Student Surfer Making a Name for Himself
Balaram Stack remains a title contender in the Air Show final on Saturday and in the prestigious Open Men’s division, a launching pad to the professional surfing ranks.
“This winter was one of the coldest winters I ever surfed,” Stack, who is 17, said. “The water was getting down to 32 degrees for a couple days.
“The waves are good, so I’m going to go out,” he said, allowing, “Yeah, you get bad ice cream headaches.”
With frigid winters and inconsistent waves, the Northeast has long been considered a backwater in international surfing circles, not an incubator of talent. But Stack, with a willingness to surf in almost any conditions, has emerged from the Long Island scene to become one of the country’s top school-age surfers.
“I’ve had countless times where people have said: ‘You’re from New York? Is there even an ocean there?’ ”said Stack, who recently completed his junior year at Long Beach High School. “So it’s like a lot of people were surprised if I make a couple of heats or if I do good in Hawaii. I guess I have to prove myself in some places.”
This week, Stack has been competing against some of the best teenage surfers from California, Florida, and Hawaii at the National Scholastic Surfing Association championships at Lower Trestles, in San Clemente, Calif. On Tuesday, he was eliminated in the Explorer Juniors division. But he remains a title contender in the Air Show final on Saturday and in the prestigious Open Men’s division, a launching pad to the professional surfing ranks.
The opening round of the Open Men’s division begins Thursday; no surfer from the East Coast has ever won.
The youngest of three surfing brothers, Stack was born in Sebastian, Fla., where he began riding waves on a boogie board at 3. His family relocated to Long Island when he was 5, settling a half-block from the beach in Point Lookout.
By 11 he developed a reputation as a ripper in local lineups and was sponsored by unsOund, a Long Beach surf shop.
“When he was about 11 or 12, he was different than a lot of the other kids,” said Mike Nelson, a co-owner of unsOund. “He had a more mature style. We homed in on that and tried to push him and help him. We got him into surfing winters. He just kind of went from there.”
When he was 12, Stack won a local contest that convinced him to quit hockey and devote more time to riding waves.
“That pretty much sealed the deal for his surfing thing,” his mother, Mary, said.
The following year, Quiksilver, the surf industry’s top brand, discovered Stack at a surfing camp in Montauk and added him to its team.
“When it’s snowing, sure the waves are good, but it’s snowing,” Matt Kechele, Quiksilver’s East Coast team captain, said about what separates Stack from other surfers his age. “And if you want it that bad that you’re going to get out there and push your surfing, that in itself says a lot about the kid.”
Still, Stack struggled to adopt winning contest strategies against elite amateurs. Rather than play it safe for a solid score, he often attempted advanced maneuvers and wiped out, with disappointing results.
“There were times when we were getting frustrated and we got a little skeptical if he was ever going to figure out contest surfing and bring it to the next level,” said Kechele, who mentored the nine-time world champion Kelly Slater as a youngster.
“Like Kelly always said, you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. We just kept reminding him, you’ve got to stick to the basics, and then build a house from there.”
This year, Stack opted for an independent study course load so that he could travel the world and surf. He spent a month on the North Shore of Oahu, surfing the Banzai Pipeline. He tagged along to Tahiti with Clay Marzo, considered the sport’s most creative aerialist. In February, Quiksilver sent him to Australia to train with the surf coach Mick Cain, who used video analysis and mental techniques to improve Stack’s contest readiness.
Stack returned from Australia transformed. In April, at the national scholastic East Coast regional championships in Florida, Stack qualified for the finals in four divisions, winning the Air Show and Explorer Juniors divisions. With a repertory of aerials and an ability to ride in the barrel of waves, Stack earned three perfect 10 scores during the tournament, an unprecedented performance for a surfer from the Northeast.
“That was a breaking point for me, a confidence booster,” Stack said. “I’m just coming of age, I guess, starting to figure it out, how to get scores and stuff like that.”
Whether he wins any scholastic titles this week, Stack plans to move into the professional ranks this summer. In August, he will compete on the United States team at the World Surfing Games in Costa Rica.
After spending time in Hawaii again next fall and winter, he plans to return home to complete his senior year at Long Beach High School, graduate and attend the prom. No matter where surfing takes him, Stack said, he will always return home, where he has become an idol to young surfers, and where an eight-foot poster of his likeness hangs in the front of unsOund Surf Shop.
“I want to keep New York as a home base,” Stack said. “I like the environment, the people. The city is just a 45-minute train ride away. That’s just a huge benefit. “
And, of course, there are waves, too, year-round.