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Santa Cruz Sentinel
January 15, 2006

Gwen Mickelson, In The Water: Irish surf champ drops into Santa Cruz

Even on a 65-degree January day in Santa Cruz, Elisha Hickey is happy to dress island-style in a tank top, Hawaiian print skirt and flip-flops.

But the teenage surfer-girl is from a different island than you might think. Hickey, 17, the junior women's Irish national surf champion, is used to much colder conditions in her native town of Strandhill in County Sligo in the northwest of Ireland.

"Our summer is colder than the winter here," said the young shortboarder with a laugh. The winters in Strandhill are rainy, dark and cold, with water temps reaching down into the 40s.

Hickey dropped into Santa Cruz for a monthlong stay in January to check out UC Santa Cruz, where she'd like eventually to do advanced studies in marine biology. She plans to enter the National University of Ireland, Galway, in September and study marine biology, with an emphasis on — oddly for a surfer — sharks.


"I think they're so graceful, and I have so much respect for them," said Hickey. "People say they're scary, but they're so misunderstood."

She hopes to link up with Sean Van Sommeran of the locally headquartered Pelagic Shark Research Foundation to talk shark research and maybe get a boat trip.

But also while she's here, she has of course tested the waters herself, starting in Capitola for a little longboarding. She plans to hit all the best surf breaks before she leaves.

In August, Hickey took first in the Irish Junior Nationals, an annual surf competition for the whole of Ireland.

"It's a big thing in Ireland to win that," said Hickey, who wore a blue flower tucked behind her right ear.

The freckled and green-eyed water-girl has surfing in her blood. Her parents, Tom and Simone, own Perfect Day Surf Shop and School in Strandhill, where Hickey works and teaches surfing. Her dad, a native of County Sligo, started riding waves about 30 years ago, when surfing began to become known there, and now he coaches the Irish Surf Team. Her brother, Zachary, 11, also surfs. The Hickeys have operated the school for nine years, the shop for four. The shop — a little tropical oasis on the cool, windy Irish coast — is the only one in Strandhill, a town Hickey said reminds her of Capitola Village.

Hickey is sponsored by Aaron Chang clothing, DVS Shoe Co., Spider Murphy Surfboards and Circle One surf equipment company.

Strandhill, a beach break, is between the peak in Bundoran in County Donegal and Easkey in County Sligo.

"Both are advanced reef breaks with perfect lefts, and Easkey also has a perfect right," said Hickey.

Surfing is booming in Ireland, said Hickey, though it's still not at the manic level of popularity as it is in California. Two years ago, there would have only been 30 or so locals at the entire beachbreak, said Hickey. Now, she said, it's packed with double that amount even on an ice-cold winter day, and there are many visiting surfers from the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other places.

Girls surfing is just starting to be recognized as a sport in Ireland, said Hickey.

"Especially since the 'Blue Crush' movie, there's been a keen interest," she said.

Still, there are only about three or four dedicated female surfers in Sligo, said Hickey, though there are a lot of beginners and more women are joining the ranks as surfing's allure escalates.

Hickey is staying with Tammy McKinnon of Capitola, who met the Hickey family on a work trip to Ireland a few years ago.

As the story goes, McKinnon walked into the Hickeys' shop to rent a surfboard, but renting boards is not allowed by law in Ireland. When McKinnon noticed a picture of Santa Cruz big-wave charger Flea on the wall of the shop, she mentioned she was from Santa Cruz. Tom Hickey ended up loaning McKinnon his own wetsuit and surfboard during her stay.

Elisha just happened to remark that she was interested in UC Santa Cruz to McKinnon, before she even knew McKinnon lived in Capitola. McKinnon invited Elisha to come out for a visit to California, which the Hickey family eventually approved after McKinnon visited Ireland again awhile later and brought her family.

McKinnon compared the waves in Strandhill to those at Manresa.

"It's incredible to surf there," she said, saying the surfer's view from the water includes mountains and ancient burial sites.

For Hickey, surfing in Capitola is "fabulous."

"It's paradise," she said. She and her surfer friends often sit in the water at home and talk about how great the waves are, saying everything would be perfect if it were just a few degrees warmer.

"I come here and it's 'it,'" she said. "It's perfect."

One of the biggest things to strike her here is that there are so many women surfers of all ages, she said, and there's such a tight-knit community of female wave-riders.

Next up, Hickey has a competition in February and heads to Brazil in May, and she'll also attempt to make the Irish Surf Team. While she's cramming for marine biology exams in college, she can work off a little study-stress during practices for the university surf team.

"I can't see myself stopping surfing," said Hickey. "The ocean is a second home for me."

Send surf items to Gwen Mickelson at gmickelson@santacruzsentinel.com.

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