Calm after the storm: Nat Young’s pro surfing comeback a byproduct of passion, perseverance, family

Nat Young throwing bucks of water on his way to a fifth-place finish at Margaret River, Australia in May.
(Matt Dunbar/World Surf League)

Santa Cruz surfer Nat Young is the top professional wave rider that Surf City has ever produced. But hanging onto your spot among the World Surf League’s top competitors is no small feat and Young’s tumultuous land life — watching his mom Rosie lose an extended battle with cancer — took a severe toll on his psyche. Sixteen months after her death, Young’s spirited and meditative comeback is in full swing. And this is only Chapter 1.

Nat Young still doesn’t have an official career win on the largest stage of professional surfing, the World Surf League. Yet, with two stops left on the 2022 tour, this comeback season for Santa Cruz’s most accomplished pro ever has a distinctively victorious feeling about it.

Young made the treacherous midseason cut, is tied for 16th on the 24-man tour, had a fifth-place finish at the Margaret River Pro in Western Australia, and has surfed his way into the third round of competition on four other occasions.

Nat Young gets ready for the first round of the Oi Rio Pro on June 23 at Saquarema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
(Thiago Diz/World Surf League)

That takes solid, consistent surfing under high pressure. And those results put him well within striking distance of his preseason goal of making the top 10 — which would also help him safely re-qualify for next year’s tour by being among the top 14.

But throw all the results out the window and consider the new life challenges hurled Young’s way in 2021 — losing his mother to cancer, watching the birth of his first-born, while still finding the focus to claw his way back among pro surfing’s ultra-competitive elite class. That newfound calm in Nat Young’s approach has been earned with grit.

“I have a huge amount of respect for Nat in the way he has dealt with hardships and in the way he carries himself,” says his good friend and fellow Westsider, Shaun Burns.

Not surprisingly, Young’s most memorable moments of the season have come in the biggest, heaviest waves at places like Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore and the cold, heavy water of Bells Beach and Margaret River in Australia.

Which makes this week’s event — set to begin this week in pumping double-overhead south swell at iconic righthander Jeffreys Bay in South Africa — extra exciting for Nat Young fans. And those are found across the globe.

SAQUAREMA, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 24: Nat Young of the United States surfs in Heat 4 of the Elimination Round at the Oi Rio Pro on June 24, 2022 at Saquarema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Daniel Smorigo/World Surf League)

CORONA OPEN J-BAY

How to watch the action live from Jeffreys Bay

  • The contest kicked off Wednesday in perfect conditions with a building south swell that is expected to peak in the 10-12 foot range on Thursday for elimination-round men’s action and the women’s quarterfinals.
  • They are nine hours ahead on the East Cape of South Africa so first-round action began at about 1 a.m. West Coast time last night and should be similar the next two days.
  • Nat Young kicked off action in Heat 4 of Round 1 with his self-proclaimed best performance ever at J-Bay. He carved his way past world No. 1 and two-time J-Bay champion Filipe Toledo in spectacular fashion. “Man, when you’re on a a wave out there, it’s pretty special,” he told fellow Santa Cruzan and WSL commentator Peter Mel afterward.
  • Tune in live at worldsurfleague.com

“I think Nat’s due for a big result at J-Bay,” says Burns, boldly adding that Young could find himself in the finals against South Africa’s favorite son, Jordy Smith. [Update: Young put on a spectacular show in his first heat; details in the box above. And the visual evidence in Nat’s Instagram post below.]

Young, 31, is surfing steady in his first year back on tour after a six-year absence, and that’s a big deal. He has gotten better at silencing the self-critical perfectionist in his head, staying in the moment, not letting outside-the-water things affect him.

Rosie Young would be proud.

Nat learned the importance of that mental strength from his naturally even-keeled mom, whom he lost to cancer in February, one month before the birth of his daughter Rocky Rose.

The trips where he hasn’t had wife Tia and Rocky with him on the road, such as now at J-Bay, make it even more important for him to channel that calm, do his morning meditation routine and keep doing what he knows he can do.

