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Wave of change ahead for USA Surfing

Orange County Register logo Orange County Register 1/21/2022 Laylan Connelly, The Orange County Register

A new CEO will take the helm at USA Surfing, the San Clemente nonprofit that took the country’s first crop of Olympic athletes to compete in the sport’s debut in the Tokyo Games, where they nabbed the first-ever women’s gold.

Meanwhile, USA Surfing has split with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee as the national governing body for Olympic surfing for the non-Olympic year, a news announcement said, a decision mutually agreed upon by both parties.

Greg Cruse, who has led USA Surfing for years and helped create the pathway for young athletes to fine-tune their competition skills, said he will still stay involved with the organization to help groom up-and-coming surfers as he has for decade.

“It has a fantastic foundation that can be built on now,” Cruse said of USA Surfing. “I still want to be involved, but can’t keep up this pace of going and grinding and always worried about the financial side of things.”

Coming aboard as USA Surfing’s new interim CEO is Brandon Lowery, described in an announcement as a “pioneer in the surf and action sport industry.”

Lowery, who currently lives in Encinitas, is originally from North Carolina and then lived in Australia for 13 years before transplanting to Southern California four years ago.

He grew up skateboarding and surfing, but also excelled at traditional sports such as tennis and soccer. He was en route to join the U.S. development team for soccer and had a full-ride scholarship when he broke his leg at a skatepark, sending him on a different path and into action sports.

“That was a tricky time, but it was good for me,” he said.

With a background in economics and finance, he helped launch a series of wave pools abroad and is a partner at the popular BSR wave pool in Waco, Texas. He’s also involved with the firm California Skateparks, helping to design and build parks around the world.

Lowery’s connection in and out of action sports made him an ideal candidate to lead USA Surfing, said Cruse, of San Clemente, who helped hand-pick his replacement.

“Brandon is super connected. The missing piece to all of this the past 12 years has just been money,” Cruse said. “We always managed to have enough to get by, to do what we needed to do. I think Brandon, with his connections and experience, is the right fit.”

Lowery previously helped set up a three-day training session at the BSR wave pool in Texas for the Olympic athletes and helped curate the athlete recovery house in Japan.

“I’m just lucky to have some long lasting and strong relationships within the industry and the non-endemic industry,” Lowery said. “It’s an honor for Greg and the board to allow me to come in and build upon what they established. I’m deeply grateful.”

While he hopes to bring in more capital resources, Lowery also wants to put his focus on the athletes – from the young up-and-comers to the elite-level pros heading to the 2024 Olympics –  to have a pipeline that will support their careers and build community and culture, he said.

“That’s the mission,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward.”

A statement from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee indicated USA Surfing will not be taking athletes to 2024, instead the Olympic committee plans on folding the sport under its organization.

“The USOPC will assume management of the Olympic High Performance Program for surfing with the financial and operational support for elite athletes remaining the same,” a statement said. “The USOPC is proud of Team USA surfing athletes and looks forward to supporting them in the lead up to Paris 2024.”

USA Surfing remains the recognized governing body under the International Surfing Association, the surfing’s world governing authority as recognized by the International Olympic Committee, Lowery said.

“This isn’t an Olympic year,” he said. “We have an exceptionally strong relationship with ISA and we will continue to comply with USOPC guidelines. But it gives us an opportunity to focus on what USA Surfing does best, focus on the USA’s top talent.

“We just want to focus and double down on the USA Surfing infrastructure, staff, partnerships,” Lowery said. “We still have a strong relationship with USOPC to prepare athletes for the Olympic and Paralympic games.”

The last few years, USA Surfing has been focused mostly on getting to the Olympics, with much time and energy spent on the “elite of the elite,” he said.

“It’s a good opportunity to focus back on the young talent,” Lowery said. “It just gives us time to catch our breath, focus back on the community and youth … it seems responsible, it feels good.”

In addition to beefing up its development programs and raising money for more resources, Lowery said he hopes to hold more contests throughout the country for young athletes and expand the adaptive surfing program. USA Surfing’s adaptive team just won gold at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship a few months ago, with nine American surfers making the podium.

“Working with Greg Cruse over the course of the last 18 years has been one of the greatest honors of my career. His drive and dedication to surfing has gone far beyond just the Olympics,” Christian “Otter” Bailey, captain of USA Surfing’s Para Surfing team, said in a statement. “What he has built for the next generation and through all of surfing’s many styles – adaptive, shortboard, longboard and SUP – is the stuff of legend.”

Lowery will work with Cruse to strengthen the Toyota USA Surfing Prime Series, which has helped a generation of World Surf League pro surfers hone their competitive skills, including America’s first Olympians Kolohe Andino and Caroline Marks, both who qualified for the World Surf League while still competing in the Prime Series.

“It has been a personal and professional privilege to support a generation of surfers who started in USA Surfing’s Prime Series and are now competing at the highest levels of sport,” Cruse said.

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Cruse, 63, reflected back when he started with Surfing America Prime, as USA Surfing was once known, back in 2008, and before that, running the Western Surfing Association. Back then, there was only one female competitor in the program.

These days, there’s a crop of young rippers vying to become the world’s best, including several from Orange County.

One of Lowery’s goals is to “reimagine relationships,” he said, to bring in cultural aspects of surfing such as music and art, and to find sponsorships both in and out of the surf community.

“I think it’s a rad opportunity to use a megaphone to tell the world about (surfing) and empower people who are passionate about the sport,” he said.

But in moving ahead, it’s also important to reflect on those who built the organization into what it is today, he said.

“I think it’s really important that nobody forgets that Greg and USA Surfing’s staff captured the first gold medal,” he said. “Greg was the leader for that, that’s in the history books forever.”

Staff Writer Scott Reid contributed to this story.


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