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Cardiff resident and renowned surfer Rob Machado now champions environmental causes, including reducing single-use plastic bottles, as head of the Rob Machado Foundation. Photo via Rob Machado Foundation on Facebook
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Sports Talk: Machado rides into the Breitbard Hall of Fame

The woman approached surfing icon Rob Machado with admiration and let us count the ways.

“It’s because of you my son eats lettuce,’’ she said. “Before that he never had one piece of it.’’

Machado laughs when digging up the story. While Machado, a longtime Cardiff resident, is among his sport’s most recognizable athletes, he’s known to many for riding the wave of environmental awareness.

“When I stopped doing the tour full time around 2001 and started spending more time at home I was able to sit back and realize, ‘Oh wow, I have a voice. I have some power where I can do something really positive with this,’” he said.

Machado is being inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame next month, along with baseball’s Jerry Coleman and football’s Reggie Bush.

But it was a vegetable Machado had a hand in which had a mother sharing her amazement of what he did on dry land, and not on the water.

While crisscrossing the globe in chasing the best waves, Machado won three U.S. Opens and was ranked in the top 10 for 11 straight years. He could dance along the breaks like few others, but when he pumped the brakes on his career, he didn’t stop caring about the water.

With his Rob Machado Foundation, the surfer with the curly, sun-streaked hair started preaching to children. At Cardiff School, where he once attended, he couldn’t ignore that the student body was all sipping from disposable plastic bottles.

He also discovered an underused plot of land on campus where the kids could grow their own grub, while learning how bountiful a piece of soil can be.

“Not a lot of that was happening back then,” Machado said. “We started with the simple things.’’

The surfer who made difficult moves look easy was having an impact. He convinced students, and their parents, that landfills were being clogged with their plastic bottles.

So he broached the idea of them buying a reusable container for their H20 and then installing refill stations with fresh-tasting water. And with the money raised through the canteen sales, it helped undeveloped countries obtain drinkable water.

He also installed recycle bins for trash and all of this came with a sense that change isn’t unobtainable, especially with the next generation bent on seeing a better way.

“The kids are all so receptive about learning all of this stuff,” Machado, 46, said. “They understand it’s really cool.’’

So much that a pupil who once turned up his nose to lettuce started chomping on it like a hungry rabbit. He had grown a head of lettuce at the Cardiff School garden and the tyke was one proud farmer when showing it off, and then polishing it off, with his mother.

“She couldn’t believe it,” Machado said.

Just like Machado, a San Dieguito High graduate, can’t fathom that being a surfer can lead to being included among the greatest athletes in San Diego’s history. Back when Machado and his buddies were tackling morning swells before class, few thought it would someday put him in San Diego’s most important Hall of Fame.

“I’m blown away by it and it is such an honor,” Machado said. “All from riding waves.”

His board led to his fame but it’s by getting so many on board for a better tomorrow which might be his lasting legacy.

“Rob Machado is able to deliver hope, to lift the burden, to inspire greatness and to allow other people to share in the ride and the dream of a lifetime,” said NBA great Bill Walton, a member of the Breitbard Hall of Fame. “He represents all you hope and dream for in a world, as it could and should be.”

Machado’s reach goes beyond the waves, although his professional salad days are behind him. What’s present, and in the future, is a generation that embraces, of all things, lettuce?

“That’s huge,” Machado said.

It’s nearly as big as the waves he longed to conquer.