Meet Steve Zima, the ex-competitive surfer who’s surfed against the best, including 11 time world champion Kelly Slater. From carving out a surf career, to the end of the dream and balancing surfing with everyday life, we caught up with Steve to find out more about his incredible story…
What and who inspired you to start surfing?
“Entering my teens I was very small in stature and not athletic at all. One day I met this boy from my school, Lou Bell, who was the polar opposite of me. He was popular with the older kids. One day he asked me if I’d surfed and I said no. We grabbed his board and went to the local break. We are still friends today.”
Where did you first learn to surf and can you remember your first wave?
“At Captain’s in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. I don’t remember the details but I remember that feeling of flying over the reef. The water was crystal clear and you could see the reef and the fish fly past. A while later I branched out and surfed the more well known breaks.”
Did surfing come easy to you? What motivated you to push through and keep at it?
“I was so terrible! It took weeks before I stood up. In those days, there were no lessons. I just had to work at it. I think I was hooked on that feeling of being in the ocean but for once I was frustrated enough not to stop.
“The first hurdles I cleared drove me to improve, and to be as cool as my buddies.”
How did your family’s move to Florida have an impact on your surfing? How do you think your surfing career may have panned out if you’d stayed in Hawaii?
“My story is really about timing. I landed at the exact time that my father, Frank Zima, found a position working the surf circuit. My mentors were pro surfers and judges. Some were world champions such as Peter Townend and Wayne Bartholomew.
“I spent my weekends with talented kids either free surfing or at a contest. One of those surfers was Kelly Slater. We weren’t perfect surfers, but situations would arise and it would lift one of us – the rest would feed off it.”
“If I’d stayed in Hawaii, it could have gone either way. I’d have surfed much larger surf but I met some kids from Ewa Beach that were heading in the wrong direction. I think it went the best way.”
What attracted you towards competitive surfing?
“Once I had the foundation of surfing down and I physically changed, I advanced at a rapid pace. By 13 I was already surfing on the North Shore of Oahu. But the game changer was the day Lou showed me his new copy of Surfer Magazine. I opened it and the waves were massive! The mag was loaded with the heroes of the late 70’s. Then I went out surfing one day at Kaisers and saw Buttons Kaluhiokalani and Mark Lydell. I doubled down on pushing my limits!
“I did my first contest in Florida on a whim after hearing a commercial on the radio. I had no idea what was going on yet I took 3rd in the boys division. I’d never won a trophy before because I never liked team sports. Suddenly, I knew that I had this. That’s when my focus shifted to being a contest surfer.”
What was the highlight of your career?
“So many things but my favourites were the heats I didn’t win. One was surfing against Kelly Slater when he was a world champ and the size of the crowd he attracts. Another contest I surfed a heat that was stacked. Shane Dorian, Todd Prestage from Australia, and Doug Silva who was a very talented surfer. It was a slug fest. I didn’t advance but when I checked the heat sheets we were all close in points. So it was good to know that I wasn’t too far off the level of the better guys.
“The real highlight was travelling and meeting people. Surfing in Barbados, Oregon, Brazil, and Mexico to name a few places. Always an adventure!”
How did you overcome spinal meningitis to surf again? How old were you when that happened and at what point during your career? What impact did it have?
“Getting spinal meningitis was a wake up call for me. I was in my early 30’s and doing better with the contest results which I was slumping with. At that time in contest surfing, there were no coaches – just parties and lots of distractions. I had a few failed relationships and I was just out of balance. Then I became sick and almost didn’t make it.
“I think my dedication to fitness pulled me through as well. When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t move about without help. I had to relearn things including how to surf. That was humbling.
“A few years later, people told me they liked my surfing better. Before, I only knew the gas pedal. The experience brought me to a different level. I learned balance which in life is key.”
When your competitive career ended, how did you stay stoked and how do you now pass that stoke onto others?
“It’s never easy to leave something like surfing and then to lose sponsors and the travelling. But I found a sparring partner of sorts and we enjoy the process of driving to the beach, the comradeship, and cheering each other on. This has expanded to others in the line-up.
“At some point during my career, I found that teaching and coaching has given me a lot of satisfaction. I also volunteered at events such as Surfers for Autism. I want to spread the gift that I was given.”
Where’s your current home break and how often do you surf?
“My home break is Ponce Inlet, Florida. My surfing times vary but I try to surf twice a week. A few well-planned sessions can be productive.”
How do you strike a balance with work, surfing and other daily life commitments?
“Everyone struggles with this and I do as well. For myself, it’s been the process of setting goals and prioritising. If I feel that I need to work out more and I don’t have the time, I examine what I’m doing and why can’t have 40 minutes to myself. Maybe I’m creating too many meals with a long prep time. Or I’m spending too long reading posts on social media.
There’s always something to modify or change to make it happen if the goal is important to you.”
Do you think it’s possible as an older surf to learn and get ‘decent’ at it?
“When you take something up, you have to be realistic and understand what it means to you.
“When I was young and immature, I used to get mad at people for ‘ruining’ rides. As I matured, it became clear to me that with surfing, people weren’t having the same experience. For me it’s riding a barrel at Backdoor. For Mr. Smith, it’s walking down the street and just washing away his day. We are all surfing.
“I do believe that anyone can improve. Improving can be just being more confident and understanding how to operate in the line-up.”
What advice would you give to older surfers who may be struggling to push past the learner stage?
“There are countless people who live at the beach and surf the same as they did 15 years ago. They just want to do their thing and that’s it.
“When I decided to be a pro surfer, I learned to watch, plan, and analyse. If I was working to get over some issues, I would watch some of the better surfers – where they paddle out and sit.
“Getting to a certain point and past road blocks takes effort. Understanding how the spot works and seeking some advice online from someone like myself is key.
“So don’t give up and enjoy the gift of surfing!”
Find out more and follow Steve’s journey on his surf blog