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Surfers hit the waves to escape COVID-19, according to ODU research

Person walks into water holding surfboard
Cathia Laforge heads out into the water at the Virginia Beach oceanfront. (Photo: Paul Bibeau/WHRO)

Paul Bibeau/WHRO

Steve Neskis is a self-described 67-year-old surf dog.

“It just clears the mind, like meditation,” he said. “When you drop into a wave, you're no longer thinking about anything … . [The] energy and the pulse that it gives you is something that is just so sacred.”

As COVID-19 locked down the world many discovered the benefits Neskis touted as they headed for the ocean. 

Surfing booms swept places like Australia, China and India. An Old Dominion University study found a possible reason for the trend: Surfing seemed to enable people to cope with the stress of the pandemic and meet up with each other in safe, socially distanced ways. 

“Surfing really allowed people to just let it all go and not have to think about the pandemic for a little while,” said Lindsay Usher, an associate professor of park, recreation and tourism studies at ODU, who authored the study. 

She added surfers in the water had experience staying socially distanced to avoid collisions, while sharing a sense of community.

In some places, though, COVID-19 restrictions stopped folks from surfing. People told Usher they felt restless, depressed and bored. 

She said Virginia Beach benefitted from relatively relaxed restrictions on surfing.

“We were pretty lucky that our region kind of handled it — middle of the road,” said WRV President L.G. Shaw. “And they encouraged people to get outside and get fresh air [and] just to stay … away from each other.”

Shaw said when lockdown started in spring 2020, skateboards were the hot item at his store. Parents would buy multiple boards for their kids, because “mom was going to lose it.”

But as the waters warmed, he saw new customers try surfing. And he agreed with Usher’s findings about why.

“During COVID, it was one of the only times you could be … you weren't getting inundated with the the crazy news,” he said. “You're outside getting fresh air, getting your endorphins going and enjoying yourself, and the whole world kind of fades away.”

Shaw said 2020 saw a “confluence of events” that boosted the sport. People were already becoming more interested in surfing, because it was scheduled to debut at the Olympics in Tokyo that summer, though authorities delayed the games for a year and held them in 2021. 

But then the pressures of the strange and challenging pandemic years drove whole families to buy boards and paddle out to sea.

“It was a pretty significant impact that it made, for sure,” Shaw said.

Read the original story at the WHRO website.

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