The ESM Q&A With The ESA’s Michelle Sommers

April 26, 2019 • Eastern Surfing Association, ESA, The ESM Q&A

“The State of the Eastern Surfing Association” : An exclusive interview with ESA Executive Director, Michelle Sommers by Jason Hoover

ESM: How long have you been at the helm of the Eastern Surfing Association as Executive Director?

Michelle: Since Spring of 2012

ESM: What made you want to volunteer and help the organization?

Michelle: I thought it would be a great opportunity to use my professional experience in an industry that I’m passionate about. Also, I’m not a volunteer as the ESA executive director, I am paid a small salary and overseen by the ESA board of directors.

ESM: What are your thoughts on partnering with the World Surfing League?

Michelle: This is a great way to provide amateur, ESA competitors an opportunity to compete at the next level of surfing. The WSL is every competitive surfer’s endgame, so we created a direct pathway to where they want to be. We are hoping this takes the confusion that many have been experiencing over recent years as to what events they (competitors & parents) should put their resources (financial, travel, time away, etc) into, including what they will gain the most out of.

Taking care of business; Michelle at Orlando Surf Expo overseeing the All-Star team presentation, the ESA booth and always looking to elevate East Coast competition levels and our coasts surfers through sponsorships and savvy partnerships. Photo: Tom Dugan

ESM: Can you talk a little about the new priority format being offered at the Regional competitions this year?

Michelle: Since we want our qualifying WSL QS & Jr Pro competitors to be prepared, we are introducing the 4-man priority heats to the later rounds of the divisions that we are qualifying from. Currently, these divisions include Mens/Women’s, Jr Men/Women U18 and Boys/Girls U16. We have been working with the WSL folks over the last few months on how to implement this, and we are following the WSL’s official rules on priority. David Portch, the East Coast WSL Head Priority Judge, has been instrumental in getting us prepared. We are very excited to bring this all important aspect of pro surfing to our championship events.

ESM: On that subject, we read on the ESA website that Portch will be holding q&a sessions with competitors at each of the upcoming regionals.  Can you expound about that idea and give us any more background on Dave? 

Michelle: Dave Portch began his judging career by learning from clinics offered up by the ESA’s Virginia Bech district years ago. He has since moved up the WSL ranks as their head priority judge for the East Coast and knows more about priority than anyone I’ve met. He worked with our comp director Joe Grottolla to develop and easy-to-understand summary of the WSL’s priority rules. He provided this information for the ESA-sponsored athletes that surfed in the WSL events this year, and Dave will be offering a short, Q&A sessions at each regional prior to the rounds that we will be offering priority in. The WSL Rule Book can be a bit overwhelming to most competitors. We wanted to put together an easy-to-understand summary of key points that will be important for them to know paddling out in their first heats experiencing the priority system. It’s come full circle for us and for Dave with him now helping and giving back to the ESA since those first clinics which is all apart of the ESA family ethos and volunteerism.

Gifted East Coast ESA amateur’s like VeeBee’s Rachel Wilson who are striving to get to the next levels of pro competition have just been given a dynamic opportunity with the recent ESA / WSL partnership that provides slots into QS events held on the Right Coast. Rachel throws down a solid snap during the recent Quiksilver / Florida Pro at Sebastian Inlet this past January while competing under WSL priority rule now being introduced into select ESA heats as part of the learning process. If you want to know how to tame the game then throw yourself into the big arena with the rest of the young lions and get after it. Photo: Tom Dugan

ESM: Can you unpack the Rip Curl partnership and the opportunities it provides the ESA members?

Michelle: Rip Curl has been a long-time supporter of the ESA All-Star Team. They are offering slots into their East Coast Rip Curl Grom Search Series to our top ESA All-Star regional finalists in the Boys/Girls U14 divisions. Those who compete in the ESA’s Southeast Regionals will get slots into the New Smyrna Beach event, while the top finalists from both Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Regionals will get slots into their event at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.

ESM:  Another great partnership in a year of exciting partnerships has the ESA hooking up with Surfline and their embedded East Coast forecasters who know the Atlantic Ocean better than anyone and some whom have ESA ties as well. 

Michelle: Surfline is the one who started it all, and is known on a worldwide level. We are honored to have them support the ESA and provide our members an opportunity to try their premium membership for an extended time. They are also going to promote our events as well as offer event location surf forecasts for our championship events.

With Surfline now onboard as the official forecasting partner, the ESA had created another powerful alliance that will help make contests the best they can be for competitors and, as importantly, support staff as well. We can only hope Surfline will be calling for a swell like last years 2018 Championships pictured here at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, NC. Photo: Mez

ESM: Tell us about your surf school?

Michelle: Sommers Surf Lessons (  ) is entering it’s 10th season of offering surf lessons for women! It’s amazing to see how it has grown over the years. When I began surfing, there weren’t many other women in the line-up, or any female surf instructors. My husband and his friends taught me a lot, but it wasn’t until I went to Hawaii and surfed with North Shore’s Karen Gallagher, that I realized how different women were at instructing. I have taught so many amazing women how to surf and been able to share my passion with so many others. I’ve also gained an entire crew of ladies to surf with in the process. We’re also the only school with an agreement to offer lessons at Assateague State Park here in Maryland.

Michelle ( out the back ) passing on the stoke to other potential Sisters Of The Sea via the Sommers surf school. Photo: Courtesy Sommers

ESM: As a surfer and as a mom who has kids participating in the ESA, what positive benefits and experiences do you see your children gaining?

