Oahu's Noa Mizuno has more to brag about than his current Regional Junior Champ status. After 13 years of grinding away in the classroom and the lineup, he has finally achieved his greatest accomplishment to date -- high school graduation.
Diploma in hand, Mizuno now joins the list of celebrated surfers who have also matriculated from Punahou, including Gerry Lopez, Fred Hemmings, Jeff Hakman and Carissa Moore, not to mention past President and body surfer extraordinaire, Barack Obama. Known as one of the most prestigious schools in the state, Punahou sees approximately 2,200 applicants each year yet only admits 500, so acceptance is competitive and highly touted. Noa's graduating class maintained a median GPA of 3.638 and he himself earned a respectable 3.2 at the end of the school year.
Noa and his hui of supporters are the first to acknowledge that this was no easy task. When it comes to sports, there is an overwhelming pressure to be the best -- and especially in surfing, where a new league of athletes has sprouted up and is constantly redefining what "the best" really means. Most innovative? Hardest charging? Consistent results? Aerials on point? Noa strives to stand apart in the surfing world and has plans to qualify for the CT, but traditional school has never been conducive to this career path. So for him, "the best" had to mean excelling at it all.
Noa's dad, Jake Mizuno, was always an advocate for formal education. He played multiple sports in high school, plus baseball in college. In hindsight, Jake recognizes the challenges his son was up against in wanting both an education and a professional surfing career, which as most Hawaii residents know, is a non-traditional collegiate sport.
"In his mind, surfing always had the upper hand," said Jake. "Physically, realistically… but no, you have to show up to class, finish your work and perform well in exams. That gap itself seems challenging."
Noa's mother, Ann Marie Mizuno, also had strong athletic prowess as a Rutgers tennis player and UCLA swimmer; she was also the first female lifeguard in New York during the ‘70s. Growing up in an environment of scholastic excellence, Noa was destined to achieve.
Combined with a rigid, highly structured mentality at most college prep schools, he experienced an uphill battle from the start. Especially considering the contemporary lifestyle that is surfing.
"Traditional school is pretty fixed on prepping kids for college, and most students have the same goal, to go to college and figure it out," said Jake. But others might gravitate toward an activity or extracurricular sport that isn't necessarily considered scholastic. In Noa's case, it was surfing. Punahou's rich tradition pushes students to exceed and emphasizes ivy league colleges while professional surfing highlights competition, which doesn't cater to school schedules.
Noa found himself sandwiched between the two most important things in his life, both of which defined him.
"There's this passion I have for this sport that separated me from most of the other kids at high school," he said. "I've had to redefine myself many times throughout high school. The push and pressure of going to college made me think a lot about what my future held for me. But I just made it really simple for myself, I love surfing. All these challenges brought me to this exact point in my life and I'd chose to be nowhere else."
Noa recalls his first semester as a senior -- it was a busy one with surf contests and travel. Struggling to find the balance, he spent a few days too many overseas and was thus excused from his classes for the rest of the semester. Furthermore, he was told he would not graduate with his class. The news came right before he was to compete in his very first Vans Triple Crown.
"Bad timing," said Jake. "He struggled to understand and resented the school system."
"I received no credit for all of those classes I enrolled in," Noa said. "And I was mostly upset because I wasn't getting anything under a B at that point. I was pretty worried about my chances of graduating."
But the hard lesson was a turning point for Noa. "It was a huge life check for myself, thinking about how much time and effort I put toward finishing my school years off strong," he said. "It just reminded me, was I really going to throw away this opportunity with school?" After working to gain acceptance into Punahou and now faced with the possibility of not graduating, Noa decided he was going to buckle down.
"He negotiated with school to take a whole year's load of classes in his last semester and one more class in the summer to be able to walk with the 2017 class," Jake said.
"I made sure I was going to finish what I started," said Noa.
Forced to persevere and power through, Noa came out with some deeper wisdom. "I've grown to know that there is more than just surfing out there. I really believe in work ethic, and I think the time I spent putting a lot of effort toward something I desire made me confident that I could achieve anything. Balancing all these efforts made me understand the bigger picture in life."
And as for his current surfing title? "The Hawaii Junior Champ was just a bonus," he said.
While Noa is still a couple of years shy from graduating to the CT level, he is defining his own version of the best way forward. And that is a combination of skill, smarts and calculated dedication. All which was hard-won.
"I give much respect to all surfers and athletes that finish high school and receive a diploma," Noa said. "Also I give credit to those who have put that aside and pursued their careers, because that is a big choice to make too. I take inspiration from a lot of things, but I figured, ‘Why can't I do both?'"