The life of a pro surfer is pretty sweet, but it’s not easy. Michael Dunphy has worked hard at his sport—now his full-time job—since he was in elementary school.
To compete with the top surfers in the world, Dunphy, 25, practices at least two hours every day in the ocean, sometimes at the crack of dawn. The Virginia Beach, Virginia native also hits the gym three or four times a week, partnering with a personal trainer to build leg power, core strength and flexibility for wave-riding and lean, muscular arms for paddling through choppy waters.
“You have to stay persistent,” he says. “If you get lazy, there are people coming up all over the world who want to beat you. A lot of people would be surprised at the amount of effort that we actually put into it.”
Dunphy, who had landed his first sponsor by age 9, had a highlight year in 2014. In August, he won the professional division of the prestigious East Coast Surfing Championship in Virginia Beach, becoming the first hometown victor in 33 years. Eastern Surf Magazine later named him the East Coast Surfer of the Year, and he narrowly missed qualifying for a world championship tour for the most elite professional surfers around the globe.
Growing up with a father who surfed, Dunphy traded his boogie board for a surf board when he was a “little grom”—that’s surf-speak for “kid”—of 7 or 8 and began competing about a year later. “I was in awe of it from the start,” he recalls. “Riding waves was the coolest feeling ever. You can go so fast and feel so free. It’s like an art form for me. I get to express myself however I want.”
By age 14, Dunphy had given up his other favorite sport, hockey—ice and floor—to concentrate on surfing. After graduating from Cox High School, he decided to forgo college to try to make a living as a pro surfer. His parents were initially nervous for their only child. “They supported me, but it was a pretty big risk,” he says. “Now they’re very proud of what I’ve done.”
Dunphy spends eight or nine months a year traveling to events with backing from several sponsors, including the well-known sportswear company Hurley. Stateside, he splits time between Virginia Beach and a home his mother owns in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. “It’s a pretty nonstop life, kind of crazy,” he says. “All the travel definitely wears on you a little bit, but I know how lucky I am. We go to such beautiful places.” Waves are different everywhere, he notes; some of his favorite spots to surf are Indonesia, Australia and Mexico.
While Dunphy has had plenty of spectacular wipeouts, he’s never suffered a major injury while surfing. His worst setback was a car accident last year that sidelined him for about a month with a deep thigh contusion.
A large part of that “luck” is constant preparation. Dunphy recently incorporated more weight-lifting into his fitness regimen, adding 12 pounds of muscle for more explosive power. “Surfers in general are some of the fittest people in the world,” he says. “You have to riding a big moving object, and then you have to paddle back out to get the next wave. There’s tons of conditioning involved.” The sport also is great for mental health, he adds: “I can get away from everything when I’m in the water. It’s so relaxing and freeing.”
Nutrition-wise, Dunphy tries to eat clean and has cut out all sugars that don’t come from fruit sources. On the road, almonds and Brazil nuts are his go-to snacks.
Each year, Dunphy’s overall goal is to get better at surfing. This year he’d also like to accumulate enough points to qualify for the next World Championship Tour, a 12-event series run by the World Surf League. When he stops surfing professionally, he may consider a career in real estate.
As for beginning surfers, Dunphy advises them to start on a longer board, which provides more stability for a straight ride to shore, and gradually move to shorter performance boards. “It’s fine if it takes a while,” he notes.
“Just be psyched to be out there. It’s you and nature—enjoying that connection is what it’s all about.”