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  • Harrison Wilmot

Outdoor sports: individual effort but a great sense of camaraderie

Outdoor Ed Sports offer opportunities for individual achievement but with camaraderie and encouragement from friends

“There is a lot more overlap and barrier breaking between people of different skill levels and also in that same regard, people of different grade levels.” —Galen Merigliano

Kayaking offers leisure and adventure, and I was fortunate enough to participate in a session!

On a Monday afternoon, I went to experience kayaking with six students, along with two teachers, Peter Lips and Zeila Frade. Picture a perfect afternoon because that’s what it was. There was no swell, no clouds, and barely any wind. The water was calm and still, the namesake for the site we embarked from: Stillwater Cove.

First-Year Yuju Kim and Junior Percy Xu show kayaking is not just a leisurely activity, but a physically tough adventure that demands cooperation.

Immediately after last class ended, I met up with the six students — Yuju Kim, Ella White, June Park, Percy Xu, Kyle Figueroa-Rhudy, and Libby Travis — near Atwood, where we got our wetsuits and kayaks, and took a van down to the cove. We split into pairs and I had the pleasure of joining Frade, who told me about her journey to Stevenson and her Cuban heritage — a kayak is a great place to get to know someone. Synchronous paddling was required, but autonomy was a major part of this session — even with two in a kayak, it feels like you are developing independence. I also sensed an unspoken camaraderie in the group. This wasn’t the first time the students had gone together; in fact, this was the seventh week in a row they had left from Stillwater. For them, rowing, communicating, and docking were muscle memory. I needed a little time before I could catch up to their speed. Our itinerary: we left the cove, landed on a beach where we socialized and did some meditation, reboarded the kayaks, went around a rock, passed between narrow islands, and saw starfish, great herons, and otters. The whole experience was poetry. It’s special because I had no idea our school even offered this. How does a sport with this much to offer go unnoticed? Only a few are fortunate enough to reap these rewards.

Six students prepare to leave from Stillwater Cove to depart on a multi-hour kayaking session

“I honestly believe in my 25 years of teaching when I’m out on the kayaks, it is one of the most rewarding educational experiences, and I’ve done a lot of cool stuff as an educator,” says Lips, who has been on the peninsula as long as Henrikson. “When we turn around out there and we’re a mile out, you’re looking at Point Lobos, Carmel beach, Carmel point, the 17th and 18th holes [of Pebble Beach Golf Links], the Pebble Beach Lodge. It is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Lips describes the moment perfectly because it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: “When we’re out there at that vantage point, it’s totally different [seeing the land from the ocean]. It reverses everything.”

While meditating in the water, I took a selfie of the students to capture the joy, tranquility, and "still"ness of the water.

Xu says, “My favorite parts are the opportunity to go with friends and the breathtaking scenery that surrounds us.” For him and likewise for me, it was tough at first to go stroke for stroke with a partner: “Kayaking is a two-person-per-boat [deal] so it requires cooperation. In the beginning, I kept splashing water in my partner’s face, but it got better over time.” Xu admits he was unaware Stevenson offered kayaking until recently: “I didn’t even know about this until last summer.”

Our first checkpoint of the trip was this tucked-in beach off the right side of the cove. When we arrived, I was perplexed and at a loss for words. It was not even halfway through our adventure, but the students seemed to have this planned out. They landed their kayaks effortlessly and I followed suit, gaining some knowledge from their expertise. They sat down in the knee-deep water like it was an everyday routine. They told me on literally any other day, there could be so much fog you wouldn’t be able to see to the other side of the cove or there could be such a strong tide that if you tried to sit down, you would get toppled over by the sheer force of the wave. Yet, today it was calm. Frade exulted, “You couldn’t have picked a better day!” Frankly, not all days are this calm, but that’s what makes it fun; with more wind and more unpredictable conditions, there is more challenge and more to be learned.

Notice the beauty. Six students and an unforgettable coast, stretching from Pebble Beach to Point Lobos. Only few are fortunate enough to see this hidden gem on the Monterey Peninsula

Lips knows with a greater reward comes greater risk. “One piece of the outdoor program that is so critical is safety,” he says. “It’s the number one core value, it’s always on my mind. I’ve got a marine radio with me, a cellphone in a waterproof bag, and we’re all in life jackets.” He adds that highlights of kayaking include learning about marine organism diversity, ocean navigation and safety, the beauty of nature, and the fact you can get a workout from it. It is physically demanding, maybe not as much as surfing or rock climbing, but it requires mental and physical toughness — which can be hard after a long day of school. Lips summarizes, “When you get down there, you always have to be aware that you’re dealing with Mother Nature and while it’s awesome and beautiful, it can also be life-threatening. And all you can do is rely on your own physical ability to motor you around.”

All in a line now, the six students and I struck our best Yoga poses with fingers interlaced in the Mudra form. Luckily, I snapped a shot before the students moved on to the next challenge.

