What kind of person would, as often as weather permits, spend her free time leaping in ocean surf, often the only female among a throng of athletes aiming to claim the biggest waves for the best possible ride?
You might expect such a young woman to have more than her share of ego and attitude. Seventeen-year-old Katlyn Tuttle, a bodyboarder from Hampton, Va., enjoys this challenge, and she’s determined to master her board and the water that thrashes it, but her demeanor both in and out of the surf is refreshingly humble and easygoing. And in the past year, she’s begun competing as a sponsored bodyboarder, hoping to inspire other girls to join her in the waves.
Bodyboarding is considered a type of surfing in which participants ride boards — also called “boogie boards” — that are typically made of foam and are about 42 inches long, while traditional surfboards are fiberglass and range from six to 10 feet long. Historically, surfing and bodyboarding have drawn mainly men, but girls and women are increasingly taking part.
Katlyn got an early start in the water; her dad Sean, a veteran bodyboarder, first held her on a board in a pool at six months, and linked her, wearing a life jacket, to his own board at age three.
Her parents divorced when she was four, but Katlyn spends half of every week with each, resulting in what mom Melissa Anderson calls “the best possible co-parenting situation.” Anderson says she was anxious when Katlyn first started boarding, but her fears eased as she saw her daughter progress. Katlyn says she’s known how to swim “forever,” and by age five she could ride small waves into shore. By age nine, she had learned how to ride a bodyboard parallel to the beach along the wave surfaces, as surfers traditionally do.
While surfers typically ride standing, bodyboarders ride either “prone,” lying belly-down and face first to catch waves, or in the “drop-knee” position — with one bent knee down on the board. Katlyn remembers first learning the prone approach — “When you’re lying down on your board, the wave looks so ginormous!” — but prone became the position she preferred, bringing her closer to the water.
From early on, she built her athletic skills and strength outside the water as well, spending years practicing two forms of karate while also swimming on a summer team. In high school, her workouts on the swim, cross country and track teams have helped her stay in shape for bodyboarding.
Not surprisingly, an essential part of bodyboarding is to be at the beach at the right times for the best waves, and almost daily Katlyn’s dad researches when those waves might arrive. On surfing apps Sean can see storms coming from as far away as the Ohio Valley, or even Japan, and when they are most likely to bring desirable waves close to home. He and Katlyn go occasionally to Virginia Beach and Buckroe Beach, near their Hampton home, but their favorite nearby boarding destination is the Outer Banks of North Carolina, especially in October and November. They go there as much as 100 times a year, sometimes even just to ride for a few hours at a time. A wetsuit makes surfing doable in November — a fortunate thing as waves during winter are considered the best.
Mike Zeiner, a friend, coach and longtime bodyboarder from Kitty Hawk, N.C., often joins Katlyn and her dad to bodyboard off the Outer Banks. Katlyn is “progressing for sure,” Zeiner says, learning better how to choose waves correctly, how to “drop” into them and how to place her hands properly on her board for the best ride.
The Outer Banks have some of the East Coast’s biggest waves, Zeiner says, and he’s been impressed by Katlyn’s courage and confidence in tackling them. As she’s grown he’s helped her confront the other obvious challenge — being one of few females competing for waves.
“She’s definitely not afraid of coming here and hanging out with the boys,” he says.
In 2018, Katlyn entered her first competition, and she’s become a sponsored team rider for Custom X Bodyboards in California and Duck Village Outfitters in Duck, N.C. Katlyn no longer has to buy the $400 boards — she just got a new hot pink board from Custom X — and team members also receive benefits such as travel opportunities and financial support for competitions. Her sponsors hope that she’ll encourage more riders, especially girls, to take up the sport. She’s done three competitions in the Outer Banks so far, and while she’s been the only girl in those competitions, through social media she’s begun connecting with female bodyboarders around the world.
While the main goal for the longest ride is to catch a steep wave that won’t close out, or tumble down, early, Katlyn’s also working to learn tricks, including a 360-degree turn and barrel-riding, where she rides while the wave arcs over her. For Katlyn, part of the appeal is sensory, the experience of the water around her. When she rides inside the barrel of water, “it’s really cool, like you’re in your own world,” she says. “It gets really quiet and sounds echo-y.”
When not pursuing sports in the water or out, Katlyn, the oldest of four siblings, enjoys playing guitar and making metal bracelets with her dad in the metal shop behind their house; Sean is a metal sculptor (metalocean.com) and has sold his artwork online to customers around the world.
A rising senior at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, Katlyn plans to apply this fall to Virginia Tech, possibly majoring in aeronautical engineering. Her grandfather worked for NASA, and she says she’s “always been fascinated with engineering and space.”
During college Katlyn hopes to go bigger and get better with her bodyboarding. When Custom X ran a national search two years ago to find its newest ladies’ team rider, her email and pictures stood out among the many applicants, says Andrew Bitleris, the bodyboard company’s social media manager.
The company noted “her ambition, attitude and humbleness in the water,” Bitleris says, and as a Custom X boarder she impresses young riders because she “charges surf all year long.”
Zeiner agrees: “She loves to do it, and the more you do it, the faster you’re gonna learn.”
And as for Katlyn’s new role in helping to bring more girls to the sport, she says: “I think it’s awesome. I love it!”