Surfers of UC San Diego: Amber Puha ’93

Blonde woman with long hair and a red dress smiles and stands in front of the ocean.
Amber Puha ’93

Amber Puha ’93
▪ College: Muir
▪ Major: Mathematics
▪ Hometown: Carlsbad, CA
▪ Currently Lives: Oceanside, CA
▪ Career: Professor, Department of Mathematics – California State University San Marcos

How did you learn how to surf?

I was 16 when I really took it seriously. Growing up, I was always athletic, and I had toyed with the idea a little bit. My family moved from North County to Carlsbad, a coastal town. That really allowed me to just spend the whole day at the beach for hours on end, and that’s what I did. I taught myself back in the day when there were no surf lessons. You just had to go out there, get yelled at, figure it out, take your hard lumps, and move on. I used to dream about it at night all the time.

What inspired you to join the surf team?

I came to UCSD in 1991 as a transfer student. I was a math major, and the first year I was pretty busy just adjusting to university and getting settled. But my second year there, I saw a flyer posted. In a prior life, before I made the commitment to be a full-time college student, I was a competitive surfer. I surfed in the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) for about four years. And I loved competitive surfing. I even entertained the idea of doing some of the pro events for a while, but I realized that I really didn’t want to forego a college education.

Since then, things have dramatically changed for women in a lot of respects. But I was surfing prior to that change. There was definitely less opportunity, both in the short term and in the long term. So I chose to go to school and pursue some of my other interests and strengths.

Joining the surf team turned out to be a great experience. I met some great, inspiring people that I got to spend the year hanging out with and going to competitions together. It kind of felt like my old life, but with new people who had a shared vision and appreciation for intellectual endeavors. So it was a really wonderful, wonderful year.

Amber Puha '93

What lessons have you learned from surfing and being on the surf team?

Being a woman in the lineup has its own challenges. When I was at Carlsbad High School, there were three of us women that surfed. We’re still in touch to this day. You really have to learn how to succeed in a man’s world, how to claim your space, and get your fair share of waves without being overzealous to a point where you become sort of an outcast. You know, I made my mistakes in those directions, but I figured some things out.

I also learned how to maintain composure in difficult situations. Competing requires a tremendous presence of mind where you’re not allowing what’s going on around you to distract from your focus and the goal you have at the moment. That is definitely something that I’ve carried forward in my whole life. In fact, it was a major benefit when I was taking exams at UCSD, for example.

The time on the team was one of the greatest times of camaraderie for me in surfing. In fact, I’m still in touch with so many of the folks that were on the team that year. Friendship certainly was a big bonus from being on the team.

How does surfing complement the UC San Diego experience?

It made me feel part of the UCSD community. I felt that through surfing, but I know for other students, it’s other interests. It is important to have extracurricular activities that can really bring students in and help them identify with their university and community. In fact, I’m a faculty member now in the Department of Math at Cal State University San Marcos (CSUSM).

When I got my faculty position in 1999, the university was quite young. We had a few athletic department sports but no club sports yet. So I helped the students get surfing recognized, and now it is the longest standing consecutively recognized sport on campus at CSUSM.

My positive experience at UCSD and the surf team inspired me to bring that to my university now. I had the good fortune to experience that, and I was able to help the students here get that experience as well.

What’s your favorite memory from the surf team?

Well, it’s hard not to say the national title! That was quite a fantastic event and a great day on the beach for all of us. Our captain, Miguel Kagan, and our team manager, Dan Spur, deserve tremendous credit for building our team because surfers have a very individualized point of view. Now, one of the things I experience as the faculty advisor at CSUSM is getting them to recognize the importance of camaraderie and team spirit.

Miguel and Dan fostered an atmosphere of, “Even if your heat isn’t ’til late in the day, come on down, watch your fellow teammates, support them and cheer them on.” And we certainly had that amazing vibe on the beach during the competitive season.

Amber Puha '93

What was it like to win the national title?

That was a super great opportunity at that time. The National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) has grown and the location of the event has changed over the years, but back in ’93, it was out in Lower Trestles. Lower Trestles is among the premiere surf breaks in all of San Diego County and Southern California. On that particular day, we had a fun head-high surf.

We had both our A and B team competing. Chrissy Jenkins was surfing on the B team. We competed with women from other schools, like Hiromi Hasagewa from SDSU and Connie Clark from Fullerton. All of us were able to take to the lineup and had free reign to take any way we want and start to the best of our ability. These days, Nationals isn’t at Lower Trestles, so the wave quality is not quite as high for the students.

There are two simultaneous things going on during the competition, and that year, there were six guys (that rode shortboards), a woman and a bodyboarder. The eight of you made up a team and competed in heats, similar to the way that one competes in track and field. If you place in the top three of six in that heat, you’ll advance to the next round and earn points for the team. First place will get you six points, second place will get you five points, and so on and so forth. In that particular year, we as a team won the national title, and I individually won the women’s.

The winner was chosen by the best four of six waves in 20 minutes, which is a lot of waves with six other girls in the water. I had an amazing start to the heat; my first three waves were on point, and I was definitely very confident and comfortable with them. But on the fourth wave, I had to scrap and get it at the last minute.

What happened after you graduated from UCSD?

I had the very good fortune as an undergraduate at UCSD to connect with Ruth Williams, one of the professors in the math department, and she became a mentor for me. She helped me and encouraged me to apply to PhD programs. I’m so fortunate for that because, at that time, the upper division math classes all had tenure track faculty teaching them, and they were relatively small compared to today. So you definitely got to know the professors. I feel quite fortunate to have had her as a mentor, and actually, she continues to be a collaborator and mentor to this day.

I ended up in the PhD program at UCLA, and I finished in ’98, which in itself was an amazing experience. I joined the surf team there the last two years. After finishing, I actually came back to UCSD and did a postdoc for a year with Professor Williams.

Holly Beck ’01, one of the most promising up and coming women surfers on the west coast at the time, got me back into competing. I ended up doing some competitive events with the NSSA as a postdoc, which was quite fun. It kept me in touch with what was happening with the women’s college teams.

When the position at CSUSM opened up, I applied and got it. So that’s where I landed, and I’ve been there for 20 years in the math department. We got the surf team going in 2002, and they won their first national title in 2009. I was actually in China when they were competing. When I woke up in the morning, I got a text message saying they won in a tiebreaker. But repeating that is hard and the pressure is tough. It took 10 years, but in 2019, they got the second national title. It was amazing to see students come together to make that happen.

Do you still surf?

Oh, absolutely. Once you’re a surfer, you kinda never stop.

What’s your favorite surf move?

Surfing a nice big backside, vertical cracking the lip. That’s gotta be a favorite for me.

What would you share with someone thinking about joining the surf team?

Just do it. It’s a great group of people. Back then, it was exclusively student-driven. I think these days, Tyler Calloway is a mentor to the surf team. He brings a lot of experience to the beach and helps the students with their competitive edge. It can only be a positive thing, and it can only bring you in and give you a greater sense of belonging to the campus community.

Read more Q&A’s with UC San Diego surfers here.

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