Surfers of UC San Diego: Lewis Samuels ‘99

Man in glasses looks to side.
Lewis Samuels ‘99

Lewis Samuels ‘99

  • College: Muir
  • Major: Cognitive Science 
  • Hometown: Bolinas, CA 
  • Currently Lives: San Francisco, CA
  • Career: Cultural Insights Manager, Google

Why did you choose UC San Diego? Did surfing influence your decision?

I grew up in a little town right north of San Francisco, Bolinas, and then went to high school in San Francisco and was pretty thoroughly obsessed with surfing. That was pretty much all I cared about, to the detriment of my academic career, but I still managed to do pretty well enough to get into UCs without an issue and also get offered some scholarship options. So that, combined with Black’s, it was a very easy decision that I was definitely going to UCSD.

Why did you join the surf team?

It was a totally new experience for me to do contests. I’d read the magazines about contests and it seemed like something professional surfers did. At UCSD, it quickly became apparent which other freshmen were serious surfers as you got to know each other from going down to Black’s. We all really did want to prove ourselves, and the way you prove yourself was by making the surf team. That was like a really big deal. In ’95 and then ’96, a few guys graduated and there was more room to kind of take on some new people. I was able to make it through enough heats to the tryouts to make the team. And that year, the team went on to win the national championship. And I think maybe it was undefeated throughout the entire season. That was pretty much as good as it got for me!

What is your experience surfing at Black’s Beach? 

Black’s is often considered to be one of the harder-breaking, more challenging paddle-out beach breaks in Southern California. I grew up in high school surfing Ocean Beach in San Francisco, which is kind of regarded as being one of the harder, breaking, more challenging beach breaks in all of California. So that was all actually super familiar to me. But the bigger waves that Black’s offered, especially in an El Nino year of ’97 or ’98, a pretty historically good year for Black’s, that all felt really comfortable for me. The things that felt less familiar were the crowds and the fact that everyone surfed. I mean, I was the only surfer in my high school. It’s totally changed, now; it’s packed with surfers, but in that era, San Francisco was pretty uncrowded.

Man surfs a wave.
Lewis Samuels ‘99 surfs a wave.

How did your time on the surf team influence your education and lead you to your career?

Surfing taught me how to prioritize and how to get stuff done in order to go do the stuff that you actually want to do. Because it always was my focus, much more than academics. So that meant that I had to bang out that assignment, that paper, study for that test in order to buy the time to go surf. And I always managed to do that since. Being able to get up in the morning and go surf Black’s taught me to get myself together and prioritize.

What was social life like on the surf team? 

My friend group was literally the other kids who were showing up every day to go serve Black’s at dawn. And we ended up basically creating like a version of fraternity life without any fraternity involved. We all lived together eventually, and I think there was a point when there was like four houses on one street full of the surf team, all of us able to walk down the path to Black’s. They have to be multimillion dollar homes now but back then they were just these dilapidated ’60s beach houses, still rentals at that point. 

We all had the key to Black’s too, in different ways: surf club, surf team, ocean enthusiasm club or something. We’d go surf multiple sessions a day because we could drive down there after class and not have to do that hike and expend all that energy. But the key was such a prize. Funny story: the day I left San Diego I drove down to Black’s on my last morning with the key and surfed from one last session. And when I got back to my car, the key was gone–somebody who knew me well had to have broken into my car and stole the key on my last day in San Diego, knowing I was leaving the next morning. And I know definitely who it was, but I’ll leave it at that. 

Do you have a favorite memory?

Good question. In that El Nino year the waves were just those mythical sets, double, triple overhead, the kind of thing that you only saw photos of in magazines. And there was almost no one out, it was before forecasting was as good as it is now. It hit right before dark and we threw a surf club Halloween party that night. It was a feeling of finally having got what you came for. 

Where did your career lead after you graduated?

While I was at UC San Diego I got a cog sci degree, which was very strategic on my part, wanting to do something where I could leave UC San Diego with a path to employment and hypothetically get paid enough an hour to still go surf. And while I was in San Diego where I was already doing user interface work that I parlayed from that cog sci degree. Professor Hutchins in cog sci was a surfer, and he kind of mentored me through that program. He totally got the whole combination of some level of academic focus combined with the surfing sort of focus and, and really helped me out and got me into an internship at a tech company in San Diego, all going into era.

So I came right out of school instantly employable doing usability testing. It was the beginning of that .com boom in San Francisco, which then crashed. At that point, I went back to just doing surf stuff, writing for surf magazines. But I recognized really early on how the internet opened up new voices in surfing. All of a sudden when the online era came, Surfline became a thing–just a website, it wasn’t a magazine, but a way for new voices to get in there. So I spent a bunch of years writing about surfing, and still balancing doing some of that tech work, but eventually reality caught up with me. 

I got a part-time job as a temp at Google, just funding the surfing habit still at that point. But now I have a full-time position at Google doing insight work around how technology is changing culture and vice versa. How culture impacts technology. It’s a bit like a journalistic approach combined with market research research. 

What would you say to someone thinking about joining the surf team?

I have no idea what the level of competitiveness is now, but I think it turned into a thing where you kind of needed to have that background in competitive surfing to be able to make the cut. But UC San Diego really is like one of those places where you can apply academics and surfing together at the highest level. There aren’t many other schools that have such a level of education and that level of quality surfing to offer. So if you want to do those two things together, the surf team is where you go. 

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

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And read and submit your surf memories on this group Google Doc!