Extra Points: Local surfers riding wave of success
The southern tip of the Jersey Shore has been producing top-notch surfers for over 50 years.
The pipeline dates back to the 1960s, when local icons such as Ocean City's Chuck Allison, the late T. John "Bull" Carey, Barbie Belyea and Sandy Ordille; Brigantine's Linda Davoli; the late Dan Heritage of Sea Isle City; Cape May's Steve McDuell and Steve "Hag" Piacentine; and Wildwood's Mike Sciarra helped introduce the surfing to the area.
Through the years, standouts such as Ocean City's Matt Keenan and Rob Kelly; Margate's Ben Gravy; Sea Isle City's Brian Heritage (Dan's son); Cape May brothers Jeffrey, Harry, Edward, Joseph and Paul Gibbons; Ventnor's Cassidy McClain; Wildwood Crest's Maddie Peterson; Somers Point's Dean Randazzo and Cape May's Jimbo Samson were/are among the surfers who aided in the growth of the sport.
Ocean City's Cruz Dinofa and Brynn Gallagher are among the group of groms - young surfers - who are helping to maintain that tradition, along with Brynn's sister, Mia, Linwood's Seamus Carey, Cape May's Tucker Collins and Kyle Tester, and others.
Dinofa, 11, and Brynn Gallagher, 12, made big waves at the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Championships two weeks ago at Jeanette's Pier on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Dinofa won the Open Mini Groms (surfers 10 and under as of Jan. 1, 2020) and Gallagher took top honors in Open Super Girls (12 and under).
"They surf together a lot in Ocean City and have been friends for a long time, so it was great to see them win," Tim Dinofa, Cruz's father, said.
Cruz and Brynn became just the third and fourth local surfers to win NSSA national titles. Keenan, a member of the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame, won the Explorer Boys Division in 1986 at age 12 and took the Explorer Men's Title in 1995. Peterson won the Varsity Women's Division in 2013 while representing St. Augustine Prep.
The event is usually held at The Pier in Huntington Beach, California, but NSSA officials were unable to obtain permits due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, surfers from California and Hawaii joined East Coast competitors at the Outer Banks.
"We had just surfed there during the East Coast championships, so I was excited to be back," Cruz said. "I thought I had a good chance of winning, but I just wanted to keep focused and try my best."
His best turned out to be better than anyone else.
Cruz dominated his four-person final, registering a 12.10 score - the combined score of his two best waves in the finals. Cash Nipper, of Ponce Inlet, Florida, was second at 9.50.
Minutes later, Brynn charged to victory in her final with a 12.73 performance. Daya McCart, of Indialantic, Florida, was second at 10.57.
"I wasn't happy at all with the way I surfed in the East Coast Championships," said Brynn, who placed fourth in that event. "I was looking forward to getting another chance at the nationals."
At the end of their respective events, friends and fellow competitors hoisted them onto their shoulders and carried them to the stage for them to receive their trophies.
When he returned to Ocean City, Cruz was stunned to see a banner and balloons in front of his house. They had been placed there by Kelly, who along with Keenan has served as a mentor for Cruz, Brynn and her sister, Mia, who also fared well at the nationals by placing second in the Explorer Girls (14 and under) division.
"I remember watching Cruz when he was 3, 4, 5 years old and I was really impressed," Kelly said in an earlier interview. "He's been crushing it for years."
Cruz and Brynn took different paths to success.
Cruz was just 3 when he started. Tim and his wife, Lauren, first introduced older daughters Lily, now a 17-year-old junior at Ocean City High School, and Meadow, 11, to surfing. Eight years ago, Tim put a life jacket on little Cruz and let him stand on Meadow's board.
"He was a natural," Tim said. "Cruz still plays other sports when he's not surfing. He really likes tennis at the moment. But that's only when there are no waves. Surfing is it for him."
The same goes for Brynn, though she got a bit of late start.
Father Chad Gallagher grew up in Ocean City and surfed for the high school team - Mia now competes for the Red Raiders and won a state championship last week - but the Gallagher's lived in Pennsylvania before moving to Ocean City full-time in 2014.
That was the year mother Kristin, who works in medical sales and owns a custom frame shop in Ocean City, enrolled their two daughters in a surfing camp.
"I think I went to the camp first," Brynn said. "I remember riding a wave for the first time and was so excited. When I got home, I told Mia, 'You have to try this!' And we've been surfing ever since. I played different sports, but surfing is my passion."
She is definitely not alone.
Surfing is as much a part of the local culture as Lucy the Elephant in Margate, the rolling chairs on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, and the sunken ship in Cape May Point.
Take a stroll on any surfing beach and you're bound to find someone riding a wave. Some are surfing for the first time; others have been doing it for decades. Some are shooting through barrels with dazzling speed; others are gliding to shore atop longboards.
Once surfing gets into the soul, it never leaves. It's been that way for 50 years and will be that way for 50 more.