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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 27, 2006

For teen, itís sun, surf ó and a salary

Kekoa Cazimero photo gallery
Surfing stardom in their eyes

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

Kekoa Cazimero rides a wave at Sandy Beach. The 17-year-old Kaiser High senior will join the World Qualifying Series, a minor league of sorts for the World Championship Tour.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Kaiser High senior Kekoa Cazimero says he will begin competing full time on the World Qualifying Series after graduation. His goal is to join the elite surfers on the World Championship Tour within a few years.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Kekoa Cazimero is a straight-A student in his senior year at Kaiser High, and a contender to be class valedictorian.

He's also a contender to become a professional surfer, so college applications will be put on hold once Kekoa graduates in June.

"He carries a 4.0 (grade-point average), and he's all set for college," Turk Cazimero said of his 17-year-old son. "But there's only a small window of opportunity for pro surfing. He has a chance to get in that window, so we're going to take it."

Crazy? Not really.

Not in this age of surfing, when the top competitors can make around $1 million per year.

With its endless supply of waves and elite wave venues, Hawai'i is turning out a seemingly endless supply of professional surfers, and many of them are making six-figure salaries.

Kekoa Cazimero will be the latest from Hawai'i to take a full-time shot at it next year.

According to Hawai'i's two top amateur surfing organizations, there are approximately 200 registered amateur youth surfers in Hawai'i this year.

Wendell Aoki, director of the Hawai'i Amateur Surfing Association, estimates that "maybe 15 percent" will be able to reach the professional level.

Bobbi Lee, director of the Hawai'i Region of the National Scholastic Surfing Association, had a similar estimate.

"And that's a pretty high percentage when you think about it," Lee said. "So why not take the chance?"

Based on the percentages, surfing may offer the best chance for a youth athlete in Hawai'i to become a professional in any sport.

According to the Hawai'i office of the Association of Surfing Professionals, more than 100 male surfers from Hawai'i competed in a professional contest this year. Not all of them are full-time professionals, but it's still an impressive number.

"Think about the thousands of kids who grow up playing football here in Hawai'i and how few of them actually go pro," said Randy Rarick, executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. "There are a lot fewer kids in competitive surfing, yet look at how many of them eventually make it as pros."

There are 14 Hawai'i-raised players among 1,696 total players on NFL rosters this season, fewer than 1 percent. By comparison, there are five male surfers from Hawai'i on the elite World Championship Tour. There are only 45 total WCT surfers, so Hawai'i-raised surfers make up 11.1 percent of the tour.

The percentage is even greater on the women's World Championship Tour, where Hawai'i-raised surfers make up 18 percent of the surfers (three out of 17).

On the elite world tours for golf and tennis, Dean Wilson (PGA Tour) is the only Hawai'i-raised athlete who competes full time.

BEST FROM HAWAI'I

"Everyone sees Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Michelle Wie and they think their kid can be the next one," said Tony Moniz, a former professional surfer from Hawai'i who has five children currently competing in amateur surfing events. "There's not as much money in surfing as those other sports, but we're producing some of the best in the world right here from Hawai'i. What other sport can you say that?"

And there's more.

There are about 50 Hawai'i surfers competing full time on the World Qualifying Series, which is the equivalent of a minor-league system.

Kekoa Cazimero said he will begin competing full time on the WQS after graduating from Kaiser. His goal is to join such elite surfers as Andy Irons and Kelly Slater on the WCT within a few years.

"I have a good back-up plan as far as going to college," Cazimero said. "But I feel like this is my chance to surf."

He's not alone. In addition to the dozens of professional surfers from Hawai'i on the men's tours, there are professional big-wave surfers, female surfers, longboard surfers and bodyboarders. All together, about 100 athletes from Hawai'i make a full-time living riding waves around the world.

"It's hard to attach a specific number to it because there are so many surfers in Hawai'i who do get paid in some form or another," said Rainos Hayes, a professional surfer and surfing coach from O'ahu's North Shore. "But the bottom line is, the opportunity is definitely there for our kids."

There are even surfers who might not get paychecks, but can still qualify as "professionals" because they receive perks from the surfing industry, such as free surfboards or clothes.

"Some surfers are called pro surfers, but they get paid peanuts. A lot of them actually have other jobs," Rarick said. "But if you want to go by the pure definition, there are probably way more than a hundred of so-called pro surfers in Hawai'i."

ELITE PROS WELL-PAID

But only the elite pro surfers get paid like NFL players.