Kim and Xu carry their kayak down to the beach, an easy-feat for the exemplary teamwork they have demonstrated.

You can see the unity of the group — and how genuinely fun the experience was. There wasn’t a single person not smiling. Lips and Frade stayed back, intentionally separated from the group: “We [Frade and Lips] try to give them their own space so they have a certain level of autonomy out there. They’re a really tight group, almost what would happen in an EXPO group,” says Lips.

A sea star rests on a jagged rock

The kayak program has also merged with the SUP or stand-up paddleboarding program. Outdoor ed director Galen Merigliano created this hybrid offering known as KSUP in order to give students more choice regarding their activity: “This program is very much student-driven: If people are like, ‘We want to take it easy and sightsee,’ that’s what happens. If people are like ‘We want an intense kayak-surf [session],’ that’s what happens. If people are like ‘I want to take out stand-up paddleboarding and do a little snorkeling in Stillwater,’ that’s what happens.” He elaborates, highlighting a similarity between interscholastic sports and these outdoor education sports: “It very much caters to the group of the people that are in that program at the time.”

After we departed from the beach, we went around a distant rock and all of the sudden, it felt like we were out in the real ocean, not protected by Stillwater’s peaceful bay. Massive amounts of kelp made it very challenging to navigate in a kayak and a few times Frade and I got stuck in huge patches. Ocean currents swept our kayak out into the open water. It was a frightening sequence of events, but as I looked around me and noticed the students who had done this time and time again persevering in the face of danger, I gained a sense of community and grit I didn’t know I had. At the rock, we truly could take in the beauty of the area. Here is where we were, as veteran surfer and kayaker Lips puts it, “getting that intrinsic feel for what’s happening when you’re out in the ocean in terms of wind, swell and tide”; he says he finds it more breathtaking each time he goes out.

From the rock we made our way to two main islands with a narrow opening between the two. The crew had never dared to traverse that channel up until then. The conditions were ideal enough that the challenge could be met head-on. Now, Frade and I were in the lead and we were the first to witness the amazing wildlife present: herons and pelicans perched themselves on land, otters swam beneath our kayaks, and a starfish hung tight to an almost-submerged rock covered in mussels. Lips and the rest of the students approached together. The gap to split the islands was the perfect size for our kayaks to squeeze past without harming any marine life en route. Before I knew it, we were back at the original cove where our journey had begun just a couple hours earlier.

Various birds including pelicans lay perched across an island, congregating just to see us kayakers pass through.

Surfing challenges the body and the mind: it’s you against Mother Nature

There’s more to the KSUP story; kayaking is just one fall sport offering. The other two, surfing and rock-climbing, are equally as rewarding and perhaps even more physically demanding. To its devotees surfing is an art. Without it, you can’t truly experience the Monterey Coast. Charlie Henrikson says surfing is a “learning by doing” sport and it really is not easy at first. It’s about “learning the ocean, getting beat up, getting stronger, learning some independence in the ocean — the idea that this could be something you do later in your life.”

Rewind ten years ago and the surfing program as it is now was completely different. Originally, Henrikson wanted no part in the program: “I didn’t want any part of it when it was first offered, but the problem was that it changed kayaking. The kids who wanted action all of a sudden went to surfing. It wasn’t until last year when Mr. M [Merigliano] joined Stevenson and changed the program that I joined in.” When Henrikson was a leader of kayaking years ago, he encountered senior football dropouts who wanted a change of pace in their daily sport activities. He says, “They didn’t want to go every day and paddle around Stillwater. So I started taking them out into the waves where we could surf the kayaks and kids were like flipping over.” The ambulances often came to check if everything was okay and thankfully it was because he had them wear helmets—phew. “It was kinda fun because it was so far off the radar. No one even knew we were doing it.” Now in 2022, Henrikson feels proud of how the program has changed and the lifelong lessons it has taught.

Teacher Charlie Henrikson shows off his incredible balance, a skill that has only improved after two decades on the peninsula

Every weekday a bus departs from Stevenson to either Asilomar or Spanish bay, depending on the daily surf conditions. There are two groups of seven surfers. Group A goes Monday, Wednesday, and every other Friday; Group B, Tuesday, Thursday, and every other Friday: two and a half days of surfing every week. Due to transportation limitations surf sessions only last one to two hours, which is not a lot of time if you’re trying to learn quickly. It’s learning by doing: Henrikson admires that there is “a little bit less of ‘Let’s sit around in a circle, stretch, talk about our surfing experience, and do dry-land pop-ups’ and more like ‘You wanna learn to surf? Here’s a board, kid. Let’s see what you got!’”

