Learning to Surf as an Adult with Michael Chmielewski

To say the least, Mike is a lot of things. He can be described in an array of ways – confident, humble, kind, motivated, and more than anything, wise. His philosophical views paired with his long hair and beard have coined him the nickname, “Jesus” in one of ours, and his, dearest homes of Nicaragua.

We met Mike in the line-up years ago, and we found his technique and style impressive. What we didn’t expect to hear was that he hadn’t picked up surfing until later in his life. Since a common comment we hear from people is that they think they’re “too old” to learn how to surf, we decided to ask Michael about his experience learning how to surf as an adult and what he thought about this misconception of age and capability.

Michael Jesus Nicaragua

When and at what age did you start surfing?

I started surfing at 32.

Where did you first learn to surf?

I first learned to surf in New Jersey. I would go to about 8 to 10 different beach towns depending on where I lived. Jersey has a great coastline with 100+ miles of sand and tons of unique towns along the way.

I was working a traditional job in finance wearing a suit and tie, so I would plan all sorts of meetings on the way to the coast. It usually would take 2 hours to get to the beach, and then you’d maybe get two waves at best.

Michael Surf Wisdom
Photo by @maderasvillage.

‍”You need to learn how to love and respect the ocean before you can surf.”

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Wow, two hours for two waves… That’s quite the commitment. Do you think the distance was a factor in any sort of lessons or realizations?

Because of the distance, I was a hawk on weather reports, relying on friends’ reports and some information on the Internet. After the session, I’d have a beer, maybe smoke a cigar, read a book and fall asleep with a smile. I’d sometimes stay at the beach and surf before work having some amazingly productive days afterward. I did this for 3 years while I was living in Philadelphia, New Jersey and NYC… never an easy trip. I had to want it.

I surfed the majority of the time by myself, sometimes in some sketch shit with amazing riptides. You need to learn how to love and respect the ocean before you can surf – be a waterman because stuff goes wrong and finding that stillness in chaos is critical. I barely made it out of a few hurricanes pushing myself too far. It was foolish, and I was a beginner surfer at best, but I had to go to know that. I thought I didn’t have time, so I had to give everything because I started so late, but boy was I wrong.

above wave unsplash
Photo by Kensuke Saito Surf Photography.

Did you stick with it after the initial time, or did it take awhile to revisit it?

Well, the truth is, I tried to surf when I was 17. Surf was still counter-culture, but very present at that time. We’d cut school, roll one up and spend the day on the beach. The problem then, because I was small, they put me on a tiny board, and I remember how frustratingly unstable it was. After that, I put the board away for 16 years. Thinking back, it’s all in the setup – from mentors and teachers to proper gear, as well as positioning. Without all of that, I let it go…

“Surfing as an adult is a direct reflection of all that you hold onto, through fear and anxiety…”

From where does your interest for surfing stem?

My interest in surfing stemmed from my desire to create change, awareness and longevity. At that time, I was playing a lot of golf, which I can do late in life, but it didn’t take me somewhere – to a different state of mind. Surfing does. Surfing as an adult is a direct reflection of all that you hold onto, through fear and anxiety – what sports you played and how good you were at them is irrelevant … I’ve surfed with Olympic swimmers to World-class snowboarders… it’s a level playing field upon entry. They have little advantage. We all have to earn it.

Michael Jesus Dickie
Photo by @aleromomar.

To what do you attribute your mental progression in surfing at this stage of your life?

In order to develop as a surfer one has to let go to create space for new things to happen – it’s a process. Clean the house of principles that got you there, but won’t get you there. Face the reality of things for what they are, not how you would like them to be.

That’s being an “adult” about surf, and you can do that at any age. Surf brought more than change. It created a life mantra or philosophy to live by. It showed me things I didn’t like, and gave me the choice to hold on or let go – like the ocean, it’s much deeper than the surface.

jerson barboza nicaragua
Photo by @jerson_barboza_photo.

You have a very philosophical eye when it comes to surfing – do you have any comments on the physical side of surfing at this stage in your life?

From a physical, not metaphorical, standpoint the greatest challenge is your body and how it morphed and contorted away from its natural state. I lifted weights and sat in a chair for 60 hours a week for 12 years. Your body becomes its position – tight and pulled forward. One has to have great patience and awareness to reinvent their body at a later stage, but it is critical to become a surfer. I was fortunate enough to run a gym and, in that, I studied every corrective exercise, stretch and mobility movement there was, and it helped. Then I learned true freedom by being a warrior of stillness. You can be as flexible as you can, but if you’re rigid in your mind, it will show. Your style is a reflection of this.

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What traits do you think an adult has that a younger person may lack that could benefit or hinder their progression?

For me anatomically, mobility trumps flexibility, but one must be a student of their own challenges and not follow the trends too deeply – just enough to discover what works for them and then self-practice.

I am a much more agile human ten years later, and I am grateful for the challenges. My mind has loosened from a tight ball of yarn to 1,000 tiny fibres. For this, I am indebted.

jerson barboza photography
Photo by @jerson_barboza_photo .

“As I matured, I gave the ocean limitless potential, fruitless attachment to my labor – to do something, not for the result, but for the act itself.”

How do you think you would have developed differently had you started to learn to surf at a younger age?

If I had started younger, I would surf to improve and try to be the best at something. I would surf selfish and short cited. Every surf session would be judged. It was good if it was good for me because I got the wave or it was bad because it was bad for me because I didn’t. I would surf frantic, not free, within the confines of scarcity.

As I matured, I gave the ocean limitless potential, fruitless attachment to my labour – to do something, not for the result, but for the act itself. The ends do not justify the means, only the way. I’m glad I gave up those 16 years to find the truth. I may have become a really good surfer, but my spiritual vault would have been empty. By surfing for nothing except the joy in itself, I have improved faster than I could imagine, which wasn’t my intention, but the result that followed, because you go inside out, not outside in.

One has the most success by following the laws of nature, knowing their strengths and limitations. Going 80 percent and not 120. In this I have my greatest success, not depleting myself, saving some for others, especially for the paddle back to the boat. My least success is when I break these principles.

Michael Jesus Nicaragua

“Surf for that day, on that day. Surf the next for the same.”

What type of advice would you give an adult learning to surf for the first (or first few) times? Does the advice take into consideration age or do you think it doesn’t make a difference?

Everything is a big deal and makes a difference, and everything is small and doesn’t matter. Be light-hearted because if you’re heavy, you’ll sink! If you truly want to “go for it” in the surf, it’s beyond parameters, water and thought. It coexists with meditation and if “surf” is taken away, it matters not to you. Surf for that day, on that day. Surf the next for the same. One can accomplish great change and even find one calling through this journey of becoming a surfer. I did. This is the ultimate wave and is an enduring philosophy that stays through all conditions.

A surfboard is a tool for progression, as is the mind. Choose that path carefully. Turn off the mind and/or put away the board when you need to. Respect restoration, reflect on this and remember when you’re out in the lineup. It’s a long game on a short field. Don’t rush and respect the players along the way.

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