Upon winning two divisions at the recent National Scholastic Surfing Association’s East Coast Championships, 9-year-old Ocean City surfer Cruz Dinofa happily posed for pictures and even signed a few autographs.
He didn’t do that when he first emerged as a surfing prodigy. It’s not that he didn’t want to, but at 3 years old, he was just learning how to spell his name.
“Cruz was surfing before he knew how to swim,” father Tim Dinofa said. “I made him wear a life vest every time I took him out.”
Cruz’s passion and talent for surfing paid off at the NSSA’s East Coast contest earlier this month in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
The third-grade student at Ocean City Primary School topped 15 other competitors to win the Open Mini Groms and Explorer Super Groms under-11 divisions. Those performances qualified him for the NSSA National Championships in Huntington Beach, California, June 26-July 3.
“It was such a fun time,” Cruz said. “There were some really good waves to surf, so that helped a lot. And I was with all my friends, so it wasn’t really stressful.”
Surfing runs in Cruz’s family.
Father Tim, 41, grew up in Somers Point and regularly surfed in Ocean City with standouts such as Matt Keenan, who is being inducted into the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame this summer.
Keenan, 44, serves as a mentor for Cruz, along with Ocean City professional surfer Rob Kelly.
“There’s never been anyone in the history of New Jersey surfing like Cruz,” Keenan said. “What he’s been able to accomplish as a 9-year-old is pretty cool. Plus, he’s a great little kid. He’s just your typical goofy, funny 9-year-old, except he’s super talented.”
Tim and his wife, Lauren, introduced daughters Lily, 16, and Meadow, 10, to surfing years ago. They still ride waves on occasion but decided to focus on other sports.
Cruz tried sports such as baseball and basketball but is a surfer at heart. That’s been the case since the day six years ago when Tim put him on Meadow’s board and let him ride his first wave at Seventh Street in Ocean City.
Kelly took notice.
He helped set up a sponsorship for Cruz with 7th Street Surf Shop in Ocean City. That led to sponsorships with Billabong, GoPro, Roberts Surfboards, Creatures of Leisure, Speaqua, Cor Surf and Playa Bowls.
“I remember watching him when he was 3, 4, 5 years old and was really impressed,” Kelly said. “He’s been crushing it for years.”
Tim and Lauren, who are both architectural photographers, have sought to develop his skills by renting a house in San Clemente, California, for January and February the past two years, so he can surf year-round. He is home-schooled during that time.
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That plan is not unusual for top young surfers.
“It enables us to keep surfing longer in the cold-weather months,” Tim Dinofa said. “I know surfers like Rob (Kelly) will surf up here no matter what, but that time of year is super bitter. You can stay out for a little while, but then your fingers and toes start to freeze and it’s so painful. In California, we can surf all day instead of for a half hour.”
Cruz became just the third local surfer to win two divisions in the East Coast Championships, joining Wildwood Crest native Maddie Peterson in 2013 and Linwood’s Seamus Carey in 2016. Cruz and Cape May’s Kyle Tester, who won the Open Explorer division in Florida, became the fifth and sixth local male surfers to win in at least the past 25 years, following Keenan (1986, 1995), Brigantine's Greg Fuller (1996), Kelly (2007) and Carey (2013).
Cruz first won the Explorer Super Grom final April 7 with a score of 11.67 that was based on his two best waves. Beckham McCart, of Indialantic, Florida, was second at 9.93. Later in the day, he took top honors in Open Mini Groms Under-11 with a 13.5 to finish ahead of McCart (9.63) and Vance Weyandt of Melbourne Beach, Florida (9.63).
At the end of the contest, Cruz received $150 as the winner of the “Caroline Marks Rookie of the Year” award. Marks, a 16-year-old from Melbourne Beach, Florida, is the top-ranked women’s surfer in the world.
“I’ve never come across anyone with that much talent at that age as Cruz,” Kelly said. “He’s already proven he can hold his own with anyone in the country in his age group. I’m really excited to see how his future unfolds. He’s special.”
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Later this year, he’ll be trying to join Keenan and Peterson as the only local surfers to win an NSSA national championship. Keenan won the Explorer Boys division in 1986 at age 12 and earned the Explorer Men’s title in 1995. Peters won the Varsity Women’s Division in 2013 while representing St. Augustine Prep.
According to Tim, the ultimate goal is to someday make the Olympic team. But for right now, having fun is the main reason Cruz surfs.
Just like when he caught his first wave.
“I don’t remember it, but I’ve seen the video,” Cruz said. “I was in that vest and my dad pushed me into the waves. I do remember that it was fun, though.”