Lakey Peterson emerges as wave of the future
Sue Peterson would watch her teenage daughter surfing in the ocean, slicing effortlessly through the waves, and she thought she was pretty good. Coordinated, agile, strong and determined, Lakey always picked things up quickly.
"That's just Lakey. She gets good at everything really fast," Sue said. "I didn't know how to range it. I don't know surfing that well. I would always think, 'Is she really good?'"
Then Lakey started competing and winning.
And Sue said she thought, "'Well, they must like her style.' Then she won nationals and did the aerial and I thought, 'Oh, I don't see any of the other girls doing that. She must be good.'"
Yes, Mom, Lakey's definitely good.
At 18, Lakey Peterson is one of the youngest surfers on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) Tour. Beyond her birthday, the tomboy-turned-prodigy is a boundary-pusher, doing things that women have never done before on a surfboard in competition, surfing a powerful, high-flying style that closes the gap between the genders.
Lakey was just 14 when she became the first woman to land an aerial maneuver in a female amateur competition.
At 16, she came out of nowhere to finish second in the 2011 U.S. Open of Surfing after being given a wild-card entry to participate.
Now she is one of her sport's biggest young stars and one of its biggest innovators, a heady rise for an athlete virtually unknown just a few years ago.
"I love everything about it," Lakey said. "The whole package of competing, the leading up and getting in shape, the surfing, the mental aspects. I love the girls who are better than me who really pushed me. I love the pressure, and those moments when you get a clutch move or a clutch wave. It's the best."
Her tenacity matches her talent. Her story, meanwhile, is a bit off the beaten path.
Lakey lived near the water, but not necessarily in it, growing up in Santa Barbara. Her mother was a competitive swimmer in college, her father a triathlete. Her sister played tennis at USC; her brother played water polo at Pepperdine. No surfers in the Peterson house.
Her first experience on a surfboard came on Manly Beach in Australia as a 5-year-old while her family was on a yearlong, around-the-world trip.
"It seemed really natural to her, but I didn't think anything about it," Sue said.
Instead, Lakey went home and played tennis, soccer and water polo. She rolled around on a skateboard. She didn't surf again until she was 11 and began competing in amateur events when she was 12.
"When I won [junior] nationals [at 14], I felt like I might be good enough to surf professionally," Lakey said. "There was a turning point for me."
Her ascent into the professional ranks has been steep, titles and recognition coming quickly.
Coach Mike Parsons said Lakey has been unique for her "betterment curve."
Her competitors have taken notice.
"I've seen her do some crazy stuff out there. Amazing things for her age," Australian Nikki Van Dijk said last summer. "She's definitely pushing women's surfing and all the other girls in the sport."
Lakey is living a life that does not look like that of many other 18-year-olds. Rather than living in a dorm as a college freshman, she is traveling around the world, gone six to eight months a year, training at some of the world's great surf spots, working on photo shoots for her sponsors and competing at her sport's highest level.
But Lakey's path has never been typical. She started kindergarten a year late because her family felt their around-the-world adventure should be experienced fully and not complicated by the school calendar.
Her severe case of dyslexia -- a developmental reading disorder that impacts fluency and comprehension -- made elementary school a monumental challenge. She has been home-schooled since seventh grade.
"It's difficult for me to open up a book and learn it," Lakey said. "It was really frustrating for me. When everybody is learning to read and write, I couldn't understand anything. Everything was jumbled and backward."
Sue also experienced dyslexia with her two older children. But Lakey was her most severe case. Sue would sit with her daughter in the classroom and prompt her to help her get through tests. And to help Lakey have a more positive experience.
"She thought she was stupid. She couldn't read; she wouldn't ask questions," Sue said. "I wanted her to feel good about herself. I know sometimes she hated having me there."
The struggle doesn't really end. Sue and Lakey were on a trip to Sri Lanka two years ago, reading "The Hunger Games" series together.
"It alarmed me a little then to think that she was 16 and she doesn't always know what she's reading," Sue said. "She's smart. Her vocabulary is great. She just can't spell the words. She does a lot of public speaking and she's great at that. She blows me away in a lot of ways."
Sue said Lakey's early struggles gave her daughter a great sense of empathy.
"She would lead games on the playground and she would include everyone, and she made a special point of including the kids who struggled," Sue said. "She saw that in other people because she experienced it herself."
For Lakey, it's just life.
"Everyone has struggles. You push through it," she said.
The main thing I hope people get is that life will throw you some crazy turns, and you have to be inspired to do what you love.Lakey Peterson
Lakey in fact, has experienced more struggles of late. Her splashy arrival on the ASP Tour didn't go quite as she had planned. As a rookie on tour, she had a string of ninth-place finishes before winning the Nike U.S. Open of Surfing title in Huntington Beach last July. Her current ASP World Ranking is No. 7. The new season starts in early March in Australia.
"There were a lot of low points," Lakey said. "I knew I was working hard and it wasn't paying off and it always had before. I had to step back and realize that I had to take those losses and learn from them. I have to apply those things. I know now that if I wouldn't have had those losses, I wouldn't have learned anything."
Lakey's story plays like a movie. And it will be one. "Zero to 100," a documentary-style movie about her life and career, will be released in late February.
Lakey hopes her story will encourage other young girls to follow their passion.
"The main thing I hope people get is that life will throw you some crazy turns, and you have to be inspired to do what you love," she said.
Her mother, meanwhile, hopes her daughter's legacy is more than a collection of titles.
"She can do anything, but my hope for her is that being a world champion isn't the end-all," Sue said. "I want to see her set the world on fire with her style of surfing. If she can take it to another level, get in the air consistently, make it as much fun as watching the guys, that would be, for me, her mark. I hope people will say, 'Wow, this girl really revolutionized the sport.'"