Because, after all, it’s simply what he began doing at age 12. With his mom behind the wheel and at his side, on seemingly endless road trips back and forth to Southern California — where a far higher percentage of surfing careers are born.

After what he went through to get back on tour, Young has a deeper appreciation for the gift of a pro surfing career. He earned it back by fighting and scratching on the WSL’s qualifying tours at inferior surfing venues, and now he has a hard-earned stability both in the water and out.

Between trips across the globe, he’s banging away on nails at the lower Westside house he’s helping renovate for his young family. It’s just around the corner from the small bungalow he grew up in. It’s also another sign of Young’s growth — jumping into unfamiliar territory, learning, pushing aside fear and doubt.

“Nat has gone through a lot of life changes recently,” Burns said. “With his family’s support, he’s found the right balance by embracing fatherhood and the responsibilities of life on tour.”

Nat Young is enjoying life at home with wife Tia and daughter Rocky Rose.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We caught up with Nat before the season began to talk about the hard path back to surfing’s holy grail. His talk of using meditation to calm his restless mind, controlling only what he can control, seems all the more fitting now, as he embarks on the tail-end journey of Chapter 1 in the Nat Young Comeback Story.

After J-Bay, in August, it includes one of the other most iconic and powerful waves on the planet, Teahupo’o in Tahiti. It’s a place where Young has performed well in the past, but has been a bit unlucky.

Working on the renovation of a new home for his family has given Nat Young more to focus on between tour stops.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With the feel of better luck in the air, it’s an exciting time to tune into Nat’s comeback. So here’s a look behind the curtain at the man behind the comeback and what has driven it.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: What do you think the difference has been for you in this comeback?

Nat Young: I always believed that I would be back on tour because I believe in my ability to compete at that level. If I didn’t know that I belonged on tour, or that I was capable of competing with the best, it probably would’ve been different.

Lookout: You were WSL Rookie of the Year in 2013 and made three finals your first two seasons, so I guess those memories stuck with you.

Young: Coming on tour, and having success was definitely a confidence booster, being able to compete with the top guys. I’ve learned a lot over the course of my career. I’ve always known my surfing was good enough to compete for a win in every contest. But, it was sometimes a matter of just needing to get out of my own way. I was overthinking things and not letting it come naturally. I’ve been surfing my whole life. I’ve been surfing heats since I was 12 years old.

Nat Young looks at some boards his mom Rosie painted for him.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: There’s a fine line between being a thinker and an overthinker.

Young: Yeah it was like I really needed to just go out there and do it by instinct. Instead, I was too in my own head. It’s funny because the year I fell off tour, I started seeing a sports psychologist. And I did have some success with it, but then I fell off tour. So I was kind of like, ‘OK, maybe I’m overthinking everything now.’ I started questioning things I didn’t need to be questioning.

Lookout: What was your mom’s advice as she saw this happening?

Young: She thought I didn’t look like I was very confident in myself anymore during heats. And I don’t think she could pinpoint why. But she’s like ‘It looks like you’ve lost all your confidence.’ And that’s what it comes down to, being confident in your decision-making, just reacting off instinct.

Lookout: So what was the gamechanger for you?

Young: I started meditating a lot two seasons ago in Hawaii. It was the end of the season, I was close to qualifying. I actually felt really good, ended up surfing well. I just had a couple falls. Even though I fell short, I still felt really good and clear-headed. So I’ve continuously kept meditating every day since. I feel so much more in the moment and not like my mind is somewhere else while I’m surfing. It puts you more in a state of, ‘If a wave comes, it comes. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’

Lookout: There is a lot outside your control in a surf contest. It sounds like you’ve found an important piece of the puzzle.

Family sits at the center of Nat Young's universe.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Young: Yeah, it helps you figure out what to try to control and the things you have no control over. My friend Shaun Burns is pretty big into meditation. I read a couple books about how to be more present and all that stuff. And, after Hawaii, I felt so much more in the moment and like my mind isn’t like somewhere else while I’m surfing.

