CJ Nelson is Cultivating the Next Generation of Surfers

Photos courtesy etnies.

CJ Nelson is a lifer. And he’s on a mission to make the next generation of lifers, too.

Fifteen minutes of fame in surf careers might as well be 15 seconds. While a lucky few go on to make the big bucks with mega endorsements, signature gear, and flings with Pam Anderson (lookin’ at you, Slater), the majority of ripping surfers get kicked to the curb just as quickly as they make a splash. But what happens to the 25-year-old who was the hot shit five years ago? Sadly, many of ’em end up stuck in the shaping bay or delivering pizzas and downing six packs on their lunch breaks, rambling about how the industry doesn’t give a damn about them anymore. Washed up is better than never-was, though, right?

CJ Nelson is looking to change that. The lifelong longboarder, designer, entrepreneur, brand builder, and now mentor, is focused on bringing hope, longevity, and optimism to young surfers via his various industry contacts. As an etnies ambassador, CJ will be working alongside the brand to build a more sustainable and positive surf program that fosters long-term growth and a stronger sense of community. For starters, he’s spearheading a video contest where he’s picking the next etnies team rider and bringing them along for the ride. He’s not looking to add the next WSL tour champ and doesn’t care about Instagram followers or clout. Instead, he’s trying to prove to future generations that they don’t need to be Gabby Medina to belong in the industry or add value to surf culture—they just need to keep surfing, be rad, and play the game a little bit. Don’t blow it by being a drunk asshole. Work with brands, not against them. Focus on progression, style, and originality. And perhaps his greatest hope: a future where shaping bays are strictly voluntary.

First off, congrats on joining etnies. How’d that all come together?

When you’re a longboard surfer, you’re always pretty much given a series of letdowns forever. Nobody really wants to fuck with longboarders. That’s the way it’s always been. But when I was a kid, I loved the brand so much. I found out through a friend of mine that the brand manager Brian had bought a couple of my boards. I was like, “Oh, shit. The guy who runs etnies rides longboards. That’s crazy.” And then they sent me a message one day, like, “Hey, if you ever want some shoes…” I couldn’t believe it. I called a meeting with them, and we just hit it off. I know Brian super well now and he cares about longboard culture and surf history and the beach lifestyle and all the things I think are rad. So it’s rad to go through this.

I heard you weren’t going to be just another team rider, but you were going to help out with some of the community aspects of surfing. What’s your role going to be over there? What are you looking to build?

Well, I think they want me to help out with the vision. If you’re on the beaches of Southern California, like San O or Malibu, you can clearly see there’s something going on, as far as riding all sorts of boards and the kind of cool lifestyle that the kids are living. It’s something that I’m passionate about because I came from that scene. It’s not a competitive scene so it’s hard to say what it is, but you know it when you see it. I think etnies wants to be a part of that. And it’s something I want to be a part of. I’m going to help out by choosing some of those kids who they would potentially want to help out. And just coming up with ideas to create opportunities for people who are interested in that type of scene.

Yeah, it seems like that scene is always going to be around whether contests are or not. 

Yeah, the only problem with the scene in general is that there’s nothing really to it other than a good time. And that’s part of the romance of it all. But that’s always a bit bitter sweet and sad because I’ve watched kids already entering that scene thinking they’re gonna be the next Devon Howard or something. And then four years into it after they’ve maybe lost a few contests or burnt themselves out with drinking, they go into a shaping room and create a surfboard label because that’s pretty much the best you can do. And so you have 25 year old kids locking themselves into shaping bays and they’ll probably never leave, ya know. And I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. If that’s the best you can do, there’s a problem with the scene. I think it’s important for brands to step up and say, “Wait a minute, let me look at this a little differently.” Just because these kids might not be winning pro events doesn’t mean they’re not valuable and able to contribute to surf culture or make brands stronger to create assets and turn their scenes into a sort of business, you know?

Yeah, I think when you look at those guys who are a generation or two older, like Alex Knost or Jared Mell, those are guys who were really shaping a lot of surf culture, especially on the lifestyle side of things. And if they were just locked away in a shaping bay and not promoted, it would’ve been a bummer. I’m not sure the high performance contest winners are always shaping the culture around surfing these guys had. Somebody needs to support these kids who are creating an impact.

