Making A Splash!

Meet the state’s newest surf champions, teenagers Diego Ferri and Pua DeSoto, whose unfaltering devotion to the sport remains a breath of fresh air.

Ask surfers Pua DeSoto and Diego Ferri what they were looking forward to most this Christmas, and their response is the same: winter waves are better than any present wrapped under the tree.

Prior to the holiday season, the talented O‘ahu teenagers were granted their wish — blowing into North Carolina’s chilly Atlantic waters in late October to participate in the 2020 National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championships, and riding off with their share of titles.

There to greet them in the Tar Heel State was not only an equally talented group of surfers from around the country, but Hurricane Epsilon as well, a Category 3 storm that was brewing nearby. Thankfully, hurricane winds turned the area’s habitually small waves into a solid 4-6 feet, with even larger sets occasionally rolling in.

Diego Ferri and Pua DeSoto proudly hoist their respective trophies following the 2020 National Scholastic Surfing Association National Championships in North Carolina. PHOTO COURTESY FERRI FAMILY

Given that Diego’s home break is Kailua, a spot notorious for choppy conditions, this made the 16-year-old feel a bit at home, despite being thousands of miles away.

“Whenever there’s a hurricane coming here — unless it’s crazy bad — all of the surfers from Kailua are amping to get out there,” says the youngster, who captured the meet’s Open Mens (ages 16 and up) division title. “It’s the best kind of waves when there’s a hurricane coming.”

A home-schooled student, Diego was introduced to surfing by his father, Mark, when he was just 6 years old.

“(My dad) would push me into waves, and I would stand up and go straight,” he recalls of his formative years. “That’s when I really started to fall in love with it.”

Ask any Hawai‘i-born grom (young surfer) the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the majority will be quick to say “pro surfer.” Diego is no exception. He became an outlier, though, when making the decision to transfer from public to home-school as a way to prioritize surfing above all else. “If the waves were good on the North Shore, we would get up there and it would already be sunset,” he explains. “When I became home-schooled, we had the whole day to work around surfing.”

This alteration made years ago has certainly paid off: Aside from his first-place finish at the meet, Diego also walked away with secondand third-place awards in the Explorer Mens and Open Juniors divisions, respectively.

Kailua’s Diego Ferri was just 6 when he learned to surf, while Mākaha’s Pua DeSoto was only 5 months old.

“There was a couple of times before heats that I was really psyching myself out because I hadn’t done a contest in eight months,” he recalls. “I talked to one of my coaches the night before finals and he really helped me. He talked about staying calm and getting in a good place before you paddle out, so you can start out good, not just end good.

“(Winning) was such a good feeling,” he adds. “I’ve never won a national title before, so when I came into the beach, my friends were cheering me on, and my dad was there, too. It was really awesome.”

Meanwhile, Pua, a sophomore at Kamehameha Schools, says conquering big waves is still a feat she has yet to overcome.

You would never know, though, considering that the 15-year-old brought back four first-place (Open Womens, Explorer Girls, Explorer Longboard and Explorer Womens Longboard) and two second-place (Open Longboard and Explorer Womens) titles in her suitcase.

“It’s definitely an honor,” she says. “Where I live in Mākaha, there are a lot of kids who don’t have opportunities like me. It’s hard to watch that, so I’m very lucky and grateful.”

Pua’s first time on a surfboard was at just 5 months old with her dad Duane, a fellow surfer who won his world title at Mākaha Beach.

“When I was about 2 or 3, I could finally catch my own waves, so surfing has been a part of me my entire life,” she says. “I don’t even remember a life without it.

“I decided to compete when I was 11,” continues Pua. “I never really wanted to get in to the whole competing scene. I just wanted to have fun with my family and my parents never really pushed me to want that either, but it was in my heart to follow my father’s footsteps.”

In fact, Pua’s admiration and grit toward competitive surfing enthused some of her siblings (she has nine) to give it a shot, too.

“I want to motivate my younger siblings as much as I can,” says Pua. “They come to my surfing sessions and they surf with me and work on their own stuff with my dad, who also coaches them.

“Surfing, to me, is not only a sport, it’s also a cultural practice that’s very important to me and my ‘ohana,” she continues. “In my culture, it defines who a lot of us Hawaiians are.

“I also love just … being around my ‘ohana, not necessarily my blood ‘ohana, but also my family friends and all of my closest people to my heart, and being able to share my sport with them and, sometimes, I even try to teach the younger ones how to surf and give them pointers. I just love it so much.”

Despite being on a high, Pua and Diego remain extraordinarily humble as they reflect on a shared philosophy about the ebbs and flows of their budding careers.

“There’s a lot of contests that I’ve done good and really bad,” says Diego. “(Losing) never really gets easier. When you win, you feel really good, but I always try to tell myself that when you lose, that’s where you learn something.”

“I think there’s a learning point in both,” chimes in Pua. “Even in the winning, I learn a lot, but I feel like I learn the most in losing.

“I don’t love losing,” she laughs. “But when I lose, I actually think it’s good for me and it gives me a lot of insight.”

Now with national trophies on their shelves, you may be wondering what’s next for the trailblazing teens. With previous winners serving as examples (Carissa Moore, John John Florence, and Bruce and Andy Irons, to name a few), their futures are looking pretty golden.

“It’s definitely an honor to be able to join their names,” says Pua. “They’re all big inspirations to me. To be added to this prestigious list is very exciting.”

“It feels unreal, because it’s kind of given me perspective that Andy, Bruce and all of those guys were where I am right now, so there’s a chance, if I keep working hard, I can get where they were,” says Diego.

Although COVID has put most contests on pause, the teenagers show no signs of slowing down. If they aren’t catching waves, you can find the dynamos on land, weight lifting or boxing — when they’re not doing homework, that is.

“The grind never stops,” Pua says with a smile.

“There was a few times when surfing started to feel like (a chore),” says Diego. “But after a while you realize that if this was a job, it would be the greatest job in the world.”