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The Grommets Are Running : They used to be known as 'gremlins,' but whatever you want to call them, these pint-sized surfer dudes have two-track minds: getting a ride to the beach and catching a great wave.

April 23, 1993|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From a distance, Ryan Turner looked every bit the surfer as he and his brother, Timmy, walked down Main Street in Huntington Beach, headed for the pier.

They had the requisite wet suit: black with full sleeves and a splash of color. Their surfboards, tucked under their armpits, were loaded with logos: Rockin' Fig, Body Glove, Island Style.

And they had the perfect, nasal-inflected, sing-song surf-speak down pat: "We like surfin' near the pier," said Ryan. "It's where the best waves are."

Come a little closer, though, and something about this scene from Surfer magazine looks a little askew.

These guys are small .

Ryan and Timmy are 13 and 11, respectively. Timmy barely tips the scales at 85 pounds.

"When Ryan was 6 years old, he told me he was going to be a pro surfer someday. I laughed at that, but that's all he does is think, eat and dream surfing," said Michele Turner, the mom of the kids with the one-track mind.

Webster's Dictionary doesn't have a descriptive word for them yet. But at Southern California beaches, where they're weaned on a steady diet of Pacific Ocean waves, they're called "grommets," pint-sized surf dudes whose only worries center around their next wave or getting a ride to the beach.

Originally, they were called gremmies (short for gremlins). In the '60s, the Australians picked up the term grommets (named after the small fasteners on older wet suits, according to surf lore) as a substitute for gremmies, and it's been adopted worldwide, according to Trevor Cralle's "Surfin'ary, a Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak."

Mike Downey, a 36-year-old surfer who coaches grommets and is on the board of directors of the Professional Longboard Assn., said the term could apply to anyone under 18.

"A grommet could be any young man or girl who surfs, or is learning to surf. You know, even up to the age of 18 for boys, until they're considered a man," Downey said.

But grommets compete against each other in specific age brackets under age 12, according to the Huntington Beach-based National Scholastic Surfing Assn.

"There are many organizations that sponsor surf contests, and probably all have their own technical definition of what a grommet is," said Janice Aragon, NSSA director.

Surf shop owners say they gauge grommets by how much their eyes bug, especially when a new line of surfboards appears. "To a grommet, a surf store with a full line of shiny new surfboards, wet suits, and clothing is like walking through candyland," said one owner. "They want everything. "

Inside the Turners' Huntington Beach home is an inner sanctum known as Ryan's bedroom. Here, amid the usual boy clutter, any up-and-coming grommet worth his surf wax could feel at home.

His door, for instance, is white. Well, at least you can see slivers of white through the layers of surf logos and stickers of all shapes and sizes. But don't try counting them. Just let the eye bounce off a few: KNAC, Billabong, Bart Simpson and one of Ryan's favorites, "I Hate Days Without Waves."

There are about a dozen pictures of surfers on monster waves at famous beaches around the world. Surfing trophies are stacked on bookshelves. Ryan saved a judge's board from a 1992 contest, a 2-by-3-foot sheet of cardboard with his name and the words "No. 1."

In another corner of the room is a poster-sized card that was signed by well-wishers after another contest. "Way to go Ryan, Maureen Rivers." "Good Job, Ryan." "See you on ESPN real soon! Gary."

The only non-surfing items are an old plaque with baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. and a Steve Klassen snowboard poster.

To help understand Ryan, you need to know he was born in Huntington Beach, a coastal city unofficially known as "Surf City."

Oh, he does have other interests. There's school, Mesa View, where he is a seventh-grader and maintains a 3.2 grade point average. His bicycle. His job. Yes, both he and Timmy have work permits and wait on tables at the Sugar Shack, their parents' cafe on Main Street, only a block from the Huntington pier.

He played Little League baseball for a while, but gave it up after "picking teams heated things up and got too political," said his father, Tim Turner, 38, who also was born in Surf City and grew up riding Huntington's waves, albeit on a longer surfboard.

"I'm really a fair-weather surfer now," Ryan's father said. "But I'd rather have him surfing, than getting into trouble."

Oh, sure there's television and Nintendo. But Ryan swears he plays only a few minutes when he's bored or when school chums visit.

Surfing wasn't as much a choice, as a destiny for Ryan and hundreds of other grommets. They slid into the sport, literally, by skateboarding first, riding asphalt waves for hours on end.

It was Ryan's mother, Michele, 38, who took him and his brother to swimming lessons before they were 5. It jump-started their aquatic careers.

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