LI's Balaram Stack makes waves in surfing world
Carrying his surfboard over the snow-covered sand never bothered him. Nor did the icy water off of Long Beach, even when it was so cold that it gave him intense headaches, like the kind you get from eating ice cream too fast.
If the surf was up and school was out, the temperature rarely mattered to Balaram Stack. From the time he was 7 years old, he could usually be found surfing off his favorite beach near Laurelton Boulevard. Or hanging out and watching videos at a surf shop several blocks away on East Park Avenue.
"It's a little different from growing up in California or Hawaii," Stack said, "but when there's snow on the beach and ice in the bay, it can be really fun."
It is this kind of crazy, I'll-try-anything attitude that has helped the 19-year-old Stack emerge from the East Coast to become one of the country's most promising junior surfers.
Unless you're talking about what people do every morning when they sit down at their computers, New York has never been regarded as a hotbed of surfing talent.
There hasn't been a world-class surfer to come out of the area since the late Rick "The Raz" Rasmussen of Westhampton won a national title in the '70s. And there hasn't been a professional surfer from anywhere on the East Coast to qualify for the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour since Florida's Hobgood twins, Damien and CJ, did it more than a decade ago.
Stack, however, will be competing in his first World Tour competition in September when Long Beach is scheduled to host the Quiksilver Pro. The event, with a record $1 million purse, is the first World Tour contest on the East Coast of the United States. Stack, whose biggest sponsor is Quiksilver, will compete alongside the 32 touring professionals as a wild-card.
"A year ago, Balaram was just a fantastic East Coast surfer. Now, he's had some results and footage that says he can be more than that," says Micah Abrams, the surf editor at ESPN.com. "It's hard to overstate just how difficult it is for a guy from the East Coast to do that."
Stack's surfing story started 14 years ago when his mother, Mary, moved with her three sons from Sebastian, Fla., to Point Lookout to care for her ailing mother. His older brothers were into surfing, so 5-year-old Balaram began tagging along with his boogie board. By age 6, he was standing on it, and his brothers decided he was ready for the real thing.
"We got him his first custom board, and I showed him the basics," said Red Hanuman, Balaram's oldest brother. "He just took off and fell in love with it. It was just a natural thing for him."
Balaram quickly caught the eye of Dave Juan and Mike Nelson, the owners of unsOund Surf, the Long Beach shop that began sponsoring Stack when he was 11.
"He just had a natural talent," Juan says. "He's creative and he has a good style. He's got a great understanding of the ocean."
Stack became well known locally after doing well in some regional competitions and began competing in an amateur league called the Eastern Surfing Association. His big break came in the summer of 2004 when he was discovered by Quiksilver at a one-day surfing camp in Montauk. The company signed the 13-year-old Stack to its team and sent him to train in Hawaii.
"He was this long-haired little surf rat from New York, but he had the gift. He had the talent," said Chad Wells, the program coordinator for Quiksilver America. "He's pretty well rounded in small ways. Being from the East Coast, he's got a small-wave act. Uncharacteristically, unlike most East Coasters, he charges the big waves, especially the pipeline."
Making it big in surfing is a bit like making it big in golf. Though there are thousands of professionals and a number of different levels of professional competitions around the world, only a select few qualify for a spot on golf's PGA Tour or surfing's World Tour.
Stack turned pro two years ago and now has a half dozen sponsors, but needs to win an event or two before he can get within striking distance of being a regular on the World Tour.
He still calls Point Lookout home, and received his correspondence degree from Long Beach High School two years ago after being homeschooled for the final two years of high school, when he was busy traveling and surfing in competitions worldwide.
Stack now trains in Newport Beach, Calif., near Quiksilver's corporate headquarters, but for the most part his life is spent traveling the world and surfing. He is ranked 29th in the world on Surfer magazine's list of the top 100 best young surfers.
"Ball is living the dream," says his brother Red. "He basically lives out of suitcase going from contest to contest. If he's not competing he's doing a photo shoot somewhere. He's home maybe two and a half months a year. It's not a mainstream thing, but he's made it work for him. He's been very blessed to be able to do that."
Stack and his family can't wait until he returns to Long Beach this September. "Somebody is going to have to remind me to breathe," Mary Stack said. "It's going to be exciting."
While Balaram knows some in the international surfing community may turn up their noses at the East Coast for its cold water and inconsistent (or non-existent) waves, for Stack there is no better place to be.
Said Stack of competing on his home turf: "I think about it all the time. It's going to be great."