Maddie Peterson is no stranger to making sacrifices to pursue her passion.
The 14-year-old Wildwood Crest surfer has to be home-schooled and travel six months out of the year to California or Florida to have a chance at fulfillung her dream of a professional career.
"Ever since I first started surfing, I was hooked," Peterson said in a phone interview last week. "It's an addiction."
That addiction is starting to pay off as she was named this month to the PacSun 2012-13 USA Surf Team. She will train with 20 other boys and girls surfers age 17 or younger and eventually have an opportunity to earn a spot in international competition.
"It really hasn't hit me yet. I'm still taking it all in," Peterson said. "It's such an honor and I am so excited."
Peterson made the team after finishing fourth at last month's Surfing America USA Championships at Casa Romantica in San Clemente, Calif.
She is the first New Jersey resident to earn a spot on the PacSun team. She's also one of only five surfers on the team not from California and one of just two from a northern state.
"As a dad, it's a very emotional and proud moment," Peterson's father, Jamie, said in a phone interview last week. "Her two goals were to make the (PacSun) team and to go to the (USA Championship) finals. When you watch your daughter chase her dream and achieve it, there is nothing greater."
Maddie Peterson started surfing when she was 3 after visiting Ocean Outfitters, a surf shop in Wildwood Crest that is owned by the father of her best friend, Julia Walden.
"Everyone thought Julia would be the surfer because of her dad (Jeff)," Peterson said. "Turns out, it was me who would end up the surfer."
'Living with' N.J. waves
Winters in New Jersey can be tough on surfers, so most aspiring competitiors move to warmer climates to surf year-round. But, early in her career and before she started competing, Peterson had to put on a head-to-toe wetsuit in the winter and paddle out into frigid water.
"Surfing in the winter is difficult (in New Jersey). Some people can't even do it," Peterson said. "(Wildwood Crest) is my hometown, and I have to live with it."
At 10, Peterson started surfing competitively and struggled to balance school and traveling.
Peterson tried to go to Crest Memorial School in fifth grade, but because she frequently missed school, she started an online home-schooling program from grades 6-8. She plans to continue online for her freshman year of high school this fall.
"It helps a whole bunch being home-schooled," Peterson said. "In order to surf, whatever school I attended had to work with me so I could achieve my goals, and it wasn't working."
For the past four years, Peterson has surfed competitively in some of the best waters a surfer could desire.
She came in second twice in the under-16 and under-18 divisions at the 2011 Western Surfing Association Gatorade Tour Series in Huntington Beach, Calif., when she was only 13.
She was the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Open Girls Northeast champion in 2010 and 2011. She was also the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA) Girls Northeast champion and NSSA Open Girls East Coast champion in 2011.
While most would think being a New Jersey surfer would put them at a disadvantage, Peterson embraced the challenge and used waist-high waves to excel.
"I want (to surf) bigger waves," she said. "But it's an advantage (surfing waist-high waves) because if you know how to surf smaller waves, something most California kids don't know, you can surf the bigger ones."
Peterson's fourth-place finish at the Surfing America USA Championships attracted the attention of retired professional and first-year PacSun head coach Ryan Simmons.
"She could have contended for the title had it not been for an interference call," Simmons, 38, said in a phone interview last week. "I picked her because she is surfing really well and has improved tenfold since last summer."
Simmons retired from surfing in 2004 at the age of 29 and started working as an announcer at professional and amateur events around California. He also taught private surfing lessons for a few years.
He has watched Peterson's progress over the past year and was impressed by her wave selection and her rail technique - an advanced way to use the rail of the surfboard that typically only elite surfers can do.
"Most kids her age don't understand that technique," said Simmons, a resident of Costa Mesa, Calif. "Being able to do that means that she surfs technically really advanced."
Busy schedule ahead
Next March, two of the four girls from the PacSun team will go to the 2013 International Surfing Association World Junior Games in Nicaragua. Peterson will have to fight for a spot on that team.
"We will train with the existing team and scrimmage through out the year," Simmons said. "There will be workouts and possibly camps until about March."
Peterson's main sponsor used to be Billabong, but the young surfer recently signed with UnderArmor, making her the first surfer to be signed by the apparel company.
"They are one of the biggest companies," Peterson said, bubbling with excitement. "Everyone knows who UnderArmor is. They even made me a bathing suit in, like, a week, and they are working on a wetsuit as well."
Peterson has an exciting summer ahead of her that starts Monday when she leaves for the Philippines to work in an orphanage on a mission trip.
Then she will leave in early August for U.S. team training. Next, she will go to the Rip Curl Grom Search in North Carolina in mid-August and then the East Coast Surfing Championship Women's Pro in Virginia Beach, Va., toward the end of August.
In September, she'll finally be in more familiar waters - at the Belmar Pro in New Jersey.
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