LONG BEACH — It was the kind of day for which people move to Southern California. John Blankenhorn, dressed in a wet suit, stood on the beach doing stretching exercises. At last he straightened his tanned muscular shoulders, brushed his blond hair out of his bloodshot eyes and stared out over the endless rolling Pacific with the appraising look of someone buying jewelry.
"The tide's too high," he announced finally. But he picked up his boogie board and headed out to sea anyway. For the next 45 minutes he entertained onlookers with a variety of watery stunts ranging from eager el rollos to bewildering belly spinners.
"The waves are hitting the big trough, then mushing out to nothing and slapping the shore," complained Blankenhorn back on the beach. Nonetheless, he said, he had had a good time. "You're so close to the water that you can feel the vibrations in your board," he said of the experience. "It's so peaceful, yet there's so much energy; being inside the tube is like being in a wind tunnel. It's awesome."
Meet California's first professional boogie board champion, but a champ with a cause. What he would really like to become, said Blankenhorn, 21, is California's first surfing senator.
This native son of the Golden State, now a history major at Cal State Long Beach, came by his unusual combination of athletic accomplishment and political ambition via a coastal upbringing in Oceanside. The summer he was 15, Blankenhorn said, he happened to buy a boogie board with $22 he had earned from a newspaper route. All summer he practiced the sport, which differs from traditional surfing in its use of a much shorter, 3-foot Styrofoam board on which the rider lies rather than stands.
Within two years, Blankenhorn said, he had become one of about 50 professionals in the state, earning money from contest winnings and endorsements. Since 1978, the young man estimates he has made about $15,000 from boogie boarding, an income he supplements by lifeguarding in the summer and working at a part-time job during the school year.
He has traveled throughout the state--from Santa Cruz to San Diego--as well as to Hawaii, Texas and the East Coast for various boogie boarding contests. "It's like instant celebrity," is how he describes the boogie circuit. Although Californians tend to be somewhat jaded regarding the practitioners of this surfing offshoot, he said, that is not generally the case on the East Coast. There, he said, "it's like you're a god. The girls flock to you, kids ask you for your autograph, people want to buy you beers . . . Next I want to go to Australia. That would be a raging time."
The state champion won his title by scoring the most points in a series of contests held up and down the coast by Morey Boogie Body Boards, an Oceanside-based manufacturer. "Boogie boarding is experiencing a tremendous upward (swing)," said Mary Lee Christensen, director of sports promotions for Morey Boogie.
Blankenhorn, whose reign as champion began in August, attributes his success to the fact that "in the water I close all doors. It's serious time."
It is an ability he hopes someday will serve him as a candidate for political office.
He would like to be a U.S. senator, he said, because "I enjoy talking to people and I want to be part of our new generation of leaders." After all, he reasons, Ronald Reagan--a man he supports and admires greatly--was once a lifeguard. And traveling the boogie circuit, one meets lots of people who "might say, hey, he's a nice guy with a good personality" and remember him on election day.
Blankenhorn, a senior who plans a delayed graduation, intends to begin his political odyssey this spring by running for student body office. Later, he said, he hopes to land an internship with the city of Oceanside or, perhaps, work as an aide to Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston.
Why a Democrat when the young man's leanings are decidedly Republican?
"I didn't even know he was a Democrat," Blankenhorn admitted. "Yeah, that would present a problem."
For the time being, though, there are more immediate concerns. Like getting ready for Saturday's qualifying meet in Oceanside for an upcoming national boogie competition. Or keeping up his grades now that he lives in the Sigma Chi fraternity house. "Anyone who can live (in a frat house) for a year and survive is a god," Blankenhorn said, repeating a favorite phrase. Many nights, he said, are spent partying. Which is why, he explained, his eyes were bloodshot despite an early morning boogie boarding appointment.
But the ocean got his senses rolling, just as it always does. Once in Hawaii, he said, he almost drowned. "I pulled up in a big tube and it just swallowed me," he recalled. "It pinned me on the reef and I came up vomiting. I thought I was going to die."
This particular morning, though, preparing for a second dip in the salty swirling sea, his senses were alive. As part of a ritual of preparation, he had carefully placed stickers representing various commercial sponsors at strategic points on his board. Should one of them inadvertently show up in a published photograph, he explained, "it means extra money for me."
By now, however, the stickers were forgotten. Only the ocean remained, the strong swooshing sea that had made him its champion. "It's done a lot for me," he said, gazing out over the water, ready to grab his board and jump back in. "It's given me defeat and victory--helped me mature and deal with adult situations."
A moment later, indeed, he had returned to its bosom, in hot pursuit once again of the ultimate belly spinner. And all that could be seen from the shore was the glint of his boogie board, bobbing in the bubbles.