How I Transitioned From Young Kook to Old Kook.
By Jason Spence.
Hey everyone! Remember a couple months ago this website had those “Ripping With Age” articles, where a bunch of ageing professional rippers were quizzed on maintaining health & stoke as they advanced in years?
I thought I’d weigh in with an ageing everyman version.
First, a little introduction. My name is jason spence, and I’m forty-nine years old. I’ve been riding waves in one form or another since before I can remember, and bodyboarding enthusiastically since about 1984. I entered my first contest in 1987, won an Australian National Amateur Title in 1991, then competed on the local Pro Tour in the heady boom times of the early-to-mid “90s.
I enjoyed mild success on the nascent versions of the Australian Pro Tour, then called the ABA (Australian Bodyboarding Association), then the APB (Australian Pro Bodyboarding). Prizemoney & contract incentives provided a trickle of income, and all I wanted to do was surf. I weighed about 50kg wringing wet, and had the ability to perform endless hand-drags & floppos, wave after wave, heat after heat, in shit waves (and the comps almost without fail were held in atrocious conditions), all day long. It’s a skillset that I’m both proud of & ashamed of in equal measure.
In ’92 I first travelled to Indonesia & Hawaii, where I discovered, to my dismay, that such small-wave-beachbreak-disco-skills were completely & utterly useless. But seeing & surfing waves like this definitely opened up my young eyes to the amazing waves beyond the horizons of home.
Over time, it began to dawn on me that the money, time & energy I was investing in chasing a fun, though ultimately unsustainable “Pro Bodyboarder” dream could be channelled into travelling to surf quality waves in exotic locations, and for the next twenty-ish years competition took a back seat to chasing quality surf both at home & abroad. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve rediscovered my love of competition, winning the Sunshine Coast 2019 Open Division Pointscore, as well as four out of five of the contests I’ve entered in my current residence of Aotearoa.
I hope this little spiel doesn’t come off sounding like an exercise in self-aggrandizament, because it’s not. The point I’m trying most to convey is that if a happy floundering fool (like me) staring down his 5th decade of life can still be bodyboarding at a relatively high level, there’s no reason you can’t too! And as we all know, a life spent playing in the ocean is a life well-lived.
All surfing photos in this article were taken in the last twelve months.
As you’ve gotten older, has your mindset changed at all in terms of your own expectations of your surfing performance?
Yes. I mean no. I mean I’m not sure. I still blow waves/sections/manoeuvres all the time, and get angry at myself for it. When I was a kid I had a terrible style, all elbows everywhere & legs akimbo, and I flowed from section to section with all the grace of an epileptic fit. I like to think that my style has smoothed out in the intervening years but it probably hasn’t. I still place unrealistic expectations on my surfing then get mad at myself when I don’t deliver. But a nice tube or a cleanly-executed move still gives me the same rushing flood of endorphins as it did thirty years ago. Surfing thrills & frustrates me in equal measure. I love it & loathe it. It’s my life. What was the question again?
What about in terms of your relationship with the ocean? Is it still about finding the heaviest rippable waves or have you found that you enjoy the surf in different ways as you’ve aged?
I actively seek out quality waves where possible. Thirty years ago I’d happily surf anything.
I feel I have a deeper connection with the ocean now than I did in 1990.
Waves and the ocean teach us so much, if we let them. They teach us of the cyclical nature of Life, of the impermanence of things and the need to rejoice in the Now, and the interconnectedness of Everything.
Waves are just a pulse of energy travelling through a liquid medium, tubes are energy spirals, and these circular patterns repeat themselves from the atomic scale to the galactic scale and beyond. Atoms spin like Solar Systems, Cyclones look (& move) just like galaxies, and tubes are so mind-blowing that it’s difficult to adequately describe them without sounding like an acid-casualty. Falling water is the greatest natural source of negative ions, and bodyboarding plugs us directly into the cosmic cycles of the Universe, whether we realise it or not. It took me years of sitting around in the ocean between waves to see these things.
Winning a contest gives my fragile ego the same sense of self-gratification now as it did thirty years ago, so in essence I’m still the same unenlightened jerk now that I ever was.
Do you have any specific indicators that you think might tip you off in the future that you might not be physically or mentally able to take on heavy or challenging waves anymore?
