This story originally ran in our 2015 Graduation Issue. To purchase a copy of the issue, which includes a list of this year’s Nikkei high school and college graduates, please stop by our office or call us at 213-629-2231.
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
She was fully participating in the interview, but Sara Kohrogi’s eyes were firmly fixed on the waves during the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s National Interscholastic Championships, taking place last Saturday in Dana Point.
“Where they sit tells you a lot about where you need to go,” she explained, watching intently where the other surfers were sitting, so she would know where to place herself in the water. “You need to watch for about 30 minutes to get a good read.”
The 18-year-old senior from Mira Costa High School knows a thing or two about catching a good wave, but what sets her apart is how quickly she learned as much as she knows. Kohrogi began surfing during her freshman year, and within just over a year and a half, she was hoisting the CIF State Champion’s trophy.
“I think that’s because I really surfed a lot,” she said. “I had a coach who really taught me a lot about how contests work and everything else I needed to know.”
The young champion has also surfed in Hawaii, Japan, and even in Nicaragua, during a school excursion.
Kohrogi’s path from complete novice to state champion began in a way that for many would be a spirit-crushing discovery. Born into an athletic family and harboring a love of competitive sport, young Sara played F.O.R. basketball and baseball – not softball, mind you, but baseball with the boys.
“I played baseball mainly because I hated the big ball in softball. I wanted to be a pitcher, but I didn’t want to pitch underhanded,” she remembered. “Of course, my dad is a baseball guy. There’s a number of reasons I played with the boys, but when they got too big, I quit.”
By the time she reached high school, her chosen sport was golf, and she was showing great promise, but not without a great deal of pain. A physical exam revealed that she had developed scoliosis, an exaggerated sideways curvature of the spine. Her condition meant that any sports that put intense pressure on her back were out of the question.
“I was forced to quit any land sport that involves running or impact or torquing,” Kohrogi said. “They suggested swimming, because it was in the water with less impact, more symmetrical, but not making things worse. I didn’t want to do that. I’m super competitive and swimming sounded boring. As a kid, I played every sport there is, and having to quit was a huge loss.”
Kohrogi was introduced to baseball by her father, Acey, who at the time was an executive for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was key in helping stars Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii and many other Asian players acclimate to Southern California. Sara’s mother, Susan, is the daughter of Ike Ikuhara, the trusted assistant to former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, and the man whose efforts to bridge Japanese and American baseball landed him in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was Acey who suggested to his crestfallen daughter that surfing might be an acceptable change. Born in a coastal town on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, he had grown up surfing in Hawaii.
“My dad would take me out into the water maybe once a year, but I never surfed,” she explained. “If we went to Hawaii, he would push me around on the foam board, it was never a big thing in my life.
“It was one of the only sports I was going to be allowed to do. I loved skateboarding and snowboarding, and surfing is challenging, so I fell in love with it.”
Mira Costa surfing coach Tracy Gellar said Kohrogi’s athleticism was what made her a natural to take to the waves.
“She came in with skills,” Gellar said. “Even when she wasn’t good, she was still good. Some people start at different levels, and she’s definitely an athlete.”
For many, surfing might not come to mind as a competitive sport. The enduring, iconic ideal of the sandy-haired beach dude lounging at the shore eyeballing the bikinis as well as the waves is a difficult image to counter.
“I think it’s starting to become more of a serious sport, more than laid-back fun,” Kohrogi said. “We have a lot of surfers who are focused on school as much as training, and they’re getting better and better, more mainstream.”
Unlike track, mostly based on running, surfing is not instinctive. The learning curve for surfing is more complex.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about her. She took to it right away,” Geller said. “Some people have to put in a lot of work to get better, but she made huge gains quickly. Sara’s smart, she’s a real student of the sport. If you want to get good at anything, you need to study it and learn how to get better. You don’t just show up one day and surf.”
Kohrogi is quite the real student, indeed, on or off a surfboard. She graduated Thursday from Mira Costa at the top of her class. The straight-A valedictorian was involved with student government and other activities, and said her toughest courses were her favorite – because of the challenge.
“I really hated physics,” she admitted. “But I enjoyed it for that reason, because it was hard.”
Susan Kohrogi joked that her daughter excels in many things, but neither keeping her room clean nor washing dishes are among her strengths.
“She’s been consistently good since she was born at just about anything she wants to do,” Susan said. “It’s her nature, she was born with it, a zest for life, that’s what I’ve noticed.”
This fall, Sara will head to UC Berkeley, where she plans to major in business. She said she’ll likely make a habit of heading south to Santa Cruz to catch some good waves, as Berkeley has no surfing team. For a young woman who seems to make a habit of overcoming obstacles, the lack of a team might simply be another challenge.
“Maybe I’ll start one,” she quipped.