Middle-distance runner Sam Tanner of New Zealand (© Getty Images)
New Zealand’s Sam Tanner, a rising star of middle-distance running, set a national indoor 1500m record of 3:34.74 in February to secure the automatic Olympic qualification mark.
Before he took up running, though, Tanner’s No.1 passion was surfing. And riding the waves on the New Zealand coast has aided Tanner’s athletics development.
“I grew up living by the beach and I began surfing as soon as I could swim. Surfing was my passion long before running. I loved the beach and I loved the ocean.
When I was about seven or eight years old, my dad shaped me a 5ft (1.5m) grom board (a board for younger surfers). I remember he used to swim out with me and when a big wave came along he would duck-dive underneath and push me out. He’d then tread water and push me on to the waves because I had such weak arms.
In my later years as a schoolkid, if there was good surf, I’d be out on the board. As soon as it was light, my brother and I would be out for an hour of surfing before catching the school bus.
I love the freedom surfing gives you – that adrenaline rush from feeling very small in nature and the power of the waves. I still love the buzz of surfing, the vibe and the lifestyle.
I did a couple of competitions as a kid, and in my final year at high school I finished fifth in a surf competition in a national schools event. I enjoyed the experience but in my heart surfing has always been a recreational pursuit – an outlet from running. If I want to be relaxed and take it easy in the surf, I can. Or if I want to be more active, catch all the best waves and do the best turns, I can try to do so.
Growing up, I knew the majority of surfers in the World League and I loved watching the likes of Kelly Slater, Jordy Smith and others. They were so stylish.
From the age of 17, I decided I wanted to achieve some big goals in running, so surfing took more of a back seat. For several years, though, my coach back in New Zealand, Craig Kirkwood, would often supplement my running training with surfing. He factored in what training I was doing to allow me to continue to surf.
When I first started looking at US schools to recruit me, I recall looking at the University of Hawai’i as an option because of the outstanding surf there. I was a bit disappointed to find out they only had a women’s track and field team!
While the coach (Andy Powell) was the big drawcard in committing to the University of Washington, I definitely wanted to be close to the water – which I am in Seattle. Unfortunately the surf is not so good, but we have a lake nearby and I’m keen to go wake surfing in the summer.
Has surfing benefited my running? I definitely think it has helped improved my agility and strengthened different areas of the body. I’m stoked that I don’t have sticks for arms, which I put down to all those years of surfing! I think surfing has made me a more rounded athlete.
I definitely miss surfing when not in New Zealand. My fiancée lives by the beach and sends me videos of the surf every day. But without the distraction of surfing, it does allow me to focus more on running. And when I do go home to New Zealand, it will make the experience of surfing even more special.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics