The Comeback Kid: Santa Cruz surfer Nat Young scratches back onto the world tour in honor of his mom

Nat Young, back on the tour.
(Via Nat Young’s Instagram)

Nat Young was an up-and-coming title contender when he burst onto the scene in 2013, but life and the quirks of pro surfing heats’ slim margins left him on the outside looking in after four seasons. Powered by the spirit of his beloved mom, Rosie, whom he lost in February, Young is back on surfing’s big stage.

Santa Cruz’s most accomplished professional surfer is getting his second chance on the world stage at age 30 — and feel-good comeback stories don’t get better than this.

Nat Young battled through the loss of his mom, Rosie, in February and then watched his daughter be born into the world a month later. Through the highs and lows, he continued to scratch out qualifying points at events all over the globe and managed to fight his way back onto the tour a stunning six years after the door had shut on him.

After getting knocked out of a qualifying contest in Hawaii on Monday, Young had to wait it out to see if he’d amassed enough points to again be one of surfing’s top 34 competitors. Saturday it became official: Nat’s back.

Sunday morning he took to Instagram to honor his mom:

A story about a kid whose mother showed him what it looked like to never give up no matter the circumstances or setbacks that may come along the way. Thank you mom.

Young has amplified his mother’s essential support often over the years:

Why it matters: The freckle-faced Westside native is a much-beloved personality in the Santa Cruz surfing world. Despite all the surfing talent in Santa Cruz, he is only the third surfer from here to compete at the sport’s highest international level. The other two only had brief times on the World Surf League tour: Chris Gallagher (1995-97) and Adam Replogle (1998).

Santa Cruz surfers have gained much acclaim in the world of big-wave surfing because of their pioneering efforts at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay. There are, however, very different disciplines and livelihoods within the sport. Only Young, Replogle and Gallagher have had the fortitude and discipline to navigate the treacherous pathway to the sport’s highest level and most lucrative form of competition.

The background: At 17, Young announced his quick ascension by winning his hometown event, the Coldwater Classic at Steamer Lane. Five years of hard work grinding through the World Qualifying Series with his mom by his side at stops all around the world led to Young making the tour at age 22 in 2013. And he took it by storm, earning Rookie of the Year honors and nearly winning two events his first two years — including a near-miss at Bells Beach in Australia.

But Young, who had already lost his dad his first year on tour, began to find success in the water harder as his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was much beloved and known as a wise sage to those she met around the world, always by her son’s side. Close last-second losses in France, Portugal and Hawaii put Young in a bad position in 2016, and a year later he was off the tour full-time.

The perseverance of 2021: At his first tour event in six years, in June at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in Lemoore, Young went into detail with Stab Magazine about his struggle to focus on surfing as his mother’s health waned.

“It rattled me when she got sick. Surfing was not the most important thing to me at that time; I was more concerned with my mom’s health. I just wanted to be there for her because she would be there for me no matter what. Leaving her for weeks at a time to go surf contests was brutal. Taking her to surgeries when I was home, not knowing what the outcome will be — with a loved one, it takes a toll on you.

She was cancer-free for a few years, and then she got sick again. In October, I was at home and she was down in Laguna Beach. I got a phone call saying that something was wrong with my mom. She couldn’t form sentences. She wasn’t making any sense. I flew down and went to the hospital. The doctors told me that she had a tumor in her brain and stage 4 lung cancer that had spread rapidly. That was one of the worst days of my life. I didn’t know if I was ever going to talk to my mom again. I couldn’t truly have a conversation with her.

She had brain surgery and got a little bit better. We had some genuine talks after the surgery. I got to spend a lot of time with her. And then things rapidly got worse and worse. She couldn’t breathe on her own anymore and had to be hooked up to oxygen. Myself, my sister, and some of my mom’s best friends were with her as she took her last breath. She passed away in February.”

Young told Stab the challenge of 2021 has really stretched his human limits:

“Having a kid a month after my mom passed away was tough. Everyone talks about how having a kid is the best day of your life — and it is amazing. It’s the most incredible experience ever. But it was also one of the most challenging experiences of my life, not being able to call my mom and dad and tell them they had a new granddaughter.”

In July, the surfing community came out in large numbers to honor Rosie, who helped counsel many other aspiring young surfers beyond her son.

What comes next: The tour starts in late January at the famed Banzai Pipeline and then Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore. Then it’s on to Portugal, Australia, Indonesia and Brazil.

Young’s powerful backside attack (he’s a “goofyfoot,” surfing with his right foot forward) on waves that break to the right make him a serious threat in many tour locations. And as anyone who has followed his recent path will know, Nat Young appears to be a man on a serious mission.

“So stoked for you,” commented former top tour pro Josh Kerr. “Serious mental strength.”

Here’s a look at Young’s recent surfing in Hawaii. It is the definition of powerful surfing on your backhand:

And if you’re in need of a good cry, read Young’s ode to his mom in June, not long after his daughter, Rocky Rose Young, was born.

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