Michelle: I have seen their confidence grow in their surfing, which also builds in other parts of their lives. They are pushing themselves (and each other) more than they did before competing, as well as setting goals to reach. It’s also easier to get them to come to ESA events with me now. 

They have also met and surfed with so many talented surfers along the East Coast and in Hawaii. These experiences have allowed them to progress in their surfing, while also creating amazing memories that they will have forever. They have also met quite a few surfing legends including Tamayo Perry and Kelly Slater which moved me up to cool mom status.

Parents of kids who compete in surfing are lucky. We get to hang on the beach all day, watch our kids surf, surf ourselves, and all while hanging out with other awesome parents!

During her kids heats Michelle is just another surf mom rooting on her sons ( Kai pictured here ) and keeping it fun and positive no matter their results. Photo: Mez

ESM: How can interested parents get involved to volunteer or sign their kids up for a local event?

Michelle: They can come to any ESA event to see what we’re all about or reach out at our website at . We welcome anyone who wants to offer their time and experience in all aspects of the organization. If their kids are interested in competing, it’s easy to become a member online and then register for their local ESA district events.

I was told when I started that the ESA is a family. I continue to meet people from all over the world who have a connection to the ESA. No matter where I go, when I mention the ESA, people become an instant friend and tell me how the ESA has impacted them in their lives. I have the best job in the world, and am beyond blessed with my ESA family.

ESM: What is the most fun thing for you about running the ESA?

Michelle: The events, and getting to work with so many amazing people! I love all the people who I meet and get to work with. The events are so much fun, as I look forward to spending time with friends from all over the East Coast. 

We are family. A gathering of some of the behind the scenes folks – directors, judges, tabulators, scorers, beach marshalls, announcers – at the 50th running of the “Easterns” who are mostly the volunteers that make the ESA’s world turn since the first singlet was put on and green flag hoisted over 51 years ago come this September. We can’t name them all here but standing on the wings are Michelle and an ESA / East Coast treasure who helped found the organization five decades ago, Mr.Cecil Lear. Photo: Mez

ESM: What is the most challenging thing or things in running the ESA?

Michelle: I would say watching some people take it too seriously – yelling at the judges, complaints about a variety of irrelevant things – which can the fun away for their kids. Also, there are those wanting the ESA to conform to what other organizations are doing and what they feel it should be for their child/themselves instead of appreciating what the ESA has to offer for everyone. Other organizations have come and go, but the ESA has been around for 52 years so we must be doing something right

ESM: What are some of the more personally rewarding things you get to do as executive director and why?

Michelle: I get to work in the surf industry and travel to amazing locations as a job. I also get to watch young surfers become great competitors, and see how surfing influences their lives with some competing at the professional level, some going to college for environmental/marine studies or some kids eventually serving their country in the Coast Guard, Navy and other branches of the armed services.

ESM: Speaking of rewarding, you run the business of the ESA and all that entails, your own a surf school, you have family responsibilities raising two kid’s who surf and now compete in the ESA so, when you find the time to paddle out and enjoy some waves yourself, what does just getting to go surfing mean to you, it’s the end game for all of us, right ?

Michelle: Surfing means so much to me that I am grateful for any chance I get to paddle out.  It helps me keep my sanity when things get crazy!  It’s always been a spiritual time for me to connect while I’m out there, but now I appreciate it even more.  In fact, since our boys are surfing with us, I’ve been able to get more surfing time than ever before.

The best part about being a surfer and running the ESA is that people actually tell me to go surfing while we are working because they all understand the passion for it.  And everywhere I travel for work has waves:)

Michelle charging a cold mid-Winters days in Maryland. “The best part about being a surfer and running the ESA is that people actually tell me to go surfing while we are working because they all understand the passion for it. And everywhere I travel for work has waves”. Photo: Courtesy Sommers

ESM: We’re going to put you on the spot here a bit but who is your “ESA MVP” inside the organization and why?

Michelle: Joe Grottola is definitely an ESA MVP. He does so much behind the scenes and never wants any credit. He has so much experience and knowledge, and he oversees all of our championship events. I also have to hand out co-MVP’s to Lisa Roselli ( who’s being inducted into the New Jersey Surfing Hall Of Fame right after the Northeast Regionals ), Pam Hill, Amy Rose, and All-Star team coach Jason Motes. I can mention so many others who also contribute so much to the ESA  I could not do my job successfully without all of them behind me. We have a whole team of ESA MVP’s. 

ESA MVP’s and part of the braintrust ( l-r) North Florida District Director Pam Hill, Central Florida District Director Mario De Luca, Comp Director and South New Jersey Co-Director Joe Grotolla with Exec Michelle Sommers at last years 50th running of the ESA Championships at Jennette’s Pier, NC. Photo: Mez / ESM /@easternsurfmag

ESM: Any closing thoughts?

Michelle: I’m so excited to be a part of the ESA, especially during this time of great things that are happening. The reason the ESA has been around for over 52 years as an organization and 50 years of running consecutive championship events are the many volunteers that make it all happen, and that it caters to everyone of all ages and surfing levels. The ESA will continue to implement necessary changes to benefit members who want to achieve their next level of surfing, however, it will also keep what has worked for everyone else through the years. We don’t ever want to lose that family-friendly, fun day at the beach, but we also know there are things that serious competitors need and we always keeping working hard behind the scene for way’s to provide that for all.