SEASIDE — Local surfing and martial arts instructor Tony Gardner believes there is something restorative about being out in the ocean that is abstract yet actual.
“It’s very therapeutic, being out there with the sun and the waves,” said Gardner, a Seaside native and founder of the Art of Surfing. “It’s a transformative experience and it brings peace.”
That sensation can be hard to define – surfers just call it “stoked,” he said – but giving veterans a chance to experience it is the goal behind his inaugural Veteran Surf Day event, scheduled May 22, over Memorial Day weekend. He is offering free surfing lessons to about 20 veterans, and Josh Gizdavich, owner of Cleanline Surf Shop, is donating surfboards and gear.
Together, the men hope to give veterans an opportunity to take a break from overwhelming emotions that may be triggered by Memorial Day observances and focus instead on the water. Participants also can interact with other military members in a community setting and, perhaps, find comfort and enjoyment by swapping stories and sharing an experience.
“I want to help them find health and healing, and I think the ocean does that,” Gardner said. “I think their participation would be healing, both physically and mentally.”
Teaching veterans to surf has been a way to help them overcome their challenges and to focus on their abilities, not their disabilities, Gardner said. It often is accompanied with a sense of achievement and improved self-esteem, he added. He plans to make Veteran Surf Day an annual event.
“If I can just help one veteran ... or one veteran can receive some relief from what they’re going through, then I’ve accomplished something,” he said.
Other upcoming events
Gardner also will be holding Grom Day on June 20 and a Family Surf Day on June 26. Grom is slang for a young surfer, and on Grom Day, Gardner will give free instructions for children as old as 16. This is the second year he’s offered the event. His desire is to help children experience nature and sojourn away from the “technology-satured” culture for a day.
“You can still have fun outside without a screen in front of you,” he said.
As for Family Day, he encourages families to share a hobby, and surfing is one option. His definition of family is as simple as “at least one parent and a child.” Instructions are free both days, and Cleanline is again donating equipment.
“Sometimes it’s hard for parents to pay for lessons and gear, so this is a nice opportunity for them to try it and see how they like it,” Gardner said.
The learning process
Teaching has played a large role in Gardner’s life for many decades. He has taught martial arts for more than 40 years, both informally to friends and formally through classes. He became a mixed martial arts black belt in 1976 and now is a seventh-degree black belt. He has experience with jeet kun do, taekwondo, modern arnis, kajukenbo, wun hop kuen do, judo, karate, kendo and siu pak pai kung fu.
His martial arts experience is tied to his appreciation of Japanese language and culture as a whole. He was immersed in both as a student in Japan starting in 1989. He was originally intrigued by Japanese language and culture, though, when he saw a white writing exhibit by Mark Tobey at the Asian Art Museum located inside Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. He was 7 at the time. That experience was followed up by him attending a few of martial artist and film star Bruce Lee’s jeet kune do classes, as Gardner’s uncle was a student of Lee’s at the time.
“That really started me, drew me in, pulled me in,” he said. “It’s like gravity.”
After obtaining an associate of science degree from Portland Community College, he went to Japan, where he taught English and got an associate of Japanese language degree in Nagasaki in 1991. While living there, he developed an appreciation for several aspects of Japanese culture, from the residents’ sense of unity and ability to work together harmoniously to achieve a goal, to their emphasis on mental focus, determination and meditation.
After returning to the states in 1991, he taught Japanese at Clatsop Community College and also gave private Japanese instruction in Cannon Beach for about three years starting in 2002. He got a bachelor of arts degree with a focus on Japanese language from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., in 1998 and then went to Maui, where he taught a mathematics at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao.
He has taught surfing since 1985, when he was Seaside’s head lifeguard on the beach. He continued teaching professionally after school and on weekends when he was in Maui. In 2002, he took his teaching to the next level by establishing Art of Surfing, his own surfing school that offers lessons year-round.
Gardner incorporates several of the techniques and principles he acquired from practicing martial arts into the way he teaches surfing, and that gives his methods a distinction, he said. He lays a foundation for students that contains similar principles, such as flexibility, balance and a specific type of strength. He believes it’s important to be patient and take time laying a strong foundation, so students know the answers to basic questions about movement and body mechanics, such as why, how and when. From there, he introduces techniques, takes the students through gradient steps and helps them work through problems as they practice their skills.
“When you put all these things together, after a few years, there’s a flow,” he said. “You’re not thinking, you’re reacting.”
He works with all level of students for surfing, from beginners to advanced learners. He also teaches martial arts classes at the Mary Blake Playhouse. His philosophy is that “as a teacher, you’ve got to be in love with what you do,” and he is passionate about the learning process.
“I have this chance to introduce people to this wonderful world out there and introduce them to what they can do,” he said.
— Katherine Lacaze