Beyond an artist haven, Laguna Beach is a nursery for an active youth culture committed to life outdoors.
By Frances Nguyen
A recent study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research suggests Laguna Beach is ranked lowest in Orange County for child obesity. It comes as no surprise: The city offers its youth the best in outdoor recreation, from mountain biking to skating, surfing and skimboarding, right at their doorstep. Here, we take a look at Laguna’s youth, their outdoor upbringing and how the city has fostered a fit lifestyle for its future.
The city’s diverse landscape gifts residents with a playground that extends from the canyon to the ocean. “It’s an open canvas,” says Scott Finn, Laguna Beach High School’s surf team coach and physical education teacher. Laguna’s natural beauty offers endless inspiration: The canyon is veined with hiking and mountain bike trails, the streets are prime for skateboarding and the beach allows for virtually any aquatic activity.
Wyatt Gibbs, 16, is a passionate downhill skateboarder (or “speedboarder”) and makes the most of Laguna’s inclines. He dedicates ample time to cultivating his craft and projecting a responsible image of the sport. But when Wyatt isn’t tempering the tangle of streets, he can be found at the beach. Lagunans, amphibious in lifestyle, rarely confine themselves to one outdoor activity. Why would they, when there’s a salad bar of choice activities both on land and in the water? Of the abundance, Wyatt says, “The hills are shaped perfectly for downhill skateboarding. We have plenty of beaches and coves. We have mountain biking trails. We don’t get any snow in Laguna, but if we did it’d probably be great for snowboarding too.”
James Karas, 17, is an ocean lover who often takes to higher ground. “If it’s too cold [at the beach] or if I want to take a different approach, I can go hiking in the canyon or ride my bike through miles of beautiful trails and just let the day slide by,” he says. What’s more, the generous Southern California weather allows year-round activity.
Skimboarders Alexandra Badie, 16, and Blair Conklin, 17, can be found out on the beach, in the early hours of the morning at any time of year. “I’ll get up at 5 a.m. to skim, I enjoy it so much,” Blair says. “The conditions [for skimboarding] here are just exceptional compared to anywhere else.” That’s certainly why Alexandra, who lives in Pasadena but has a family home in Laguna, makes the drive every weekend. “Friday nights, I get home from basketball, I shower and I’m in the car, because I want to be on the beach first thing in the morning on Saturday,” Alexandra says. “You will not see me up at 5 in the morning on any other day of the week!” And they’re not left wanting for beaches to practice. Blair explains, “Laguna is really convenient for skimboarding because there are a variety of places to skim, not just one.” With a seven-mile expanse of coastline and 7,000 acres of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park at its back, Laguna Beach appears as a world within a world, concentrated in approximately nine square miles.
The opportunity of multiple outdoor outlets within arm’s reach can be attributed to something most other cities don’t have: access. Blair explains, “Here in Laguna, we’re active because we have access to so many things: the ocean, the gyms, the parks.” The kids have a myriad of options to occupy themselves, and with no extended effort needed to travel to them.
“The beach is right there. I believe it’s in walking distance of anywhere in Laguna. Just go down to the beach and swim,” Wyatt says. Laguna kids can count these unique activities rarely available to those living further inland as after-school hobbies.
“They have the opportunity to get dropped off at the beach to surf, skim or bodysurf all day,” Scott says. Bret Fleming, the varsity boys basketball coach at the high school and fellow physical education teacher, adds, “For a lot of kids, after school they surf, skim or hang out at the beach, and then come home, eat and do homework.”
Jake Dalke, 17, plays for the high school’s varsity boys basketball team and is also one of Laguna’s few spearfishermen. After practice he can be found out in the water surfing or diving. “I honestly don’t know what I’d do without the beach,” he says.
