I admit it: I was a lucky kid. I grew up in Hawaii, surfing 280 to 290 days a year, mostly on a beach called Pine Trees, which was a two-minute walk from my family's home in Hanalei, on the island of Kauai. We weren't rich—my dad, Phil, was a carpenter, and my mom, Danielle, was a salesclerk—but when you live in the Aloha State, you're never far from fabulous surf.� I was eight years old the first time I rode a real board. My younger brother, Bruce, and I had been asking my dad if we could move up from boogie boards, and on Christmas morning we discovered a pair of surfboards under the tree. That afternoon we were in the waves having a blast. Surfing on Christmas: That's true Hawaii.� Back then I was what surfers call a "grom"—I didn't know what I was doing. I thought the waves at Pine Trees were eight to 10 feet tall, even though they were more like three or four feet. But my brother and I were so stoked to be in the water, it didn't matter. My dad was a former competitive surfer, and he helped teach us.
You can surf in a lot of states, from Rhode Island to California, but in Hawaii you can live the sport. We would go to the beach every day after school to ride, and some days we'd bring grub—Doritos, Snickers, Coke, all the key food groups—and make a fire. It was an unbelievable childhood.
Surfing was born in Hawaii hundreds of years ago. It's so much a part of the culture that when I was in elementary school, the teachers would show us these spooky stick drawings of surfers done ages ago by native Hawaiians. Some of my friends whose families had lived in the islands for generations told amazing stories about ancestors surfing on carved-out trees. My father and his friends talked about surfers in their day charging giant waves on these huge, 12-foot-long boards that didn't even have leashes.
I got off to a bad start as a competitive surfer. When I was 10, I entered my first contest and did so poorly that I quit competing. Not only did I finish behind my little brother, who won, but I was also beaten by a girl, Keala Kennelly—she finished third, and I came in fourth. Those results don't seem so embarrassing today. Bruce is now a top pro, and so is Keala.
After about a year I got over that loss and began competing again. My surfing idols in those days included fellow Hawaiians Derek Ho and Sunny Garcia, who are former Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world champions, and I tried to be like them. As I became a better surfer, I tested myself on Kauai's bigger breaks. In terms of difficulty, Pine Trees, a beach frequented by locals and tourists, was at the bottom of the totem pole. For me, the top was a reef break out in Hanalei Bay that you could see from Pine Trees. You had to paddle 20 minutes to get there, and it had waves with 30-foot faces. The first time I went there, I was about 14, and I just sat on my board and watched in awe. But before long I was catching those waves regularly. When you ride a wave that big, it's the greatest feeling—you have a buzz the rest of the day.
During high school I started to compete off the islands. I surfed in California, Brazil and Bali. Once I skipped two weeks of high school to hang out on a boat off Sumatra with other surfers for a photo shoot for a sponsor. Since then I've done pretty well. In 2002 I followed Derek and Sunny and became the third Hawaiian to win the ASP world title.
Traveling so much and experiencing so many other cultures has been great, and it has helped me appreciate the aloha spirit, the friendliness of people in Hawaii. I'm 25 and rarely get to go home for more than a couple of weeks at a time. When I'm on Kauai, though, I always head back to Pine Trees. My dad built a house for me not far from the beach, and whenever I'm home, I surf there every day.
I guess you might say I'm still a lucky kid.