Nat Young Has Been Through Hell. Now, He’s Back In A Jersey
A raw and rallying conversation with former child phenom and current CT wildcard.
I first met Nat when he was 11 years old at a local surf contest on Santa Cruz’s East Side.
Nat, then the West Side prodigy, had long blonde hair, constellations of freckles spread out across his face, and a backhand that forced grown men and sixteen-year-olds like myself to reflect on their own natural talent—or, well, its limitations.
The day we met, he was accompanied by his mom, Rosie, who introduced herself and Nat as we were around shared friends. She asked me why she didn’t ever see us on the West Side. I lived on the East Side and we didn’t cross town unless there was a surf contest. In a matter of five minutes, Rosie managed to unravel everything I had done wrong in life and what the surf industry had wrong and right. Hundreds of surfers in California have had this same experience, a heart to heart with Nat’s mom, Santa Cruz’s patron saint of lost groms.
Six years after that first meeting, on his way to his WCT debut, Nat famously won the Cold Water Classic at the age of 17. The reception from his home crowd was tremendous. For a teenager from Santa Cruz, it’s the equivalent of winning the Triple Crown as a local Hawaiian grom.
It’s been eight years since Nat joined the tour, seven since he was awarded Rookie of the Year, and five since Kanoa Igarashi surprised everyone, making the Semis at the 2016 Pipe Masters, and knocked Nat off.
Before the world shut down, Nat was ranked 2nd on the QS and was well-positioned to requalify for the 2021 World Tour—which is Nat’s goal once the series kicks back off. But it’s what’s happened in Nat’s life outside the comp jersey in the past five years that make his story so compelling, relatable, and inspiring.
And that’s what I wanted to talk about with Nat, who was at the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in Lemoore, where the high today is 107 degrees. He celebrates his 30th birthday today, June 17th, 24 hours out from his first World Tour event in four years.
Welcome back, Nat. We heard you were getting some reps in at the Ranch, how does it feel to be getting ready for a CT event again?
I went over some of my waves from Saturday with Simpo [Brett Simpson] and then we watched Gabriel—and some other goofy footers—and the way they approached the wave. He gave me a couple of tips on attacking the wave a little bit differently.
Initially, I was doing too deep of a bottom turn and coming from behind the wave, rather than being out on the face and projecting forward. So we thought it would be best to cut my bottom turns short and stay high.
Is that something you noticed Gabriel doing out there?
Yeah, he’s always right where you want to be. He can throw spray and release his fins, all while carrying speed.
In 2016 you had a lot of unfortunate luck competing on the CT with last-minute losses in France, Portugal, and Pipe. Do you ever play the “what if” game with yourself?
Yeah, sometimes I’ll replay it, but I’ve moved forward. Obviously, I wish the outcome would have been different. Had it been different, I probably wouldn’t have fallen off tour.
You had some serious personal matters going on at the same time. Do you want to talk about that?
Well, I don’t use it as an excuse for my performance on tour, but that year my Mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer. That was hard for me. My dad passed away the first year I qualified so my mom was the only family member that I spent a lot of time with. It rattled me when she got sick. Surfing was not the most important thing to me at that time; I was more concerned with my Mom’s health.
I just wanted to be there for her because she would be there for me no matter what.
You described it as being like going to hell and back.
Well, I watched my dad take his last breath in the hospital. Then things got better, and life was good. But then my Mom got sick. Leaving her for weeks at a time to go surf contests was brutal. Taking her to surgeries when I was home, not knowing what the outcome will be—with a loved one, it takes a toll on you.
She was cancer-free for a few years, and then she got sick again. In October, I was at home and she was down in Laguna beach. I got a phone call saying that something was wrong with my Mom. She couldn’t form sentences. She wasn’t making any sense. I flew down and went to the hospital. The doctors told me that she had a tumor in her brain and stage four lung cancer that had spread rapidly. That was one of the worst days of my life. I didn’t know if I was ever going to talk to my Mom again. I couldn’t truly have a conversation with her.
She had brain surgery and got a little bit better. We had some genuine talks after the surgery. I got to spend a lot of time with her, my sister, and her daughter [Rosie’s granddaughter].
And then things rapidly got worse and worse. She couldn’t breathe on her own anymore and had to be hooked up to oxygen. Myself, my sister, and some of my Mom’s best friends were with her as she took her last breath. She passed away in February.
I’m so sorry, Nat. Your mom was a force of nature, and one of the most widely beloved women in California surfing. Have you been able to find some clarity or peace of mind in the last few months? You just had your first child, right?
Honestly, I don’t know. It hasn’t gotten any easier. It’s almost been harder, this whole process. Having a kid a month after my Mom passed away was tough. Everyone talks about how having a kid is the best day of your life—and it is amazing. It’s the most incredible experience ever. But it was also one of the most challenging experiences of my life, not being able to call my Mom and Dad and tell them they had a new granddaughter.
Santa Cruz is a small community that rallies behind its own. How has the local community been supporting you?
Everyone’s been very helpful and supportive. Santa Cruz is a small town, and everyone knows each other. Having my daughter has been so much fun and it’s been awesome being home. Even though I haven’t been competing, it’s been a blessing in disguise. I’ve enjoyed being home for everything that’s gone on in my life over the past couple of months. Usually, I wouldn’t be home for any of this.
Speaking of Santa Cruz supporting its own, congrats on the new deal with Buell Wetsuits. You also ride for Pacific Wave, right? What does it mean to you to ride for a company from your hometown?
It’s rad. The support from Pacific Wave [local Santa Cruz surf shop] has helped me out quite a bit. And to be able to work with Buell is so cool. They’re great guys and I’m grateful for their support.
What kind of damage are you hoping to inflict on Lemoore?
Honestly, I haven’t surfed a contest in almost a year and a half. So, I just want to enjoy myself and hopefully complete two waves. [Laughs]
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