Lookout: Well, your mind had plenty of heavy stuff on it while trying to be a pro surfer while watching your mom battle cancer.

Young: Yeah, if my life was perfect outside the water and the worst thing in my life was that I was losing heats, I’m sure I could’ve come back quickly. But I had other stuff to deal with. It was hard to travel and take off for these events for a few weeks at a time with my mom living here by herself. Leaving [her] was not super enjoyable.

Lookout: To be able to go through what you were going through in 2021, your mom passing away, your daughter being born and then still re-qualifying … what an amazing accomplishment.

Young: I really realized how much I love what I do. (Because of the COVID break for the WSL), I was able to be here with my mom through all of it. And without surfing going on, it was like I was supposed to be here. But, not being away and competing, I just definitely missed it.

Nat Young shows off the tribute to his mom Rosie.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: But the time you got to spend with your mom must’ve been invaluable.

Young: The strength that she showed through her struggle was the most inspirational thing I’ve ever seen from anyone. I learned a lot from my mom. She was very good at just enjoying the moment, enjoying the process. She was super good at making the most of wherever she was, making whatever she was doing fun.

There were a lot of things I was still learning to do because my mom did so much for me. She made it so I only had to worry about my surfing. She took care of all my financial stuff, taxes, paying credit card bills, all my travel. I had to learn how to do all this stuff while having a baby and renovating a house. So it was a lot. And I was like ‘Mom, you’ve got to show me how to do this stuff.’ But those were also hard conversations to have because you didn’t want to give up hope.

Lookout: You’ve talked about how your mom helped you invest smartly and make it so you’re less dependent on the industry for this comeback.

Young: Yeah, that is huge because when you fall off tour and companies don’t stick with you and support you, that’s a pretty rough blow. I don’t know if they knew the things I was dealing with at home, but to just kind of get kicked to the curb definitely doesn’t make you stoked. I was bummed out on surfing and not super inspired and stoked there for awhile. But I realized that I don’t have to have the same dependence on these companies this time around because my mom did a good job of helping me invest my money.

Nat Young found a hometown Santa Cruz company to be his next wetsuit sponsor in Buell.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I don’t need a company to pay me in order to be able to do what I want to do. And I don’t surf for these companies. I surf because I enjoy surfing, and that’s the only reason I surf. I do this for myself. I was also lucky that [new sponsors] Pacific Wave [Surf Shop] and Buell [Wetsuits] came along because it’s rad to be able to connect with those companies from Santa Cruz, who are stoked to be supporting someone from Santa Cruz on the world stage.

Lookout: To come from such a good wave mecca with a caliber of surfing so high and only be the third person from Santa Cruz to ever make it to the world tour says something.

Young: The odds are not great. It’s not impossible but it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. There are boys and girls all over the world who dedicate their life to that dream. And it takes a special person with a lot of commitment to fulfill their dreams.

Lookout: What’s your best advice to kids around town dreaming of being the next Nat.

Young: Mentally you can never give up. There will be distractions. It will be hard to stay focused. Like, when you’re in high school and your friends want to go party. It takes a certain person to just have a goal and a dream and never waver on what they need to do to get there. It’s a lot of ups and downs. There’s a lot more you lose than you win. Can you get past those? There’s no secret or a-hah moment. It’s just consistency, practice, hard work and dedicating yourself to it.

And if you love what you’re doing, it’s not too hard to dedicate all your time to doing it. I mean I’d go surf the second I got out of school till it was dark every day. No one was forcing me to do that. I wasn’t forcing myself to do it. I was just enjoying it, improving and getting better and working hard and kind of just taking the steps.

Lookout: Obviously having a supportive mom and family helps a lot too.

Young: Yeah, I mean, it definitely takes that. I’m thankful and lucky that I had the support that I had because without it there’s no way I could do what I’m doing.

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