The waves rolled in, the surfers paddled out and a July morning sun burned through the haze at Emma Wood State Beach in Ventura. The scene was "Beach Blanket Bingo" all over again--but the casting wasn't quite right.
Mitch Thorson, neither carefree nor copper-toned, ran his hands along a surfboard at the rear of his gray jeep. He is Ventura County's top professional surfer--ranked in the world's top 30--and at age 25, he is sure he has reached a crossroads in his work and life.
"If you don't have the right attitude, you can get really stressed," Thorson said, squinting out at the breakers. At his temples, gray hairs had sprouted.
"You've got career pressure, the pressure of traveling and the pressure of your sponsor waiting for results. So if you let that build up, it can really eat away at you."
Conventional wisdom does not associate surfing with job anxiety. But then, the conventionally wise don't spend their workdays on six-foot-long slabs of fiberglass, trying to outperform 19-year-olds with nothing to lose, defying jet lag, and striving to appear both out of control and in complete command.
"It's probably one of the toughest things that an athlete can do, and it just hasn't been examined," said Duncan Campbell, a partner in Campbell Bros. Surfboards of Oxnard, which sponsors Thorson.
"There's a guy who lives in San Clemente named Matt Archbold who I would consider one of the most incredible surfers in the world," Thorson said. "But he's one of those guys who just doesn't seem to have the focus. He can't play the game."
But there is also such a thing as too much focus. Thorson believes that his performance has been hampered by self-created stresses, emotional and physical, since he turned professional seven years ago. He felt the strain most strongly last year and early this year. And so this spring, Thorson resolved to relax.
In April, Thorson modified his diet, which was already vegetarian, to mostly raw foods. He became a return visitor to the Optimum Health Institute of San Diego, where wheat-grass juice and detoxification are the watchwords. In three months, he was 25 pounds lighter and feeling "like a cat, instead of a bear."
He gave up push-ups, sit-ups and weight training, and instead threw his energies into a more spiritual fitness regimen of hiking, rhythmic breathing exercises and body positioning prescribed by hatha and siddha yoga. After two years of toying with meditation, he began doing it daily, sometimes for hours.
And he began to punctuate his conversation with reminders that competitive surfing is his job, not his life. On the beach in Ventura under a July sun, he had become persuasive on the subject.
"You've got to keep perspective," he said, pulling on his gear. "Otherwise, you can get consumed by your form of employment. You might be a businessman, you might be a professional surfer, you might be a zookeeper who is too involved with his animals."
On the pro tour, where 25-pound weight drops are seldom seen, some have said they're worried about Thorson's health. Thorson turned that subject away.
"I was sort of bashing my head against the wall, the way I was doing things in the past," he said.
He may have been thinking of his most recent competition, the Coke Classic in Sydney, Australia, which ended April 22.
Thorson was one of several favorites beaten in the first heat of the tournament. He finished tied for 33rd place and "really disappointed. I knew that I should have dusted the guy without much trouble."
The next tournament, and the first since Thorson's resolution to change his life, would be the Life's a Beach Classic from July 10 to 15 in Oceanside.
"Oceanside is going to be really interesting because I'm only about 50% to 60% in terms of stamina and strength," Thorson said before the tournament. "But mentally, I'm about a million percent of what I was for the tournament in Australia."
All through the conversation, Thorson had been scanning the ocean horizon. Then he pulled on a wet suit and paddled out to practice. Oceanside would indeed be a telling test--but probably not in the way Thorson visualized it.
Before the ocean complicated Thorson's life, it may have saved him.
He was a 6-week-old baby in Rottnest Island, a western Australian resort town near Perth, when a doctor told his parents that he had a potentially chronic asthma condition. The doctor recommended water sports to strengthen his lungs and respiratory system.
"I just grew up in the ocean," Thorson said. "At Christmastime every summer, I'd get a new surfing device."
At 15, he "unexpectedly" won the state junior surfing championship of western Australia.
He defended the title at 16 and 17, spending steadily more time on a surfboard and less on the rowing, Australian football, tennis and swimming offered by his teachers at Scotch College, the private school he attended in Perth.