While the winners of last weekend’s Masters, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) and Longboard National Circuit finals got their due applause, the biggest kudos went to a courageous, determined 14-year-old girl who fought the worst kind of conditions to earn a spot on the podium.
The girl, Valeria Salustri, won second place in the SUP 9K women’s race after battling big swells and rain — and refusing to give up.
The finals event, held last Saturday at Manuel Antonio’s Playitas, cemented championship surfing titles in the categories Masters (over age 35), Grand Masters (over 40), Kahuna (over 45), Grand Kahuna (over 50), Longboard, SUP Surfing and SUP 9K Race. The last event in that long list provided the day’s high drama.
As the afternoon came to a close, the men and women participating in the SUP 9K entered the water, which was swollen with waves from the tail end of a swell. The course ran from the shore out to the huge rock formation that dominates the bay, around the rocks and back to the beach – twice.
The wind came up while most competitors were on the backside of the rock, making it difficult to paddle and stay upright. Rolando Herrera, who won the men’s race, was visibly shaken when he got out of the water.
“The first time I went around the rock I noticed the wind picking up and the cross currents because the tide was going in,” Herrera said. “The next time around, it was so choppy I kept falling off my board.”
Though Herrera won the event, Geovanni Espinosa’s second place finish was enough to boost him to the national championship title in this category.
Yet, it was the harrowing finish by the women that triggered the most talk and alarm. When torrential rain fell, visibility dropped to virtually zero. Competitor Edith Garcia was able to make it to the beach before the worst of the storm, winning the race and the national title. But after a half hour, there was no sign of the other two competitors, Daniela Wooster and Valeria Salustri.
The Coast Guard boat on hand was dispatched to search for them. It picked up Wooster and she arrived on the beach shortly afterwards, wearing a life jacket and barely able to walk unaided. But with still no sight of young Salustri, panic set in on the beach as the crowd — including her mother, sponsor, trainer, media and contest officials — grew concerned.
When the rain subsided a bit, Salustri’s tiny figure finally appeared on the horizon, next to the boat.
“At one point, I couldn’t see anything in the rain except the lights on the boat, so I just paddled toward that,” Salustri said after the race. “But when they asked me to get in the boat, I told them not to touch me because I didn’t want to be disqualified. I just kept singing to myself and trying not to think about how much my neck and arms hurt.”
With her Coast Guard escort, Salustri finally reached the beach. The crowd cheered as she dashed across the then washed-away finish line. With Wooster disqualified because of the rescue, Salustri came in second place and with that became Costa Rica’s subchampion (runner up) in the SUP Women’s 9k. It’s her first year of competition.
There was much less drama in the other categories that packed the day at Playitas last weekend. In fact, Álvaro Solano and Andrea Díaz had already earned enough points in the Masters men and women’s divisions, respectively, at events on this year’s circuit to claim champion titles. As a result, they opted out of the weekend’s competition.
Both Solano and Díaz have ample experience in the spotlight. Solano has twice won the national championship in the Open division, and Díaz won a national women’s crown in 1999, even before the Costa Rican Surf Federation was formed.
Giving lifelong competitors such as these an arena to further challenge themselves is one of the reasons the Federation instituted the Masters category in 2008 as part of the main National Surf Circuit (CNS). Today, there are so many elder statesmen who want to participate in the Masters, Grand Masters, Kahuna and Grand Kahuna that these categories were spun off to join Longboard and SUP in their own event, complete with sponsors, judges and medals.
This particular tournament circuit is still in its infancy with only a smattering of spectators and all-important sponsors. Those who did attend this year’s final noticed Federation President Randall Chavis taking on multiple tasks — announcer, scorekeeper, beach marshal. He even put up the sponsor flags and set up tents and equipment.
Organizers of the National Masters, SUP and Longboard Circuit tote the tranquility of the event, as well as the convivial atmosphere. Heats are 20 min. long compared to the roughneck pace of the 15-min. heats on the CNS.
Chavis says it’s a natural evolution for a surfer to grow up in the CNS, with the option to move from the youngest Mini-Grommets category to Grommets to Boys to Juniors to Open and then switch over to Masters to keep the fire going.
“The formula is a cycle of life,” he said. “These are all competitors and it’s very positive. The Federation looks for ways to mimic the path of the ISA (International Surf Association). Right now the ISA has World Championships for Masters, Longboard and SUP. And SUP is really picking up in Costa Rica, and I think as we get more creative with the races, we will get more competitors.”
One of Costa Rica’s frequent medalists at the World Masters Surfing Championship is 54-year-old Craig “Tequila” Schieber, who picked up another trophy in Manuel Antonio as this year’s national Kahuna champ. Schieber got his start as a junior back when Antonio Pilurzu put together the Federation and the original National Surf Circuit. He’s a perfect example of moving through the ranks as the years pass.
“I appreciate the vision of Antonio Pilurzu to get this whole thing going and to have included me in the mix,” Schieber said. “I got to go to the world championship as an older surfer because of these Masters categories. … And here on this circuit, surfers are doing more than one category. Álvaro (Solano) is a good example, he surfs in the Masters and does SUP.”
Longboard national champion Anthony Flores is a graduate of the primary National Circuit as well. He started out his competitive ride as a shortboarder, but organizers at an independent contest insisted he get his feet wet on a longboard, and to his surprise, he loved it.
“I enjoy a lot of different things about longboarding,” Flores said. “I can go classic, on the nose, hang five, go slow, make big turns, and when I need to I can be radical. I even do crazy airs on a longboard.” Flores won his fifth national longboard champion title this year.
Other winners claiming national titles on the National Masters, SUP and Longboard Circuit include Erly Farrier (Grand Master), Roberto Miranda (Grand Kahuna) and Erick Antonson (SUP surfing).