John Shearer snapped on a pair of black swim fins and waded a few steps from shore near the Manhattan Beach Pier. A shadow cast by the afternoon sun sparkled off the ocean as a stiff on-shore breeze pushed the foam that licked at Shearer's feet.
A world bodyboard age-group champion, Shearer had seen better peaks. The surf could not get much worse than this day. He squinted into the setting sun at wind-blown tops to which there was little form. But beggars can't be choosers when you work all day for a living, he said. At least it was not flat, as it was a few blocks south in Hermosa Beach.
The 33-year-old teacher threw his wet-suit clad body onto a Mach 7-7 board and paddled through the water. Seconds later the man nicknamed "Mr. Chips" had his first wave.
"Yes," agreed Shearer when asked, this was a dog day for surf. But riding this stuff, he said, makes him an even better performer.
"My policy is to just go out," he said of a daily routine of late afternoon practice. "Some days I'm happy to just get what I can get. Other days the waves are great."
Used to Paint Houses
In just a couple of years of competitive bodyboarding, Shearer, a former house painter who teaches English at South Gate High School, has won 10 championships as an amateur in contests for men over 30 years old. He has also won a number of bodysurfing titles, including the 1985 world age-group division for amateurs.
His name first came to prominence in bodyboarding last September when he upset favorite Pat Moorhouse of Huntington Beach to win the National Bodyboard Championship at the Oceanside Pier. He remains, however, little known outside of surfing publications because bodyboarding is a fledging sport, overshadowed by its big brother, the professional surfing tour. He has not attracted the interest of clothing and surf-wear sponsors, like many of the stand-up surfing pros. And, because of his age, Shearer feels he will not receive much attention. The pro division of bodyboarding, composed of much younger competitors, many of them teen-agers, captures most of that interest.
"But I hope to be involved in this sport for as long as I can," he said, "Maybe as a judge. I hope to compete . . . well into my late 40s."
Grew Up Near Beach
Shearer grew up in a beachfront Cape Cod-style house with a view of the Manhattan Beach Pier. When he married his childhood sweetheart, Carmen, two years ago, he moved into an apartment a few blocks away in Hermosa Beach.
"He cried when he left this house," said Carmen, a lithe brunette who also surfs.
The Shearers return to his parents' house whenever they can to enjoy the beach volleyball courts below or just catch what waves are available. Someday, John said, he hopes to build a unit on the back of the lot above the garage and that will become a home for Carmen and him.
On this weekday afternoon, John Shearer demonstrated his ability. He was no sooner in the water than he caught his first ride, a mushy lift of maybe 2 feet. He nearly beached himself.
Seconds later he was back at the break line of a weak southern swell, slicing through the always challenging impact zone (the water where a wave crashes down at its most forceful point).
Joe Wolfson, known as "Dr. 360" for his role in popularizing acrobatic moves in pro bodyboarding, saw talent in Shearer the first time they met.
"John is a great water man," Wolfson said. "He is very deceptive, soft-spoken and easygoing. He doesn't look strong, but he is and he rarely makes mistakes.
"He has the ability to analyze what's happening in the water. He is very intelligent."
For the next hour Shearer performed El Rollos and spins, slicing the faces of countless waves. His energy seemed endless. From the shore the moves looked so easy. They are not as simple as they look, the Shearers say.
"John works hard to make them look easy," Carmen said. "He makes it look so fun. There are no waves out there and he makes it look like there are."
Wolfson, who taught Shearer many of the moves, agreed: "John is the class of (his) age group."
On an El Rollo, for example, a mandatory maneuver in contests, Shearer does a 360-degree roll-over while gliding toward the shore in white water. Shearer says he never stops kicking his legs. But from the beach, the move looks effortless because his lower body is hidden in the foam.
"He's really something," said a teen-age admirer in a wet suit, hugging a bodyboard at the break line. "He's good."
Thirty seconds later the youngster glanced into shore and searched for Shearer, who had taken off in the direction of the pier on an extreme left-breaking shoulder.
"Where is he?" asked the youth.
"Probably shot the pier," was the response. About that time Shearer's head popped up on the shoreline 50 yards up the beach, an amazing ride for the mushy conditions. He had not shot the pier (riding between its pilings, a hotshot trick being done more and more). But the ride, nonetheless, captivated a half-dozen young admirers.