer? A scientist. He won his first pro event at 16, taking out a much more experienced World Tour surfer, Adriano de Souza, at an event in Huntington Beach. Then he wasted no time propelling to the top. He won event after event to secure a spot in 2012 alongside the best competitive surfers on the World Tour.

Yet it has been a roller-coaster ride for the young surfer. At 17, he found himself battling against the likes of 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and other much more experienced surfers. On his second year on tour he suffered a devastating ankle injury that kept him out of the water for more than two months.

“He stormed through the amateur ranks like Godzilla, the (qualifying series) like King Kong,” says Matt Biolos, his shaper with San Clemente-based Lost Surfboards, in a video interview during the Lowers Pro. “After a few bad results on World Tour, he lost his momentum. He lost his belief in himself that he was one of the best.”

Questions began to swirl about whether the pressure was too much for the young surfer. The answers came last year, when Andino shut down skeptics and surfed like his biggest supporters knew he could. He came in second at the Billabong Rio Pro in Brazil early in the year, a major result that gave him much-needed confidence. Then the momentum continued as he took third in the next event and fifth in a few others through the year.

He finished the year 11th in the world. Other than Slater, he was the highest-ranked surfer from not just Orange County, but also all of North America. With each year in surfing’s major leagues, the sinewy kid known for his perfect air reverses is being replaced by a beefier, stronger surfer who is nailing power turns and barrel riding. He’s trained by one of the best big-wave surfers in the world, Mike Parsons, who continues to push Andino.

“I always thought I surfed as well as anybody on tour. I just needed to put a little meat on my bones. Now I feel like I’m as strong as anybody on tour, so I just have to get the right waves in my heats,” Andino said in an interview earlier this year. “As long as you’re confident, you’re going to do well.”

As the 2015 competitive year gets underway, Andino is showing mixed results. He started off strong by winning an event in Huntington Beach called the Shoe City Pro, where there was no pressure, no big points at stake. He went on to win the Australian Open of Surfing, a World Surf League qualifying event.

It seemed he was starting the year off well, until he got to the World Tour events. He faltered in early rounds at events in Australia. Then, there was the shockingly early elimination during the Lowers Pro, where expectations were especially high because he’s been surfing that break since he was 5.

For the world’s best surfers, not getting results can be devastating. A tough year can mean getting knocked off the World Tour and having to go back to the grind on the qualifying series, the minor leagues of the sport, to regain points. And when surfers don’t get results, sponsors might pull the plug, and then they have to start thinking of other career paths – though “epic tube riding skills” on a resume isn’t the easiest sell. Most pro surfers don’t have college degrees to fall back on.

Backers like Aragon aren’t worried and know Andino has plenty of years ahead of him to make it to the top.
“I’m still predicting he’s going to have multiple world titles,” she says.

Despite being barely old enough to order a beer, Andino already sits at a high level of stardom – not just in the surf world, but also riding into the mainstream as a household name.

About five years ago, he signed up with sponsors outside the surf world, with stickers from Target and Nike 6.0 (now under the Hurley brand) dotting his board, causing a stir as one of the few surfers backed by non-endemic brands.

Perhaps his biggest exposure outside of the surf world came last year, when he was asked to do a commercial by Visa and Pizza Hut that had him ordering a pizza from inside a tube at Teahupoo, one of the heaviest waves in the world. It aired on national television during a football game.

“We wanted someone who was very well-known but not some marketplace name who has endorsed multiple things,” explains Chris Curtin, Visa’s chief digital officer in an Adweek article.

The spot has racked up nearly 10.5 million views on YouTube since it aired in September.  
“I was stoked on the way it came out,” Andino says, at home for a short stint before whisking away to Brazil for the next event. “Morgan Freeman said my name, so that was cool.”

Like so much else about Andino, that’s not something everyone can say.

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