I agree. I think it gives hope. I commend etnies for realizing that this is so much bigger than us. We can lead by example by giving hope. I hope other brands look at this and say, “Sole Tech is doing this, and they’re stepping in. Maybe we should too.” They’re stepping in and helping me out, letting me design some shoes. That’s an opportunity I’ve dreamt of since I was 15, putting on my first pair of Natas signature etnies. It starts with me, but also, I’ve told them that I’m not going to feel okay unless I can bring someone with me. So we’re going to do a little online submission contest.

Tell me a little bit about that. So somebody gets to join the team with you?

Yeah, basically. Kids are going to be able to submit a clip via Instagram. Myself and one of the etnies riders—we’re not sure who yet, but it could be someone like [Chris] Joslin—will be the style judges. We’re looking for beautiful, traditional longboard surfing. Something original. They’ll get a one year deal with etnies, which will be renewable if it’s the right fit. And who knows where that relationship can go. I think that etnies is willing to help out a lot more kids. This is just the beginning. They could’ve easily gone and sponsored some rider on the circuit, but I think their heart’s in the right place. I think they’re approaching it in a way that isn’t typical from big brands in surfing these days.

I saw in another interview that you look towards the kids for inspiration in whatever you do, whether it’s surfing or shaping. What gives you hope about this next generation?

Well, for me, I’m 9 years sober. I missed a big part of my surfing life through just being kind of unconscious of it. But now I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m surfing better than ever. But I’m a longboarder, so that means I can go and go and be at the top of my game. But to stay inspired, I want to be around kids and that energy, like when Gonz brings the Krooked team to New York and skates with them for 3 weeks. That’s how I feel. I want to be around that young energy and be around the new shit. I think that Knost and Jared and that crew set a standard, and I think that generation below them was sort of helpless in a way. That generation right below them is the generation of kids that I see who already got burned out and went into shaping bays. Nobody stepped in and helped them. They just got fucked. But the generation below them, like the Ian Gottrons of the world, they’re the ones. I’m seeing surfing out of that group that I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen surfing that good since I moved in with Alex Knost in 2005 and thought, “Wow, I’m outdated. Surfing is changing in front of me.” I haven’t seen that again until this year.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I think they saw the other generation like Andy Nieblas. That generation, in my opinion, got screwed over. I think they may have seen that generation and learned a lesson from them. But I also think that with technology and more information, they seem more hopeful, more professional. Like, “We like to drink beers and all that, but we’re not gonna live and die by that.” I think there’s just more of a balance in this new generation for some reason. It’s very visible in the water, in their business acumen, and the way they represent themselves through social media. It’s just better.

For sure. I see it across everything. From surfing to skating to random college kids. Everyone is better. And maybe it’s because they’re so much more aware of what’s happening in other places of the world, so things progress way faster, even if it’s just style.

It’s true. And I think they’re looking at their own Instagram, thinking about how to best monetize it. They’re posting on Instagram anyway, so they think about how to best monetize it. Like, “If I’m going to post, I may as well make something good out of this and not just whatever.” Those are the kids where I think brands like etnies can look at and say, “We see value in that. Let’s step in.”

Back in the day you had to be good enough for somebody to point a camera at you, so it was rare to see yourself on film. But now everyone has a phone and can see how they look in the water. So they’re just more self conscious of it at an earlier stage as well.

Yeah, that’s totally true. And you know what else is interesting about this generation? They’re not in the jetstream of someone like Alex Knost. The generation that had to come right after Kelly [Slater] or be at the tail end of Kelly’s best surfing were essentially dust in the wind. But nowadays I see kids surfing and they don’t look like Alex anymore. They don’t surf like that. They don’t ride those boards. They’ve found other things to base their style on. It’s like it’s recovered. And god bless Alex. He’s one of my best friends and I love him so much. But it must be hard to have two generations of clones follow in your wake, you know? And do it bad, not even do it good, ya know? But now I feel like the kids are there and it’s original. It doesn’t look like anybody. It’s a combination of a bunch of things and it’s new and beautiful.

What’s your take on technology, especially when it comes to shaping and surfboards in general? The boards you shape seem to be pretty classic and you’re not going after any trendy asymm designs. 

I’m all about different technology. Like, that brand Crime is one of my brands. So I like soft boards. I like it all. I don’t personally like a lot of asymms and overly shaped shit. I just like classic lines. That’s what appeals to me. If you went in my house you would know that. But that’s just the way I like design. I like simple stuff. So it never turned me on. I don’t frown on it. Ryan Burch and some of those guys, I just love their shit so much. It’s not my shit, but I love watching it. But I love EPS, I love soft boards, I love all of it.

