Surfers are riding a wave of new technologies to their Olympic debut

As the sport takes its place in the Olympic lineup, biometrics and other types of data tracking help carve its future.
tk Jake Marote/Red Bull

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One of the best surf spots in the United States to practice aerial tricks is in central Texas, some 200 miles from the Gulf Coast. On a brisk December day at the BSR Surf Resort, Caroline Marks was ripping a front-side air reverse. Aquamarine water sloshed off the concrete rear wall of the wave pool as she pumped down the line and flew off the crest of a head-high breaker into a clockwise spin. She grabbed the rail of her board as she came around and landed with a splash, sunlight glinting off the spray. She looked like she was having a blast.

The 18-year-old Californian has ridden in artificial lagoons before, but this was her first time at BSR. It features an oncoming white-water section perfectly suited to her signature explosive maneuvers. Surfable waves roll through with metronomic precision, as many as 150 an hour. “There aren’t always opportunities for people to do airs in the ocean, but at Waco there is, over and over again,” Marks says, grinning with characteristic excitement. She and three of her brothers spent the day here, one-upping each other into the evening under the glare of stadium lights. “One hundred percent, it was so much fun,” she says.

Luke and Zach Marks introduced their younger sister to wave riding when she was 8 and the family lived in Florida. Even now, she loves shredding with them. The week before their session in Waco, she finished the World Surf League championship tour ranked second internationally, behind Carissa Moore, the 27-year-old veteran who won her fourth title. That secured their spots, with Kolohe Andino and John John Florence, on the US Olympic team for the sport’s debut in Tokyo. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the Summer Games to 2021, the squad is set.

Moore, who grew up in Hawaii and has been a dominant competitor for a decade, says that when she was a kid dreaming of going pro, the Olympics weren’t on her radar and artificial waves were never consistent enough to warrant excitement. But—surprise!—in the past two years, she ended up winning the first major event staged on them and securing a shot at gold. Marks, on the other hand, has grown up with such things as givens. She was 14 when the games’ international governing body added surfing to the lineup. One year later, she became the youngest person ever to qualify for the professional tour.

As surfing prepares for its global spotlight, it is experiencing a seismic shift from a laid-back, go-with-the-flow mindset to one shaped by innovations in data analysis, physiological testing, and technology. Specialists in fields such as nutrition, psychology, and orthopedics are working with US surfing coaches like Brett Simpson to develop an Olympic training regimen that increasingly resembles those long favored by everything from basketball to volleyball. The team is undergoing cognitive analysis, establishing baseline biometrics, and tracking analytics to enhance performance. Surfers are experimenting with gear like pressure-sensing booties to glean insights into board control and GPS-equipped motion trackers to improve paddling technique. This embrace of science and technology has come as research and engineering yield advances long considered impossible—most obviously, consistent machine-made barrels suitable for competition. Some of the gadgetry can’t help but eventually make its way onto beaches everywhere, adopted by recreational enthusiasts and elite competitors alike, further changing the culture of the sport.

The job of maximizing all this potential falls to Kevyn Dean, the US team medical director. An orthopedic physical therapist who has spent two decades using physiology and biomechanics to help top wave riders achieve their best, Dean was the first to push such an approach within USA Surfing, the organization that selects teams for international competition. He sees the evidence-based methods that he pioneered within the sport inevitably ruling it, pushing it into the future. “Caroline’s is the generation that will be coming up with these tools, and more, at their disposal,” he says.

Caroline Marks rides a wave in ­Honolua Bay, Maui. The Olympian is among those at the vanguard of surfing’s embrace of science. Kelly Cestari/World Surf League/Getty Images

In September 2015, when she was a 13-year-old preparing for the International Surfing Association World Junior Surfing Championship, Marks broke her foot and ankle in several places doing a backside turn. The move places heavy pressure and flexion on the leading ankle to drive the board up the face of the wave, and the white water shoved her foot into an acute angle. “I was out of the water for three months,” she says. “I went from surfing four to six hours a day to nothing. It felt like an eternity.” Dean treated her with the goal of erasing the deficits from her injury and tweaking her technique to reduce the chance of another—a kind of “prehab.”

They worked on improving her stability, balance, and coordination with exercises that increased the strength and functional range of her joints and bolstered her core posture and movement. (One foundational technique, called dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, saw her crawling much like a baby to unlearn bad habits by relearning basic movements.)

Like many, Dean once viewed surfing as a lifestyle, not a sport. He came to it after earning his graduate degree in physical therapy in 1991 and going to work at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Long Beach, California. His hobby and his career converged on the shores of sunny SoCal. “As I surfed more frequently and wanted to get better,” he says, “I started to think about it differently—what do I need to do to catch more waves and make more turns?”

Spending time in the gym was not something any respectable surfer did back then; likewise, few people considered hanging ten a serious athletic pursuit. But Dean’s clinical background led him to begin reconsidering those notions. When his son started catching waves with friends, he asked more questions: Why don’t surfers train the way football players and wrestlers do? What are the baseline functions they need to perform? He assessed the boys’ movements on the water and developed conditioning plans involving unstable surfaces like balance boards and Bosu balls. The teenagers eagerly sought every advantage, so he reevaluated their progress regularly and responded with new adjustments. He reviewed hours of video footage, focusing on their technique and pondering how to help them from a biomechanical perspective.

