'A meteoric rise': Carl Burger making history as one of surfing's rare Black stars

·5 min read

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Carl Burger, a 17-year-old surfer from Florida, stood on the beach last week as waves crashed in the distance.

He was one of 28 members of the USA Surfing junior team gathered for a training session, and the only youth wearing earrings – square-shaped, Swarovski crystals.

“I like standing out,’’ he said.

Burger does that naturally with his 5-8, 118-pound frame and something else that almost always sets him apart from the competition.

He is Black.

Moreover, he is emerging as a potential elite Black American pro, which in surfing is even rarer than a perfect 10.0-point ride.

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No Black American has reached the Championship Tour of the World Surfing League (WSL), the top pro circuit. While it’s probably too early to predict Burger will be the first, his trajectory is clear.

“He kind of had a meteoric rise in the last year and a half,’’ said Ryan Simmons, head coach for the USA Surfing junior team. “What I preach a lot nowadays is positivity in what you’re trying to accomplish. And I think he’s tapped into that, where he’s not going to let anything stop him from what he wants to achieve.’’

On Sunday, Burger won his first national title, the high school varsity men’s division at the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Championships. He is believed to be the first Black surfer to win the title since the NSSA Championships began in 1978.

“You don’t win the NSSA nationals unless you’re a great surfer,’’ said Solo Scott, who in 1981 became the first Black surfer to win the U.S. amateur championship.

On Thursday, Burger will be one of more than 40 surfers competing in the USA Surfing Championships, and he’s not the only one thriving.

So is the Black surfing community.

In early June, a crowd of about 500 showed up at Huntington Beach for “A Great Day in the Stoke,’’ an event that lived up to its billing as one of the largest gatherings of Black surfers in recent history.

Many of the same people united at the ocean in June 2020 to honor the life of George Floyd and other African Americans killed by police. The Black surfers held paddle outs, floating memorials in the water. The events were emotionally draining, said Nathan Fluellen, who as a result organized “A Great Day in the Stoke.’’

“I was like, ‘We should come together and just celebrate our existence and our love for surfing,’" Fluellen told USA TODAY Sports at the event. “So we’re here in the spirit of celebration.’’

That day, the surfing competition featured 42 Black surfers, a couple who launched themselves into the air with the kind of force seen on the WSL’s Championship Tour. Beginners took advantage of free surf lessons and other attendees represented groups such as Ebony Beach Club, SoFly Surf School, the Black Surf Collective and Black Girls Surf. Similar groups have formed on the East Coast.

“Surfing is the domain of well-to-do, well-heeled white folk for the most part,’’ said Scott, 55, who became one of the rare elite Black pros during three years on the U.S. Bud Pro Tour. “The demographics kind of dictate success, which is what’s great about this whole Black surfing movement.

“Social media is helping tremendously with outreach. Not only shining a light on what a great sport that surfing is, but also going deeper in terms of holding these events that include surf lessons. So getting people not only the exposure (to the sport) but setting up the infrastructure to get people to the beach and then show them what it’s all about.”

The value of a connected community became clear, too.

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Matthew Oliveira, a precocious 10-year-old, and his talented, 15-year-old sister, Mary, got acquainted with fellow surfer Julian Williams, a 21-year-old aspiring pro from Hawaii who grew up playing basketball.

Williams said he gave up the sport at 12, at which point he picked up a surfboard for the first time.

Initially self-taught, Williams said, he began surfing with a man known as “Buttons.’’ The man’s given name is Ernest Kaluhiokalani, a Black surfer who revolutionized the sport in the 1970s, in part by performing the first backside 360 in a major surf film.

The lessons from Buttons were free, Williams said.

“It was a big thing to be able to watch and learn, to have somebody in the water show me and at the same time telling me what to do,’’ Williams said.

Buttons died in 2013, and Williams said he wants to pass on the legendary surfer’s wisdom to young Black surfers like Matthew and Mary Oliveira. A week after meeting them at “A Great Day in the Stoke,’’ Williams was surfing with the siblings and offering pointers – much like Buttons had for Williams.

Then there is the surfer once known as “Little Buttons.’’ That would be Burger, who picked up the nickname at about 10 when he was at surf contests and, like Buttons, sporting an Afro.

Adopted by white parents who live in Flagler Beach, Florida, Burger has had easy access to the ocean and worked with private coaches. By 11, he secured his first sponsor, Volcom clothing company. He now has eight more sponsors, but not enough money to cover his costs, such as travel.

He has surfed in Hawaii, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to better prepare for big-wave competitions, and he has helped pay for the expenses by working two part-time jobs, according to his mother, Gail.

“He knows he has to pay for part of his way, for now,’’ she said.

With one year of high school left, Burger likely will turn pro in 2023. If things go well, paychecks and more sponsorship money will follow. And, drawing on the inspiration of Buttons, Solo Scott and other trailblazers, perhaps the full emergence of a Black American surfing star.

How does that sound?

“It makes me stoked,’’ Carl Burger said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carl Burger making history as one of surfing's rare, young Black stars