Pure Stroke: Pressure to Paddle

When it comes to standup paddling I'm no stranger to pressure. The very first time Laird thrust a wooden paddle in my hand, ordering me to "Go out there and show 'em how it's done!" with 'them' being a group of his super-athlete and actor friends hanging out on the Malibu sand watching, judging; a giant south swell, me the furthest guy out at Castles in Waikiki, stroking for the horizon to escape a 15-foot set, uber-waterman Todd Bradley caught inside but yelling for me to spin and go; hammering to the Battle of the Paddle finish line next to a pre-teen Riggs Napoleon while contemplating the lesser of two indignities: being out-sprinted in the sand by a twelve-year-old or to be seen actually trying to out-sprint a twelve year-old in the sand; being the lone haole in the semi-finals of the standup division at Buffalo's Big Board Contest at Makaha.

Pressure? I know pressure. Or so I thought.

How could I have known that nothing I'd experienced in the past decade of standup could have prepared me for real pressure, the pressure I felt when standing on Malibu's fabled Surfrider Beach on a Saturday during a heat wave and an early south swell, surrounded by a TV crew, three cameras, a lifeguard, various hangers-on and a crowd of curious onlookers as I prepared to take '80's pop star Tiffany (of "I Think We're Alone Now" fame) out for her very first standup lesson—all part of an episode of "Celebrity Wife Swap."

That I found myself 'starring' in the popular ABC reality show had nothing to do, of course, with my somewhat arcane status as a professional surfer/writer/filmmaker. But my wife, actress Nia Peeples, after an almost 30-year career in show business—and considering her current role in ABC's hit "Pretty Little Liars"—certainly qualified as a celebrity. She thought the change of pace might be fun. Let some other lucky woman deal with sandy floors, wet towels and the inability to plan any terrestrial activity without checking the swell first. So off Nia went to Nashville to handle Tiffany's family, while I stood by in Malibu wondering how my new 'wife' would take to the water. 'Cause you just knew she was going in, the producers already rubbing their hands together in gleeful anticipation of a 'money shot.'

Tiffany, after the completely understandable initial awkwardness shared by us both, revealed herself to be an amiable soul—and a good sport. Part of the deal was that she had to spend a few days living by our terms, which would inevitably put her in the ocean. The prospect of this seemed to cause her a bit of anxiety, sharks being her main concern. I told her she had a much better chance of dying in a plane crash flying cross-country than from a shark attack. She then explained that she had once almost perished in a commercial airline near-disaster and had, in fact, driven out to Southern California from Tennessee. Oops. You can see where this was headed, so far as my character was concerned—when it came to this swap, the joke was definitely going to be on me.

Faux pas aside, I felt confident that at least when we got to the beach I'd be in my element. And all the elements seemed to be in our favor. An early heat wave laid over the Southland, coinciding with a clean three-to four-foot south swell. Despite this, the TV crew and talent all found parking in the Malibu pay lot, a small miracle in itself. The Randy French 11'6" I'd borrowed seemed more than adequate, Tiff squeezed herself into the unfamiliar neoprene and with our requisite attendant lifeguard in tow we traipsed down onto the fabled sand. The beach was packed, the water more so, and looking around at the throng the realization of exactly what I'd gotten mixed up with hit me like a 10-foot closeout set. Here I was on a crowded day at one of the most famous beaches in the world, surrounded by cameras and crew, lifeguards and photographers, tourists and locals, being mic'd up with waterproof headsets and exhorted by a director in leather shoes to "go out there and show 'em how it's done!" No preparation, no practice and, with cameras running on the beach and in the water, no parachute.

Did Tiffany do her best? Sure, and gamely so, when you factor her trepidation of being in the ocean with how often she found herself immersed in it, having tumbled off the board so many times. And I certainly went hard, eventually swimming next to Tiffany's board, attempting to balance it while at the same time trying to catch her when she toppled, trying to keep her head above water. She just couldn't stay on her feet—I couldn't get her to stay on her feet and was just starting to despair of my efforts (I could hear the producers, "I'm sorry, Sam, I was told you were an expert…") when my 14 year-old daughter Sienna paddled up on her board and said, "Here, Tiffany, stand like this." Suitably inspired Tiff rallied, eventually found her center and the two of them paddled off, albeit slowly, toward the pier. I returned to the beach, sheepishly dragging my board up to the dry sand, crowds gawking and cameras rolling.

"That was great, Sam," said the director. "Loved how you had your daughter step in and take over. Now, can you get Tiffany out there to catch a wave?"

At Malibu? On a crowded Saturday? Now that's pressure. —Sam George

This article originally ran in our Summer 2014 issue as “Pure Stroke: Celebrity Pressure.”

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