Surfers of UC San Diego: Allen Johnson ’90

One of the best surfers to ever attend UCSD, Allen Johnson defuses a bombing right at Black’s Beach, December 7, 2015. Photo: Mark Johnson/

Allen Johnson ’90

  • College: Muir
  • Major: Mathematics 
  • Hometown: Sarasota, FL 
  • Currently Lives: Encinitas, CA 
  • Career: Realtor – Compass / Former Professional Surfer

When did you first learn how to surf?

 I grew up on the Gulf coast of Florida, a town called Sarasota south of Tampa. And it’s a kind of place that has just enough surf to learn, but not enough to satisfy. So you’re constantly in a state of wanting more surf. A lot of people say that’s what’s created the hunger for some surfers out of Florida who have done well internationally. Like Kelly Slater’s a Floridian, and he’s the kind of the all-time great in our sport right now.

What inspired you to choose UCSD?

When I was learning to surf in the late seventies, there were some older guys in the neighborhood, one of them when he was in his late teens moved out to San Diego. Just wanted to spread his wings and kind of be a free spirit. He put California in our minds. Whenever he came home to the neighborhood, we’d all go to his house and sit out front of his house on the curb and listen to his stories. I had started competing and came out for a contest at Huntington Beach, and he was around so I came down to San Diego and we went to Black’s and I pretty much went back home after that contest saying everything I heard about UCSD is true.  I set out to find the best way to talk to my parents about how to go to school here. 

I was in a Marine science program in my high school. I had this amazing Marine biology professor and  Sarasota has all the intercoastal waterways and all of that. I just knew UCSD was entrenched in oceanography, so I played that up a lot. It all led me to UCSD.

What do you remember most about surfing at UC San Diego? 

Black’s. Such an special place. It almost feels like you’re walking down into a natural like amphitheater, just a real special natural space, serene and beautiful. When you paddle out at Black’s, in the evening as the sun sets, the sun hits those cliffs. A lot of people go to watch the sunset, but when you’re sitting in the water, you’re always looking back to the cliffs and the cliffs kind of glow, they get this golden color. That kind of natural beauty in addition to just the waves, it all makes it an amazing place. 

What inspired you to join the team?

I had started surfing amateur contests and I was doing okay, not amazing. In my high school I was doing really well, too; I graduated like second in my high school class in Sarasota. So I was definitely going to college, and at that time, people that were going to pursue professional surfing didn’t normally go to college. I was in a place where I was just trying to do both. And I found the a team aspect of surf contest really appealling. I had heard UCSD had a team so I was already sold on it, but that team aspect was great because I made friends who are still still my best friends today, and we all had this drive to get a college education.

Do you have a favorite memory?

Between the surf club and the surf team, it was always good times. We enjoyed the luxury of the key so we’d drive back up the hill and they had TG’s at the campus then. We’d get some food at the Rathskeller and watch the Untouchables at the TG, these live bands. Socially, that was a big memory, just that whole vibe of being able to do that all at your college, to have this great surfing experience and then hang out with your friends, I remember that really fondly.

Allen Johnson ’90 featured on Surfer magazine’s December 1997 issue.

Where did your career lead after you graduated? 

I ended up finishing with a degree in applied math. I looked at initially doing engineering and then going to a graduate program at Scripps. But I switched gears on that. Applied math was very challenging, but through it all I kept competing and surfing and all that. And I was doing an internship helping a professor program some code, and he said, “Okay, you’re graduating. We can make this job full time.”

Meanwhile, my amateur sponsors are going, “Now that you’re done with school, we’d be sponsoring you more and helping you get to more events on the world tour, if you’re interested in that.” It was kind of a difficult decision, but needless to say, I was young still and I went with the sponsors.

I would say it was about ’90 to ’98 where I was seriously competing, you know, top level events, going up against the top surfers in the world and holding my own in some cases. So I had a lot of peer respect. A lot of people respected how I served in bigger waves and I even won an award, in ’96, when Surfer magazine started. 

Eventually my sponsors started talking to me like, so “What’s your plan?” They knew I was a college graduate and I had one of my sponsors say, “Hey, you should consider the industry of surfing, the apparel, the hard goods, whatever it is–there is an industry here. That is, if you don’t want to go back to pursue what you studied, you know?” Because I always felt there was a clock ticking on like when I could go back and program again, without everything having changed. 

But from ’90 to ’95, I was really trying to grind the contest as much as I could, until I eventually decided I wasn’t going to chase the contest anymore. I had good opportunities here in the industry and they wanted me doing it full time. I had a good work ethic and I could still be in a world where people share my passion. So my longest tenure was with Hurley, from 2000, to like 2013. And I was a sales rep for them. I’m a realtor now, because I’ve always had an interest in real estate. It’s a good product to sell, and though I still have to work really hard to be successful, I have the freedom to do things with flexibility, be it caring for my family, or going for a quick surf. 

A young boy, man, and young girl each hold surfboards and stand side-by-side on the beach.
Allen Johnson ’90 continuing the surf legacy on the beach with his children.

What would you say to a student thinking about joining the surf team at UCSD?

Not only is UCSD a great place geographically with Black’s, but you come out of there with a really good education. I’ve talked about this with some of my friends–it really made you a problem solver, able to think through things. A lot of my friends who went to school there have done quite well and learn to really apply themselves. For me, it was a way to keep pursuing my passion of surfing. And while I didn’t use math in quite the roles that the majors designed is for, that numbers background helped me when I got into sales and all that. So I’d say it’s the best of both worlds. You don’t have to give up surfing to go to college, you can stay in a world of surfing that you love and be head and shoulders above a lot of colleges as far as education. So, go for it! 


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