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Surfin’ USC

By Stef McDonald

Even though USC’s campuses are located downtown and in east Los Angeles, the university has a thriving surfing community—and chances are some of the surfers you see zipping up their wetsuits to paddle out at area beaches might just be Trojans.


For students enrolled in Physical Education 115 (aka Surfing), life’s a beach—but that doesn’t mean they won’t be tested on it.

“The for-credit class is a unique thing. I get the chance to see students progress for 16 weeks in every stage and to teach all aspects,” says Ian Culbertson, instructor for this fall semester. A lifelong surfer with a BS in marine biology from UC Santa Cruz, Culbertson wants to teach students about the sport’s many dimensions.

“It’s not just all about surfing,” Culbertson says. “It’s about wave forecasting, ocean geography and how we protect our coasts.”

On Friday mornings, the class meets at Lifeguard Tower 26 in Santa Monica, less than 15 miles from the University Park Campus. Provided with foam boards and wetsuits, students learn the fundamentals of surfing, from paddling out to popping up on the board and riding waves. The syllabus also includes surf etiquette, ocean safety, coastal geography, tide and wind forecasting, surfboard anatomy, the history of the sport and, yes, written exams. Not surprisingly, the 19-person course fills quickly


If you’re looking for students who balance surfing with term papers and organic chemistry, look no further than the USC Surf Team. As a club with a limited budget, it pays for its travels through funding from alumni and sponsors and by giving surf lessons.

“There are a lot of recreational surfers on campus and others who want to learn,” says Zach Emge, team co-captain. The junior business major from San Diego took surfing into consideration when he was looking at colleges. “USC had an active surf team and that’s what sold me,” he says.

About 50 students make up the co-ed club, with a core group of 20 who compete seriously. Trojan surfers take part in National Scholastic Surfing Association competitions at beaches from Ventura to San Diego. For the 2013–2014 season, Trojans advanced to the final rounds at the Interscholastic State Championships, where sophomore Casey Powell placed second in the longboard competition.

Surfing as a sport is different than, say, football. The surfers’ practice field—the ocean—is shared by everyone, so competitors hit the surf in small groups of two to four for safety. Time plays a role as well, as surf conditions and class schedules provide small windows of opportunity. “It means we work a lot harder to get to the beach, but it’s worth it,” Emge says.

The team maintains a Facebook page with updates and recently collaborated with film students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts to create surf videos. Team members might be relatively low-profile, but they’re proud of their sport. “A common question you get when you’re out and meeting people is, ‘What [Greek] house are you in?’” Emge says.  “We all just say, ‘Surf Team.”

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