Yes. Physically-wise, I have a bulging disc in my L5S1 that kept me out to the water for six months in 2018 and continues to niggle, plus a blown-out shoulder that hurts in cold water. Also trashed ankles & knees from years of skateboarding, flipper-wearing and general nonsense, and half a dozen lumps of cancerous meat cut out of various parts of my body as a result of a lifetime plating in the sun. Accumulated injuries definitely hinder performance.
Mentally-wise, I think the prospect of continuing to charge as you age is a double-edged sword.
On one side, you have the part of your subconscious psyche that becomes more aware of consequence and the potential for injury & sense of danger in any given situation, based on a lifetime of putting yourself out of your comfort-zone and dealing with the physical consequences.
On the other side, you have a lifetime of muscle-memory, wave-knowledge, tube-sense, fast-twitch reflexes, and neural pathways honed from a lifetime of pushing it to draw upon, and you have the comfortable familiarity gained from years spent putting yourself in positions at the edges of your own personal limits.
It’s up to you to marry up these two opposing energies, so your sense of self-preservation vibrates in harmony with the desire to continue to push your personal boundaries. Or something. Bloody hippies!
What do you think is the single most important thing an individual can do as they get older to maintain a level of performance?
When I was in my teens & twenties (even into my thirties), I could ingest a semi-lethal quantity of just about anything, and surf all day the next day. It was great! I loved it but it’s not infinitely sustainable.
I think that for most of us, there comes a time when you have to make a choice:
Do you wanna be that old guy at the pub, beer in one hand & ciggie in the other, regaling the other barflies with boring dribbly stories about how good you were “back in the day”, OR do you wanna be that old bloke (or girl) that’s in the water at dawn, stalking the lineup, jagging the bombs, going to Indo, flying past the grommets with a big grin & the remnants of your hair flapping in the wind?
Some people can do both. I can’t.
Make your choices, friends, and choose wisely.
Cut back on drinking, or better yet piss it off entirely. I quit booze nine years ago and it was the best thing I ever did. You’ll feel heaps better & surf heaps more.
If you smoke, stop. Today. Nothing will wreck your ability to enjoy long hold-downs more than a set of trashed lungs. Plus lung cancer is a crap way to check out. Give up today and two months from now you’ll astound yourself with how fast & far you can paddle!
My Father was fond of saying “You spend the 2nd half of your life paying for all the things you did in the 1st half” and to a very large extent it’s true.
Also, stretch. Stay strong & flexible. Yoga helps heaps but I’m too ill-disciplined to do it regularly. I should though. You should too.
Put good things into your body. You wouldn’t buy a high-performance car then take a shit in the tank would you? Don’t put too much shit in your body’s tank.
Surf heaps. Even when it’s junk. Keep your reflexes sharp and your level of fitness up, so you can reap the benefits on the good days.
Surround yourself with positive people. This is VERY important.
I know the question asked to specify “the single most important thing” but there’s no one thing. There’s myriad things, and what works for me might not work for you. Find your things.
Have you had any role models yourself that you have drawn inspiration from or received wisdom from that has impacted on the way in which you’ve structured your life as you’ve aged?
Yes. Yes I have. Hundreds of them. In no particular order:
My Dad. He was still surfing (and surfing well) four times a week into his seventies. I wanna be doing that too. Then he died of lung cancer. Shoulda quit the ciggies earlier.
Mike Stewart. He’s nine years older than me and he’s my hero. He’s your hero too. An absolute Paragon. A sincere and heartfelt thankyou Mike, for everything, from all of us.
Kelly Slater. Largely because when I was a kid, a professional surfer was almost universally considered washed-up at age 24. Kelly (among SO many other things), showed us all that, with a little self-care & discipline, an athlete can continue to perform at top-level for DECADES. Thank you, Mr Slater.
Everybody I’ve surfed and/or competed with, since I was a kid. Thank you for the push, and thank you for the interaction. I’ve taken a tiny bit from each of you, and I hope I’ve given a tiny bit back in return.
You, the Editor, and You, the Reader. Thank you for reading this far (if you did).
Ya also gotta remember that “The Good Old Days” are now, today, this very moment. This is important! It’s good to reminisce about the Past and it’s fun to anticipate the Future, but the Now is what counts most.
Remember that a life spent surfing is a life well-lived. I wish you a long and happy life full of surfing & happiness.