Perhaps it’s Bret who says it best: “It gives them something to do.” In a town void of a large movie theater or shopping mall, the outdoors becomes a social space. James comments, “There are very few indoor activities in Laguna, so when we want to have fun, we go to the beach.” The beach offers itself as active recreation, without the need to drive or spend money. It’s also an effective meeting place. “In the summertime … you think, ‘Well, my friends are at the beach, so I’ll go to the beach,’ ” Jake says. “And then you fall in love, and it becomes your religion.”
It hardly suffices to sit in the sand for hours; they’re swimming, surfing, skimboarding or paddleboarding. It not only staves off boredom but provides an outlet to expend energy in a fun and safe environment. Of this healthy alternative to otherwise unsafe occupations, Bret explains, “If the kids know that they have another avenue to entertain themselves, then they gravitate towards that. I think most would rather do something that’s active and fun than sit around drinking.”
Laguna Beach encourages fitness through its athletic programs, schools and neighborhoods. Marlee Grosher, 16, is a multitalented athlete who started competing in the Southern California Municipal Athletic Federation track and field program at age 6, was recruited for The Southern California Blues Soccer Club at 7, and now skateboards, surfs and paddleboards on a daily basis. Her athletic endeavors began via community programs. “If [these] weren’t made available, and if parent volunteers weren’t so committed to the young people in this town, Marlee might never have had the chance to participate in these sports,” her father Mark says.
Outside of structured programs, kids easily find active role models. Marlee credits discovering many of her passions through her neighbors. “My friend’s mom taught me how to surf. After that I got a surfboard from a neighbor and went out surfing every day,” she says. Shortly after, a fellow surfer introduced her to SUP, and she is now an instructor at the Stand Up Paddleboard Company (SUPCO).
Marlee isn’t the only kid that has found a helping hand nearby: Jake’s spearfishing mentor is sponsored waterman Austin Derry, who lives up the road from him. And Laguna local Evren Ozan, a competitive speedboarder, helped Wyatt get started in the sport. “I like to take some of the younger kids and teach them what I know because I was taught what I know from older guys,” Wyatt says. Fabiana Badie, Alexandra’s mother, elaborates, “You see how the old guard helps the younger generation.” Alexandra is not exempt from local mentorship. “(Professional skimboarder) Morgan Just has been helping me with my skimboarding,” she says. “It’s such an open community like that.”
The most proactive influence, however, is school. “One of the biggest things is that the school promotes the beach,” Jake says. “They’re not saying, ‘Go home; go on the computer’—they’re saying, ‘Go out; go to the beach.’ ” In most districts, that might not be a message the administration would send to its student body, but in Laguna, the opportunity is there to make the outdoors a positive tool. Scott has been in physical education in Laguna Beach for 11 years (five years at Thurston Middle School and six at LBHS), and of the programs he says, “The fitness and wellness programs at the high school and the P.E. programs at the middle school are very innovative. … [Kids] get a well-rounded (physical) education by the time they pass 12th grade, and hopefully they build their lives around that activity.”
Although Laguna’s community members and schools aid in fostering an active culture, the most enduring influences are found at home. Parents here enable their children to engage in active pursuits, some, by leading as examples. Many of the kids have an athletic lineage. Jake’s father was a professional surfer who introduced him to surfing and, as Jake describes, “He just threw me outdoors.”
Wyatt is from solid skateboarding stock; he watched his father skateboard at home, and his grandfather was a local speedboarder “back in the day.” Alexandra’s mother was one of the few female professional skateboarders in the 1970s. Even if the parents aren’t athletes themselves, being active is still a fundamental value that many families want their children to inherit. If they’re not teaching them, they’re supporting them. It’s a shared philosophy that permeates the entire community, so kids need not look far for active inspiration.
Laguna is singular not only in the many activities its landscape affords but also in how the community values and engages them. Beyond aesthetics, locals here are active as part of their lifestyle, and it is most evident in its youth. From every angle, the town’s love of the outdoors makes Laguna a place like none other in which to grow up. LBM