"The actual number of surfers who make the WCT and truly can become successful and make a good living at it is very small," said David Riddle, a surfing coach and the Hawai'i representative for Volcom, a surf-apparel company. "But there are quite a few who try it each year, and there aren't that many sports out there that give these local kids a chance like that."

The five male surfers on the 2006 WCT are Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, Fred Patacchia Jr., Roy Powers and Pancho Sullivan.

They each have sponsorship contracts that pay base salaries of more than $100,000 per year. They also can earn significant prize money on the tour.

Surf-shop companies such as Billabong, Quiksilver, Rip Curl, O'Neill, Volcom and Hurley are primarily responsible for handing out the large sponsorship contracts.

Andy Irons, for example, will receive an estimated $750,000 from Billabong and other sponsors this year, along with another $150,000 or so in prize money. However, he is a three-time former world champion, and thus one of the best-paid surfers in the world.

"You have to remember, guys like Andy Irons and Kelly Slater are the two best surfers in the world," Hayes said. "They are considered the best in their business, so that's why they get paid what they do.

"But you also have to remember how Andy started out. He was once a little kid growing up in Hanalei, Kaua'i, who loved to surf. Now look at him. He showed that it's possible for these kids from Hawai'i to make it to the top."

Surfers on the qualifying series get smaller paychecks. Hawai'i's Joel Centeio is ranked No. 47 on the WQS and has earned $10,800 in prize money this year.

"My goal from the start has been to make the WCT," said Centeio, 23. "If you make the WCT, you get to surf good waves all the time, and the pay is a lot better."

Most WQS surfers rely on sponsorship money to survive on the minor-league tour.

"If it weren't for my sponsors, I wouldn't be able to afford to do it on my own," Centeio said. "The prize money doesn't make up for it."

Riddle said: "If you compare it to baseball, that's the difference between the major leagues and the minor leagues. If you want to make the big money, you have to get to the major leagues, and in surfing, that means making it to the WCT."

According to several surf-industry sources, a WQS surfer is paid $50,000 to $150,000 per year from sponsors (almost all the sponsoring companies ask the surfers not to reveal their contract figures). The salary is usually based on the success rate and potential of the surfer.

"You're looking at $30,000 to $40,000 a year just for travel (on the WQS), so after that, there's not much (money) left," Hayes said. "But no matter how you look at it, these guys are getting paid to surf, and they're doing it with a specific goal in mind."

'DREAM JOB' FOR SOME

The goal is to make the WCT, because the pay usually doubles once a surfer qualifies for the elite tour.

"This is not the old days, where surfers are looked at as beach bums and stuff like that," Turk Cazimero said. "They can make a good living at it ó it's a dream job if you love surfing.

"As a parent, I would have steered my son in a different direction if I didn't think this was a good opportunity. Not too many kids can make that kind of money straight out of high school."

Michael Ho of Sunset Beach was one of the world's top-ranked surfers in the 1970s and '80s. His son, Mason, is in his first year on the WQS, and his daughter, Coco, is competing in amateur contests.

"(Mason) makes more than I ever made in a year," Ho said, although he could not divulge his son's salary. "Even my daughter gets more stuff from her sponsors than I ever did, and she's not even pro yet."

Of course, it helps that Hawai'i is considered the mecca of surfing. Youth surfers can compete in more than 25 contests per year in Hawai'i, in all sorts of conditions.

"If you're doing really well in the HASA and NSSA (organizations), chances are you're a candidate to become a pro, because you're already beating some of the best surfers in the world at that age," Rarick said.

BACKUP COLLEGE PLANS

Kekoa Cazimero said winning a national scholastic championship in July put his career on a professional path.

"I think entering all these (amateur) contests prepare us well for the professional level," he said. "A lot of these guys are the guys we'll see in the pros, so it's good preparation."

If professional surfing does not work out for Kekoa Cazimero, his father said plans are in the works for college.

"We actually told his sponsors to work some scholarship money into the contract," Turk Cazimero said. "It's important for us as a family to see Kekoa go to college. But it's also important for us to see him pursue something that's healthy and that he enjoys, and that he can make some money at, and right now, that's surfing."

But what about the top youth surfers who aren't making the grades for college? And what about the young professional surfers who never climb the ranks on the qualifying tour?

"A lot of them find out the hard way that it's a tough business," Hayes said. "Yes, there are a lot of opportunities for the local kids to become pros. But the reality is, only a few of them truly make it big."

Riddle added: "This is Hawai'i and we're talking about surfing. The two go hand in hand. For every guy who fails to make it as a pro, another one will step in and try it. It's an endless cycle, and I suppose that's a good thing."

Reach Dayton Morinaga at dmorinaga@honoluluadvertiser.com.