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Kenzie Kessler surfs off of the coast of one of the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia. Photo by Geni Larosa
Kenzie Kessler surfs off of the coast of one of the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia. Photo by Geni Larosa
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Column: Pulling a complete 180

Kenzie Kessler chose surfing over school, now she’s back in class, fully committed 

Kenzie Kessler obtained her driver’s license at 17. She left home the next day and drove from Marin County to San Diego for the surf.

“I got my license the day before I moved down here, so driving eight hours to San Diego was a little scary — especially driving for the first time through L.A. People are crazy drivers there,” said Kessler.

Kessler grew up surfing Scorpion Bay a few times per year on family vacations. She was 4 years old when her dad started pushing her into the legendary rights. She never had any say in the matter, not that I think she would have complained.

Around 12- to 13-years-old, she transferred her Mexican point break experience to the massive surf available to her year round in San Francisco and Marin County.

“It was a hard transition from surfing a perfect right-hand point break to big, heavy and freezing cold waves in San Francisco,” said Kessler. “I basically had to relearn how to surf rights and flat-out learn how to surf lefts, because I had never caught one before!”

By 15, she’d quit or discontinued just about everything else in her life to focus exclusively on her surfing. She was going to school just three days a week, and packing four-day weekends with Southern California competitions and a 16-hour round trip commute.

She had local sponsorship with Proof Lab Shop in Marin, and she’d gained professional sponsorship with Future Fins.

Life was surfing, and school was getting in the way. In her junior year of high school, Kessler took a double set of the required courses.

She attended community college by night and she enrolled in online classes.

Finished with what traditional high school had to offer, Kessler graduated a year early, prepared for her DMV exam, and made her move south.

She lined up a shoebox studio apartment in Ocean Beach. And her move coincided with two new sponsorships that really altered her status — Billabong and Plus One Surfboards. But it wasn’t an easy transition.

“It was hard moving down here at 17. I went from a high school student living in a small town with my family, to moving to a big city and being independent,” said Kessler. “This was before your phone came with a GPS, so everyday without fail, I would get lost driving home from surfing, the market or the gym. It got so ridiculous that I had to buy a really cheap GPS. It only worked half the time, but it helped!”

Kessler slowly adjusted to San Diego. She trained everyday, competed every week, and spent the remainder of her time traveling or cementing her professional career. After a few years of committed and disciplined competition, Kessler began to lose her drive.

“I reached a point where I started to resent and hate surfing. I had to force myself to get in the water or to train. When I would surf a heat, my mind would be somewhere else, and suddenly there would be five minutes left and I hadn’t caught a wave yet. That’s when I decided to stop competing, take a six-month break from surfing, and enjoy things in my life that I hadn’t been able to do,” said Kessler.

Needing work, she contemplated becoming a lifeguard and enrolled in an EMT course that included lifeguard training. She immediately connected with the medical world, a direct link to her years of athletics and physical training.

She’s since dedicated herself to school. She’s completing Physical Therapy pre-requisites at MiraCosta College, and plans to transfer to Cal State Long Beach for an advanced physical therapy program and focus.

“Life is school right now, with some surfing on the weekends,” said Kessler.

It’s a comedic reversal from where she stood at 17, but it also makes sense. Surfing led her to a world of intensive competition, athletic drive, training and physical therapy.

Kessler’s dream is to be a physical therapist, working for a pro or college baseball team, or perhaps in surfing. And that dream starts in about seven years, when she finishes school.

Spencer Hirsch is a marketing professional, community worker and writer. Follow @spencerhirsch on Twitter and Instagram, and email him at [email protected].