Junior Will Gutierrez says, “It’s a nice little self-learning process.” Henrikson says to be able to master surfing, the only coach in the water is yourself: “They’re learning this without having anyone to tell them. They’re learning this by being thrown in the ocean and having to deal.” Of course, Henrikson and Merigliano are there to make sure the students are safe but as with kayaking, there is a lot of opportunity for independence. “In surfing, it’s survival,” Henrikson says. “I don’t have to be the motivator. I just let the ocean and the circumstance help motivate them to learn the skills.” Merigliano adds, “Ultimately, all these are individual sports that teach you a balance between relying on yourself and relying on others.”

Junior Jake Ryan strikes a pose after standing up with the help of his peer's encouragement

Compared to interscholastic sports where the rosters can stretch across grades and various interests, junior Jake Ryan loves the tight-knit community surfing offers: “The sense of community was my favorite part before I could stand up [on a board], but now that I’m able to stand up, it’s a game changer.” He adds, “There’s fewer of us [in surfing] and we’re able to get to know each other better because of that.” Gutierrez elaborates, “Compared to other team-building sports, the benefits [of outdoor education sports] are that it’s low-pressure, you get to know people that you haven’t met before, and it’s out-of-the-box, something you don’t see at other schools.” Audrey Robinson, a junior who frequently partners up with Gutierrez while out in the waves, echoes, “You definitely have to work together but you’re not seeking to accomplish one goal.”

The transformation the surfing program is a big deal. Henrikson explains, “Before it wasn’t always done by people who knew how to surf that well. It was more like ‘Wouldn’t that be a sexy thing to have in our catalog?’ Wouldn’t that be a sexy thing to say we did in our summer program?” Now, it’s breaking new ground with a waitlist filled up until spring, two incredible teachers passing on their knowledge to budding student-athletes, and the opportunity to learn something that for some can be a life-long hobby.

Rock Climbing: a solo sport with remarkable camaraderie

Rock climbing, on the other hand, has looked similar over the years. Fourteen student climbers head to Sanctuary Rock Gym in Seaside three times a week, where they go indoor bouldering. With no rope to be attached to, the climbers look at each climb like a “project.” The “free soloist” does their best for the project at hand while the other climbers cheer them on. This is the epitome of outdoor education sports at Stevenson: you strive to succeed alone, but your peers support you and cheer you on.

Sophomore Henry Parker shows his incredible grip strength as he analyzes his climb trajectory

Merigliano says, “Everybody in a climbing gym has this open, friendly demeanor where you can strike up a conversation with everybody, you can learn from people, and a lot of times it’s not uncommon to go up to a person you don’t know and ask, ‘Hey I saw you climbing this route over there and I’ve been struggling with it. Can you show me what you did to get past it?’ It’s an awesome camaraderie that exists within this ‘solo’ sport.” He explains why the sport has risen in popularity over the years, not just at Stevenson but around the world. In 2020, climbing made its debut at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. “I think that’s why a lot of people are drawn to it: it’s part social, part physical, and part problem solving.”

Sophomore AJ Rogers inverts his world, climbing upside-down on a bouldering wall

Sophomore Henry Parker has climbed since he was a kid and to the other students, he is a fantastic mentor when they are challenged with hard routes. He says, “It’s less about teamwork but the team environment is still very strong. How well other people perform doesn’t affect your performance. It’s only positive team reinforcement; it’s all just rooting each other on and hoping everyone succeeds.” He explains that it is a great sport for people not interested in the typical interscholastic sports because it puts you out of your comfort zone while still being able to have attainable goals. In short, he says, “It can lead to lots of interesting opportunities and it can provide an outlet for someone who doesn’t necessarily like conventional sports.”

Outdoor Education sports are hidden gems

If you were to go to your Pirate Page right now and look up the “Athletics” section highlighted in a small box on the top, you would have to go through multiple other smaller boxes to find the dedicated section for Stevenson’s Outdoor Education Sports. So why are only few lucky enough to participate in KSUP, surfing, and rock climbing while it remains tucked away in a busy, interscholastic-sports-heavy catalog?

Merigiliano knows the answer: “Interscholastic sports are incredibly team-based and in my opinion, incredibly skill-based. A lot of times you get paired with people who are on a similar skill level and people are vying to push themselves further and further which promotes teamwork and promotes self-development. Outdoor ed has very similar values and promotes similar things, but in a different way. There is a lot more overlap and barrier breaking between people of different skill levels and also in that same regard, people of different grade levels. A lot of times varsity and JV are delineated by your grade. We have people who have never touched a surfboard or people who are lifelong water children in the same space, conversing, communicating, and fostering a shared passion.”

If the drawback to outdoor education sports is the lack of competition and high stakes, the benefit is that the small number of students allows for better teamwork, better support, and more continuous engagement — and fun. On the kayaking trip, for instance, this is all that meets the eye, and many people envy that kind of connection that you really can’t get anywhere else on campus.

In short, Stevenson students are given the choice to participate in either interscholastic sports or outdoor ed sports and you can’t go wrong with either. It ultimately comes down to the individual’s personal preference, how they like to spend their time, and what passion they want to further pursue.


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