UF Surf Team hopes surfing will become an NCAA sport

(This story was originally published in the Gainesville Sun campus edition on March 4, 2010.)

Over the next week, college students on spring break will flock to Florida's beaches in search of sun, sand and relaxation, but one group of beach-going students will be in pursuit of something more: the title of East Coast Collegiate Surfing Champion.

On March 8th and 9th, At least 56 students from seven collegiate surf teams, including UF, will travel to Sebastian Inlet State Park to compete in the Collegiate Surfing Association's East Coast Championship.

The tag-team-style contest draws surf teams from as far as North Carolina and offers prizes of up to $1,000 for the winning team, as well as a highly-coveted school spirit award.

The championship is now in its second year, and many teams are planning on going all out for the event.

Some students discussed paddling out into the swells with their bodies painted in school colors in an effort to win the spirit award, and many teams have been honing their skills for the past several months in hopes of shredding their way to victory in the contest.

Jason Panzarino, a sophomore at UF and the secretary of the UF Surf Club, surfed in the championship last year, when UF placed third behind the University of Central Florida and Flagler College. He said the championships are one of the most exciting and important contests of the year, as well as the most team-oriented.

"It really puts the pressure on you," he said. "There's a big crowd and scaffolding and announcers and a bunch of sponsors, and it can make you kind of nervous because you definitely don't want to let your team down."

Panzarino said that he and his team mates are hoping to perform even better in this year's contest, but juggling classes and surfing has made it difficult to get in the necessary practice time.

"It gets kind of hard, because we live so far away from the beach, and everyone who goes to UF is very academically oriented," he said. "We take school seriously, and we are dedicated to surfing, but obviously school has to come first."

Mitch Varnes, co-founder of the Collegiate Surfing Association and a surf industry veteran from Indialantic, Fla., said that he and his co-founder, Jack Kirschenbaum, of Melbourne, Fla., understand the pressures that are put on talented young surfers who attempt to balance education and surfing.

Kirschenbaum said that aspiring professional surfers are often encouraged to drop out of school, and in the past, the lack of a high-powered competition circuit at the collegiate level forced talented surfers to choose between surfing and higher education.

"To young surfers, it seemed like college wasn't even possible because there was no sport forum for it there," he said.

Mitch Varnes said he hopes that the Collegiate Surfing Association and the East Coast Championship will help bring an end to that dilema.

Varnes said that, although the premise for next week's event is the crowning of an East Coast champion, the ultimate goal is to promote surfing as a team sport and bring competitive collegiate surfing to new levels. In Fact, Varnes and Kirschenbaum are leading a push to make surfing an NCAA sport.

Chris Radford, Assistant Director of Public and Media Relations for the NCAA said that the organization supports the concept of adding new sports like surfing, but at least 50 universities must agree to support the sport as varsity. There must also be a regional championship for at least five years.

Varnes said he has identified at least 67 universities with surfing clubs or teams, and now that the Collegiate Surfing Association is holding its regional championship for the second year in a row, it appears that the cause may be picking up steam.

Many of the students who compete in the Collegiate Surfing Association's East Coast Championship are very excited about the possibility of surfing becoming an NCAA sport.

"I really hope they do it before I graduate so that I can compete," said Amy Nicholl, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida and captain of the university's surf team. "I'd absolutely do it, and I think it would work out really well nationwide."

UF Surf Club president Cody Smith thinks that, if surfing became an NCAA sport, it would be much easier to get funding, organize bigger competitions and get more students involved.

Kelsey Diaz, a sophomore and member of the UF Surf Club, also said that inclusion in the NCAA would credit surfers for their abilities.

"Surfing is unlike any other sport," she said. "It's kind of hard to define and hard to compare to something like basketball, but the kids who do it hardcore are athletes, and I think they deserve the recognition."