Surfers are constantly in pursuit of the perfect wave. Last month, Costa Rican surfer Craig “Tequila” Schieber rode a near perfect one at Punta Roca, El Salvador, to win a world title at the 2011 International Surfing Association World Masters Surfing Championship, Oct. 16-23 (TT, Oct. 24).
Schieber spotted the wave he wanted to ride during the competition finals.
“I had to practically rip off my arms and use them like oars to catch that wave,” he said.
Schieber’s gold medal win in the Grand Kahuna division, for surfers age 50 and up, not only was a personal triumph, but also gave Costa Rica its first gold medal in surfing.
“To win on this level was pretty amazing,” Schieber said. “And the effort and the amount of people that were there was incredible.”
The 50-year-old surfer has the bronzed, lean physique of a man who has spent his life in the water. A self-described “fish,” he grew up in Newport Beach, California, and started body surfing at age 6, progressing to surfing three years later. He was instantly hooked. During his long surfing career, Schieber has competed in youth competitions, was a member of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) surf team and participated in the pro tour.
For Schieber, surfing in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early ’70s was not without its problems. Los Angeles faced serious smog issues during the decade leading up to the passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act in 1970. Schieber recalls returning home wheezing, his body covered in rashes, after a day of surfing.
Those experiences revolutionized the surfer into an environmental activist. “Anything that touches the ocean or jungle, I’m against it,” he said.
Schieber strongly believes surfers need to be representatives of the oceans they use, to ensure they stay “clean and green.”
“I think we have something super special in Costa Rica,” he said. “The government should be working together with international environmental protection agencies before they allow projects that could affect the national parks to move ahead. It’s hypocritical to sell this country on how green it is when the government doesn’t think about preservation.”
Schieber first came to Costa Rica in the late 1980s. After graduating from UCSD with a degree in biochemistry, he landed an environmental chemistry job that afforded him the occasional month off. Having heard glowing reviews about the country and its surf, he decided to check out Costa Rica. Upon arriving in San José, he made two phone calls. The first was to a friend on the Pacific coast, who told Schieber the waves that day were flat. Then, he called another friend on the Caribbean coast, who reported the waves were almost too big to paddle through. Schieber made a beeline for the Caribbean.
After that first visit, he returned to Costa Rica many times to surf and learn about the country and its culture. He later married a Tica and became a naturalized Costa Rican citizen. Although Schieber catches waves all over the country, he’s chosen Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast, as his home.
“When the waves are good here [in Puerto Viejo], it’s comparable to Hawaii,” he said. “They make me feel the same as all my vacations when I was younger and didn’t have any money and would run to Hawaii.”
Schieber added that for him, the two perfect waves are Puerto Viejo’s Salsa Brava and Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii.
As for his nickname, “Tequila,” Schieber said he earned it from his “medicinal” use of the alcohol. As an 18-year-old traveling in Mexico, he heard from friends that a shot of tequila following meals at roadside stands would kill any bacteria.
“I adopted a shot of tequila as medicine for a stomachache and also recommended it to people,” Schieber said. “It works.”
A fellow surfer gave him the nickname, and it stuck. And as many Ticos had a hard time pronouncing his first name, “Tequila” was easier anyway, he said.
Schieber said he hopes his world championship win will inspire other Costa Rican surfers.
“The surfing community here is huge, and the abilities of the new generation are incredible,” he noted.
Schieber commented that Latin American surfers are often negatively viewed within the surfing community for being aggressive during competitions. He hopes his fellow Costa Rican surfers can change this aggressiveness in the water and not just surf to win, but be gracious and good sports. He said many of the younger surfers he has taken to contests, surfed with and watched develop over the years have enough talent to win gold medals.
In a couple of days, the laid-back surfer will turn 51. Although he suffers from a nagging shoulder injury and a few other aches and pains, he is in no hurry to quit the sport, or competing. He trains constantly, rising before dawn and driving for hours in search of the best breaks. And since he won his gold medal, other surfers want to see him in the water, he said.
“I’m in the twilight of my career,” Schieber said. “But I’ll surf until I’m 70 if I can.”