So basically whatever gets you on more waves is good in your eyes?

Hell yeah. Unlike other people in longboard surfing, I don’t think there’s one way to do it. If the average dude buys a ‘60s recreation, like a Bing Levitator, there’s a fucking five year learning curve on that thing. What a waste. Just give that guy a down rail 2+1, something lighter, something flatter, something that he can go out and fucking ride immediately, you know

Do you feel like most people out in the water are more accepting of that too now? It’s more inclusive?

I do. And you know what? You see that at the skatepark now too. I grew up at EMB, and it was no joke. I think it’s so beautiful that it’s not that way anymore. It can’t be that way. It was cool and we protected it. But just the other day I was at the beach and some guy parked a few cars down from me and I was with my buddy Paul. He was putting fins in his board and had a 2+1 longboard. He looked like a high school football player and he came up to me and said, “Hey, can I ask you a question? Did I put these fins in right?” And yeah, he put them in right, but he honestly didn’t know. I thought that was cool. I was thinking this guy doesn’t know and he’s comfortable enough to approach strangers to ask a simple question. That’s fucking awesome. I think it’s cliche as fuck, but it’s about fun. Not everyone needs to be cursed like I am and expect everything out of this thing that you ride. I’m kind of boxed in because the history of longboarding has put me there, but I don’t recommend that for anybody.

Sure, but you also grew up surfing in a different time. Now you’ve also got a bunch of people who just got into surfing because of Covid or whatever, and they might be 40 going out for the first time. It’s not like they’ve been doing it their whole life. They don’t know shit about the history or culture. They just think it looks fun.

Totally. And I think it’s so fucking cool that there are people who are never gonna know who Miki Dora is and they’re going to go their entire life surfing without knowing about any of the history. And that’s just fine. And Miki would probably be stoked on that, dude.

What’s your number one goal with etnies? What would you like to see change in the next five to ten years?

You know, I’m good with leading by example. With any opportunity I get, I try to be authentic and show how it’s done. And then to be able to grab a kid and show him like, “No, do it this way.” And then hopefully there’s another kid with opportunity. So I’m hoping to build a template so that this next generation can have opportunity and hopefully walk into one of these big brands with confidence and say, “No, I’m valuable. I don’t want a sticker and a tee shirt. Help me out so I can help you.” If I can lead by example and build this template and bring some kids with me, then I’m fulfilled.

Part of it is also about building the longevity too, right?

Yeah. Don’t get burned out at 25. And optimize it in a way that’s sustainable. Don’t let people down. Build the relationships. The only way you’re gonna get shoved into a shaping bay at 25 is because you’re not doing it right. It’s not that hard to do it right. It’s a lot harder to pick up a planar for the next 30 years than have the stickers on your board and be a nice guy and fulfill social media goals and have a career. You meet these kids who keep saying they’re not gonna sell out, but then they’re delivering pizzas. Then they’re alcoholics delivering pizzas, and they’re like, “But I didn’t sell out.” But actually you did sell out. You sold your dream out. Play the game a little bit. Give these brands a chance to help out and be a part of it and work with them.

What’s the number one way to kook it?

I think the number one way to kook it is to be not communicative and express your needs. I think communication is everything. If you feel a certain way and you’re working with people, it’s best to express that and work through the issues rather than walk away from them. People usually want to help. But I also think that kids will think, “I’m this, and I’m that. They’re just going to use me. I’m worth this…” Look at yourself in the mirror and really ask yourself what you’re truly worth and what your true value is. And then look at it through the perspective of somebody running a company. Keep that in mind. Chances are you think you’re really worth a lot and maybe you need to step up your game.

On the flip side, what are you looking for in this contest you’re running with etnies? What would get someone noticed? 

I like fundamentals. I think kids these days are so quick to force a bunch of style and flair, but they sometimes have no substance. I’m looking for good, clean, fundamentalist smooth longboard surfing on traditional longboards. When you get your fundamentals down pat and your cutbacks are seamless and your nose rides are effortless then you’re able to relax through all of those moves because muscle memory has taken over. And once muscle memory has taken over, then you’re just relaxed. And that’s when your style is born. So until you have all those things down, you’re just forcing style. So that’s what I’ll be looking for. To see if you’re relaxed.

Do you care if they have 100,000 instagram followers?

Not at all [laughs]. I won’t even fucking look at that. If the clip looks good, I’m in.

More info on CJ and etnies’ “Speed, Power, and Flow” video contest here.

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