Dean expanded upon that model when he opened a surfing-oriented gym in 2005 in Huntington Beach, a seaside community near Los Angeles. (He moved the operation a bit farther south to San Clemente, home to many of the sport’s stars, in 2010.) Over the years he has trained Simpson, who won two US Open championships, and other stars of the pro tour, including Nate Yeomans, Griffin Colapinto, and Kanoa Igarashi. Six years ago, he added physical therapy to the mix, tying together the two threads of his life’s work.

USA Surfing named Dean medical director in 2017 and tasked him with assembling a committee of coaches, orthopedic surgeons, physiologists, psychologists, and other experts. Their mandate is to create “high-performance” surfers. In the competition lexicon, that means emphasizing anything that can improve the odds of winning: strength and conditioning, nutrition, equipment evaluation, video and data analysis, even mental health. The US Olympic & Paralympic Committee has long embraced such a strategy. “My whole goal,” Dean says, “is to get top surfers to do what a lot of major sports are already doing.”

His methods grew from a belief that competitors should control the variables they can and leave the unknowns on the beach. A nutritionist, for example, advises on energy and hydration needs before, during, and after an event. “You’ll see a lot of surfers who barely take a sip of water in a five-hour competition in blazing sun and heat,” Dean says. “Can you think of any other elite athletes who aren’t drinking water?”

Dean radiates calm expertise. While he embodies the professionalization of surfing, his fluency in its sick-stoke language lends him credibility. “There are definitely some choke points when it comes to growing out of a lifestyle,” he says, recounting some of the criticism he’s read and heard over the years: Spend all the time you like in the gym, but the only way to improve is on the water. Competition and scoring bastardize the sport. The best surfer is the one having the most fun. “But the reality is that there are elite athletes making their living by performing at a top level,” he says. “The best surfer is the one who is actually in the water, and if you’re injury laden, you can’t be in the water. Everyone can understand that.”

On a bright morning in December 2019, Dean was performing a medical assessment on Nico Coli, who had just won gold in the team Aloha Cup event at the ISA world junior championship. The 16-year-old Californian was among a handful of amateurs spending the day at Mamba Sports Academy, the top-flight gym co-founded by the late NBA star Kobe Bryant. They were there to see how science, technology, and data can augment conditioning and improve performance. Coli’s left ankle had been bothering him. “You can see over time that as these kids get older, the back leg hip rotation becomes much more limited,” Dean said, pointing out the shorter range of motion of the teenager’s left leg. “The symptom of this is ankle pain,” Dean continued as Coli, who tries to surf twice each day, grimaced. “So even though his balance and coordination are pretty spot on, we work to give Nico more mobility.”

Mamba Sports Academy emphasizes using science and data to boost achievement, something that has prompted NBA and NFL players to train there. Dean works alongside Tracy Axel, director of high-performance analytics for the Olympic team. They met in 2011, when Dean advised her on her graduate thesis, and in 2018 they published a paper in the International Journal of Exercise Science. The study—based on measurements from 19 elite surfers—found that an emphasis on building core and lower body strength, rotational power, and flexibility significantly improves ability, which may increase the odds of success in competition.

Marks was among eight Olympic hopefuls who met at Mamba in early 2019 for physiological and mental evaluation. They spent two days jumping and standing on sensor-laden platforms to analyze hip and groin imbalances, taking cognitive tests to judge reaction time, and having their body composition measured in an egg-shaped device called the Bod Pod. Each of them had a high chance of qualifying for the games, and USA Surfing wanted to establish a baseline of their fitness and conditioning to help their coaches develop programs with input from physiologists and other experts.

In the cognition lab, Marks smacked buttons in a test designed to assess her reaction time and peripheral vision. In the gym, she leaped off a box onto force plates that recorded her center of gravity and weight distribution as she landed. “I’d never done reaction time testing, or the balance of your right foot versus your left foot,” she says. These factors are key. “It’s amazing to have these tests show you that what you felt like is not always the reality. And the more information you know about your body, the better, I think.”

An emphasis on science and data seems like a no-brainer. But adopting the “Mamba mentality”—the phrase Bryant coined for this kind of all-in, focused preparation—can be tricky when it comes to merging Olympic team priorities with those of the athletes and their coaches.

Mike Parsons, a big-wave rider who was inducted into the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in 2008, works with Marks and her teammate Andino. Although Parsons welcomes Dean’s insights, they augment, but do not replace, his regimen. “Their programs are pretty specific and strict, from what they eat to their sleeping habits,” he says. “It was all pretty dialed in for the world tour, and they’ll likely stick to that routine for the Olympics too.” He pauses, then laughs. “The stakes are just a lot higher.”

That explains why Coach Simpson urges team USA to tap Dean’s expertise. “With the Olympics only coming every four years, the pros are nervous about messing up their routines,” Simpson says. “But they should be looking at this kind of training as an extension of their careers.”

Not everyone will embrace these new tools due to time, cost, personal preference, or just plain superstition. And even the best preparation is no guarantee of success in a sport that places everyone at the mercy of waves, weather, and other factors. No one ever thought a sea turtle would lay eggs on Tsurigasaki Beach near Tokyo during a trial run of the Olympic surfing format in July 2019. And no one expected to find themselves grinding through rapid-fire heats in brutal humidity and temperatures that reached 90 degrees during the ISA World Surfing Games two months later. At least in some ways, surfing will always be surfing, in all of its variable, unpredictable glory.

This story appeared in the Summer 2020, Play issue of Popular Science.