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By Robert Waldner
Portrait Photo by Kate Gardiner
Surf Photos by Cody Coleman and Asher Nolan
Competition surfing is a sport you have to experience for yourself to fully understand. Not only are athletes competing against other athletes, they’re also contending with weather and surf conditions which are out of their control. Ultimately, for a surfer to be truly competitive, they must learn to stay calm under pressure, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. It’s an individual sport that tests a surfer on a mental level, more so than many people would imagine. Jason Brownell, local surfer and father of two of St. Augustine’s most up-and-coming competitors, says it best, “There’s a lot of strategy and logic that a lot of non-surfers probably don’t realize.” What exactly does training time consist of for surfers? Surely it can’t be just about flying solo and catching waves in their own little box. There must be some interaction and collaboration between competitors, right?
Here in St. Augustine, two families, the Brownells and the Langes, have the answer to that question. Meet Evan (19) and Noah (15) Brownell and Eden (16) and Benji Lange (11) — four local youths who many people believe are the next wave of St. Augustine’s competitive surfing legacy. All four have been competing in the sport in their individual divisions and all of them win. However, the impact of their friendships may have more to do with their personal successes than anything.
“Paul Lange and I went to high school together,” says Debby Brownell, mother of Evan and Noah. “Eden and Noah have grown up surfing together and Benji has been in the mix since he’s been able to swim.” The bond between the Brownells and the Langes is undoubtedly one that has stood the test of time and continues into the next generation. “Watching our kids grow up together has been one of the greatest things about living in St. Augustine,” says Allison Lange. She and her husband Paul can attest to the fact that their kids forming such unbreakable bonds so early in life has made a big impact on how they are achieving their ambitious goals. “They have all traveled to Puerto Rico, Barbados, and California together. They are each other’s biggest cheerleaders and critics,” says Allison.
As the parents of the only girl between the two families, the Langes see the positive effects that essentially having three brothers has made on their daughter Eden. “Eden is one of the only girls in St. Augustine who surfs regularly, so she is used to being around Evan, Noah, and Benji, and having to hold her own around a bunch of boys,” says Allison. Both sets of siblings train with Surf Station team rider and personal trainer, Chris Ropero. “Training with Chris has been a huge asset to all of them because he is a surfer and a teacher who pushes them to be their best. Even when they are tired and frustrated, Chris instills in them that anything is possible if they don’t give up. He really does bring out the best in all of them,” says Allison.
With Evan being the oldest of the four, Debby and Jason Brownell have spent more than fifteen years with their toes in the sand of hundreds of beaches from coast to coast in support of their boys. “One of the things that makes me proud,” says Jason, “is when I’m watching my kids out there and I see them putting a beautiful wave together. That’s when you realize that they know what they are doing and all of the hard work they put in is paying off.” Evan has been putting the work in for three quarters of his life.
“I realized that surfing was more than just a hobby to me when I was around 8 years old. Two years later, I began competing,” he says. “I fell in love with it the first time I learned how to stand on my dad’s longboard when I was about 4 years old.” Now, with hundreds of surf competitions under his belt and numerous titles that have taken him all over the country and to different parts of the world, Evan has his sights set on his future. “I want to give back to the community because it has done so much for me. I recently received my Class A Surf Coach license and I’m going to school to become a personal trainer,” he says. “I want to work in the St. Augustine surfing community.”
As for younger brother Noah, he’s just having fun with the entire surfing experience. At 15, Noah knows that he has time to improve. “This year, I’m really focused on trying to get better. I am also focused on traveling a lot. Next year I’d like to turn my attention to the Junior Pros,” he says. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Noah has also made some impressive placings.
“My favorite competition moment was when I got fourth place at the East Coast Regionals when I was 14. It wasn’t first place, but it was a really tough competition and I was very happy with my performance.”
While Evan tends to be a bit harder on himself when he feels he hasn’t performed his best, Noah takes things a little more in stride. “I try to put my losses behind me,“ he says. “Surfing is very subjective. You can’t take every loss personally. Sometimes you get worked by the judges and sometimes you don’t surf your best. If I lose, I just try to move onto the next competition.” Growing up surfing together has taught the Brownell boys to build each other up. “Evan and I have always coached each other and worked to help each other get better,” says Noah.
The positive energy that the Brownell’s share between each other carries over to their relationship with the Langes. “Evan and Noah are like my big brothers,” says eleven-year-old Benji. “They always help me and give me advice. But in reality, they know I’m the best surfer!” he says laughing. Sixteen-year-old Eden takes the friendly competition to a level that only a member of the opposite sex could. “Surfing with Evan and Noah automatically makes me want to kick their butts,” she says. “But really we are like a big family. There’s a lot of love, but there is always a sense of competitiveness too. That’s what makes surfing with all the boys so much fun. There’s not a whole lot they can say when they know that I can surf just as well as they can.”
From the parents’ perspective, the relationship between the four surfers has been nothing short of inspiring. “Our two families have a forty plus year history together,” says Paul Lange, who started surfing around the same age as his boys did. “My hope is that these kids carry on the St. Augustine surfing tradition long after we are no longer able to.” With many of the same sponsorships and all of them being Surf Station Team Riders, The Brownells and Langes have had multiple opportunities to improve their performances by working together. “Both Benji and Eden ride for Hurley, Channel Island Surfboards, and The Surf Station,” says Allison.
With multiple titles and high placings between all four of them, perhaps the most important achievements the kids have made are associated with their character. “For Paul and I, witnessing our kids’ good sportsmanship, camaraderie, and great attitude toward others makes us the most proud,” says Allison. “They are always happy, positive, and kind. That is all we could ever ask. Contest results don’t define you, but your attitude sure does!”
Jason Brownell agrees. “Seeing that my kids know how to conduct themselves like adults when they are meeting with event organizers, judges, and other competitors makes me proud,” he says.
Perhaps the most powerful message comes from19-year-old Noah himself. “I want kids who are just getting into surfing to know that they should always be respectful of the older, more experienced surfers, to learn as much as they can, and to never be afraid to ask questions.”