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  • Writer's pictureValpo Surf Project

What's a Grom?

When we recently started our GROM program, the most frequently asked question, by parents, volunteers, and staff alike, was: what’s a grom? Most assumed it was some sort of acronym, a confusing translation, an exotic animal, or an entirely imaginary word, so we had to lead them into the strange world of surf slang in order to explain it. Grom stems from the word grommet, a term generally used to denote the lowest ranking members of a naval ship. This term was then borrowed by the Australian surf community to describe young, skilled surfers, employed as both a term of respect and a way to poke a little fun at the younger guys and girls in the water. The term has now been adopted by the global surf community and occasionally comes up in the skate, ski, and snowboard worlds as well. We thought it a fitting way to welcome our most advanced students into the larger surfer community and its idiosyncrasies.

After Nick Napolitano, our most experienced surfer and thoroughbred New Jersian, joined the team last year, he began devising the GROM program to accommodate our more advanced, older students and provide himself with more opportunities to teach (and surf). Surfing requires a lot of repetition to build muscle memory and understand the unique nature of each wave and conditions are inconsistent at best, so one day of surf per week is not always enough to improve. As our students are in school every day and Sundays are reserved for family time, we had to find a time slot that could accommodate their busy schedules. We eventually settled on Friday afternoons to reward our students after a long school week and provide that essential motivation needed to finish it out strong.

Remember that Spongebob episode when Spongebob gets ice cream on his nose and everybody thinks he's a lifeguard and treats him like a king? Do you think Anthony has ice cream or zinc on his face?

So how does a GROM session work? Each session consists of three to five students, one member of our team, and as many volunteers as we can get. Unlike our Saturday sessions, when students come to us from their homes, students come to GROM straight from school, and are thus usually dressed in full uniform. It’s pretty funny to see them headed out to surf in ties, blazers, skirts, etc, as there is such a stark contrast between surf culture and formal attire, so they end up looking pretty out of place at first. Lucky for us, they seem equally uncomfortable in their school uniforms and are quick to put on their wetsuits, grab the boards, and head out into the water.

During our Saturday sessions, as we need to accommodate a wide age range, we generally keep ourselves within a small geographic range at the beach. Although we take our more advanced students out to different waves, Saturdays are almost always busy and it can be challenging to share waves with a herd of other people. It's not uncommon for waves to be vied for by four to five surfers, making it nearly impossible for our students to get the reps they need. Our GROM sessions are a solution to this problem, allowing them to surf uncrowded, more advanced waves in a nearly one-to-one context.

Fran sliding right like a pro

“More advanced waves” might call to mind images of terrifyingly big waves in exotic locales, but, for us, is a phrase more closely related to how one approaches a wave. At some point, yes, advanced waves are big, fast, and bone-crushing, but for our students, are simply a little further out, have more shape to them, and break on a steeper angle. Most of our students still surf the white water produced after a wave has crashed, but our groms are catching waves as they break and are thus able to ride on the face of the wave, taking it to the left or the right. Essentially, they’re starting to make turns and link together maneuvers rather than simply go straight.

That's the grom face. Now you know

To get to that point, though, our students have to work on paddling, posture, and positioning, unglamorous and oft overlooked, but absolutely vital components of surfing. In this sense, our grom sessions are aimed at opening up the full possibilities of the sport by creating greater autonomy and rounding out the long list of skills needed to pursue it further. GROM sessions begin with a study and discussion of that day’s conditions, going over the tide, current, winds, and swell (direction, height, period). By studying the conditions first, our students are more prepared to catch more waves and do so as safely as possible, wasting less energy in the process. While all of that sounds super technical and boring, it allows our groms to catch waves while less knowledgeable surfers paddle themselves in circles and position themselves in inopportune locations.

As is the case in all of our programming, fun is the top priority of these sessions. The technical lessons and coaching are just a way to create more opportunities for fun and open up the sport in a new way. As teachers, we want our kids to have fun in the whitewater if that’s what they are comfortable with, but also want them to know that it’s WAY more fun in better waves. Once they feel comfortable going out further and realize this fact, they become even more invested in the process and the program. Nick is an incredible surfer with a ton of experience, so it’s also really good for the kids to watch his approach and soak in some of his energy, . As those who have caught the surfing bug will know, it’s usually not a casual, once-in-a-while hobby, but a constant pursuit and a lifestyle that can impact all areas of life.

See how they're carrying their boards? That means they're good.

In keeping with the themes of autonomy and empowerment, our groms head back to the office after each session to unpack the van, wash wetsuits, and put in receipts. I’m not entirely sure if our students fully understand the logistical work that takes place in the office, so this component also helps instill appreciation for everything we do. It’s pretty comical to watch our students, usually back in school uniform, recording receipt amounts in our books as if we’re training them to become accountants or plan for retirement early. They’re super good sports about it all, though, despite just finishing long weeks of school.

Has anybody ever looked more excited to pack a van?

We’re always looking for new opportunities to engage and empower our students, and couldn’t be happier with GROM thus far. Our students are progressing to new realms of the sport and are more attuned to all that our work entails. Apart from driving, they are able to see the full scope of a surf day and are learning the habits necessary to make the most of every minute in the water. More than anything, they’re enjoying themselves and seem proud of their newfound “grom” status. There’s a level of comradery and solidarity among them that has, both literally and metaphorically, added a new layer to the program. We can’t wait to track their progress as this program continues and hope to release a GROM edit in the near future to showcase what they’ve learned.

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