From Pro Surfer to College Student— Local Barrels Towards Cal Poly

 From Pro Surfer to College Student— Local Barrels Towards Cal Poly

Maya Karl and her family.

By Kami-Leigh Agard

“All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.” Remember this quip from slack jaw surfer/stoner, Jeff Spicoli, from the 1982 movie cult classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” Well, Belle Harbor pro surfer Maya Karl is changing the Spicoli stereotype as she’ll be paddling away from her seemingly idyllic life of sunscreen and saltwater in Rincón, Puerto Rico (aka Rockaway-South) to study business administration at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), starting this fall.

Despite the cliched stereotypes about surfers, surfing at the pro level is no joke as it takes intense hours of arduous training, discipline, sacrifice and fortitude—just ask Karl. And with Cal Poly’s ranking as #1 in Regional Universities West, #1 in California State Universities, and not to mention, its National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) team ranked top five in the country, Karl is primed for the gnarliest wave of her life.

Maya Karl. Photo by Sophia Knox.

According to 18-year-old Karl, her forever home will always be in Rockaway, where she attended preschool at the West End Temple Early Childhood Center in Belle Harbor. Then for elementary school until 5th grade, she attended P.S. 114. However, her life took a pivotal turn, when at age 10, she moved to Puerto Rico.

“I had a really hard time the first few years when we moved. PR was very different from New York, and I didn’t really have a group of friends. Also, I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time. However, my parents moved to Puerto Rico because of two reasons. The first was we had an opportunity to open restaurant, Uma’s Playa Jobos in Isabella. Secondly, the lifestyle in Puerto Rico is much healthier than in New York because of the warm weather. I used to always get sick in New York during the winters because of my asthma. So, those were the primary reasons,” Karl said.

For sixth grade, Maya attended Liceo Aguadillano in Aguadilla, PR, but then Hurricane Maria hit the island, so she and her family moved back to Rockaway, where she transitioned back to P.S. 114 for six months.

Then when the island was in recovery mode after Hurricane Maria, Karl was back in PR attending Carib Christian School in Aguadilla.

“It was during this time, Puerto Rico grew on me because at Carib, I found my group of friends. Also, this is when at age 12, I started to become more serious about surfing.

“Also, Will and Cliff Skudin of Skudin Surf were really pivotal in not just my growth as a surfer, but as a human being. From six years old, I was in their Rockaway summer camp on Beach 67th Street, where I not only learned how to surf, but also surf etiquette, motivating others and ocean safety. Through Skudin, I learned these really invaluable skills, and now, I work for them as an instructor. Plus, through AmpSurf, I got to volunteer in Puerto Rico and here in Rockaway with individuals with disabilities, such as autism,” Karl said.

Karl, fully committed to competitive surfing, enrolled in online high school, Laurel Springs Academy School.

“When COVID happened, this is when I saw the most exponential growth in my surfing. I really started to train hard with CrossFit, running, and surfing five to six hours a day. Plus, I have to thank my trainers, James Reeves and Josie Graves, who pushed and taught me so much, not just how to surf, but navigating the ocean and surf etiquette. For examples, how to tell when a good wave is coming, where to position yourself, how to act in the competition. COVID was a tough time. We weren’t allowed to surf for three months. Those who did were fined $5K. However, June 2020, we were allowed to get back in the water, and after vigorously training for months, we were all ready,” Karl said.

She added, “School online was tough. However, I thank my surfing training and lifestyle for keeping me so disciplined, which I believe is what helped me get into Cal Poly. With surfing, there’s a lot of sacrifice, but it’s worth it, and prepared me for this next chapter. During my gap year, I’ve been taking a lot of courses in computer programming, web development and calculus. I took a break from competing to focus on more academic things.”

Though quite humble, Karl has a lot she could boast about. As a pro surfer at just 18 years old, she’s sponsored by big league brands: Volcom, Avasol, Timmy Patterson Surfboards and ALSi. In 2021, the year after COVID, when surfers were banned from going into the water—Karl, a short board surfer—for Federación de Surf de Puerto Rico (FSPR), competed and placed second on the island for the Under 16 (U16) division. Then a year later in 2022, she placed fourth in the country for U18, and then placed fifth in Open Women’s nationally.

“I’ve won quite a few contests, but I’ve lost more than I’ve won for sure. I used to get extremely upset when I would lose, but I stopped giving it too much credence. I’ve been to Brazil, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador to train and compete. This is when my Spanish and Portuguese got really great.

“For years, competing in surfing was my first priority, but during this gap year, I started to focus more on academics. Surfing is always going to be part of my life, even on the competitive level, and who knows? Cal Poly is a top-ranked surf team. Plus, I want to make a change. Surfing should be a credited National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sport. Surfers shouldn’t have to make a choice between college and surfing on the competitive level, like basketball and other mainstream sports,” Karl said.

According to the World Surf League (WSL), there are zero professional surfers on the World Tour with a college degree—or who have attended college at all. As stated on “Whether it’s characters like Spicoli from ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ or a hangover from surfing’s cliched roots, surfing and education aren’t exactly peanut butter and jelly.” But times might be changing…if only one pro surfer at a time. And Maya Karl is propelling that change.

Karl, who now speaks Spanish and Portuguese fluently, says her family background gave her a world view that positively influenced her choices. Karl’s family owns Uzbekistan restaurant, Uma’s in Rockaway Beach, and Uma’s Playa Jobos in Isabella, PR, plus, other business ventures, which Karl is quite active in.

“I’m half Jewish and half Muslim. My mom, Uma, speaks four languages. Watching how hard both my dad and mom work to run their businesses inspired me. I’m so blessed to manage my own Airbnb in PR, and I plan to do the same in California.

“I’m not just a surfer girl, I’m a smart surfer girl, ready to elevate the sport so athletes don’t have to make a choice between pursuing a higher education and surfing on a competitive level,” Karl said.

As for what advice she would give to high school students contemplating their next chapter, Karl said, “Put yourself first and take care of yourself. Learn something new every day, and don’t feel pressured to follow everyone else, especially on social media. And most importantly, be respectful and nice to others.”

However, just like the sand between her toes, Karl says Rockaway will be her forever home. For more info about Maya Karl, follow her on Instagram: mayakarl.


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