Taking in all the sights and sounds of a circus of noisy vibrant colorful birds in the lush Costa Rican jungle while waxing my board in the warm soft sand, two surfers approached. I took notice of a tall, toned, yet balding, leathery skinned older guy with a silver goatee carrying a white longboard under his right arm and his leash already attached to his ankle. His buddy was a younger long-haired more stereotypical surfer dude with a bright yellow board donning a black guitar image on it. They strutted by me with resolution like they were on a mission, heading directly into the surf ready to paddle into the first set of rolling waves.
Meet William Sheldon – he is a 72 year old man from Woodstock, New York, who first came to the School of the World (SOTW) two years ago determined to learn how to surf and to speak fluent Spanish. I met him in the water that day with his friend and SOTW Head Surf Instructor, Cristian Salazar. William was riding waves and Cristian was working with him on his technique and wave selection. They clearly had a bond – a real friendship with a level of communication that transcended that of surf instructor and student. I witnessed William get pounded by the first few waves, but then he caught a sweet left and rode one almost all the way into shore. Cristian smiled…
Cristian was my teacher for four hours a day for an entire week last November and he was incredible. After many futile attempts at surfing on various trips since college, I never was able to pick it up. If I stood up on the board even briefly, that would be a big deal. It was frustrating quite frankly. I never considered taking lessons until last November when I came to SOTW. Then Cristian taught me how to ride waves and everything changed. I actually learned to surf! His instruction that week inspired me to move to Costa Rica and make surfing part of my daily routine.
Cristian is 42 years old and he has been surfing daily for 24 of those years. He is a remarkably patient, bilingual teacher who seems to be uncannily in tune with the ocean. Cristian takes pride in being able to successfully teach anyone with any level of athleticism how to surf. I asked him, “What’s the story with the old guy?” “William is my long-time student and friend,” Cristian explained. “He started taking lessons at the SOTW when he was 70.” For me, learning to surf at the ripe age of 47, and then seeing a 72 year old surfing the big waves of Costa Rica, presented a new sense of awe and respect.
After a strong two hour surf session at Jaco Beach, Cristian and I decided to have a cold beer at Jaco Bar. I wanted to learn more about William. “When I first met him, he was totally overwhelmed. He didn’t even know how to sit on his board, and he was frustrated from getting constantly beat up by the waves. He was determined and persistent, and I realized I needed to give him special attention and that this would take some work to get him surfing. It’s funny, when he did finally get up on the board and catch a wave, he’d look down at the water, freak out, and fall off his board seconds later. I gave him a lot of grief about that. I told him that surfing is a lot about feeling the waves and not looking at them. You have to look ahead towards the beach – it’s somewhat like walking in a dark room.”
We sipped on beers and I asked him about their relationship now. “We’re friends. We like to go mountain biking together and man, he is much better than me. I have a hard time keeping up with him. He’s a serious athlete. We eat many meals together. I cook him dinner and I am really proud of him. I admire the way he takes care of others – the way he sees life. I feel very lucky and fortunate to have met him and I hope to stay in touch with him going forward.”
This guy has gumption! I had to learn more.
So, I set up a time to meet at William’s house. He rents the upstairs of a small but very airy home around the corner from the SOTW since he arrived here, five months ago. William stands six feet tall and is thin and toned with a collar bone that was clearly broken at some point and almost pokes out of his skin above his right shoulder. William’s demeanor is calm and analytical. He’s an intellectual man, soft-spoken and kind. William’s not pissed off at the world, as are some older men I know, nor is he an overtly jovial sweet grandparent type. He is just plain cool.
I learned a lot of things about William’s background that day. He was a Korean interpreter in the Army. He’s an environmentalist. He’s a hardcore cyclist who rides in five-hour intensive endurance races. He’s a newly retired college Professor of business ethics and sustainability at SUNY Ulster Community College. William is a thinker and a meditator who spent seven years learning from his teachers in a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center. As of two years ago, he’s a surfer. Here are some snippets from my conversation with this dynamic man:
Shane: How’d you get here? Five months surfing in Central America while your wife is in cold upstate New York?
William: I’m pretty athletic, and I grew up in Arizona as a kid. I was a Beach Boys fan, and California was just one state over. So I guess you could say I had surf envy. I always wanted to surf but somehow just never did.
Shane: Why not?
William: I couldn’t just do something for one week. If I was going to do it, I wanted to learn to do it right and master it.
Shane: Tell me about your first week at the school.
William: It was rough – especially the first 3 days. I was getting beat up and it was frustrating. It was very difficult for me. I almost gave up. I remember rationalizing that I may not realize this dream and just stick to cycling in Costa Rica.
But then Cristian took me under his wing and made me his special project. Cristian saved me. He decided to pull out rarely used “Big Papa” for me to use. This board was eleven feet long and was practically a small boat for me to learn on. The seventh day – Tuesday of the second week — I finally got up and actually rode a wave. Everyone cheered and made a big deal about it. It was exhilarating.
On one of my last days before I had to return home to work, Cristian told me something that changed the trajectory of my life. He said, “If I had three more months to work with you, you’d be amazing.” That got me thinking….
I had planned to teach part-time for another four years. After my first trip to SOTW, I changed my mind and worked one full-time year, then retired so I could come back to Jaco and surf, working with Cristian and Juan Carlos, another instructor I really like at the SOTW.
Shane: And now you’re a bilingual surfer.
William: Yes. The School set me up with Inez (Inez is matriarch for one of the host families for the SOTW Home Stay program) when I first came here two years ago, to live in her house for their Spanish immersion program. She is now a dear friend and I stayed with her again during a recent visit with my wife and son. I am fully fluent and I even read books in Spanish. So, yes, I’m definitely bilingual.
I’m reticent to call myself a real surfer but I will say this. The other day, after three falls, I literally rode twenty waves in a row.
Shane: How often do you surf when you are here?
William: 4 or 5 days a week
Shane: You’re a surfer, man – there’s your board in the corner of the room. You surf four or five days a week. You need to add this to your Facebook profile!
William: I’m not really a Facebook guy.
Shane: Are you going to surf until you die?
William: Yes. Absolutely.
Overall, I feel better when I’m active. All that talk about surfing being a spiritual experience, I have found to be accurate. Floating calmly on a board in perfect temperature water, sizing up each set of waves…a squadron of pelicans flies across your vista, and it’s like WHOA!
Shane: Do you have any advice for people who want to learn how to surf and are considering coming to SOTW?
William: Yes. Pushups are helpful. Upper body strength is important. It’s a lot of paddling and it does take some degree of fitness. Also, practicing your “popups” on land is really helpful.
Shane: You are an odd bird – different than most folks I know. Do you have any life advice to impart?
William: My Tibetan Buddhist teacher taught me that instead of trying to change your external circumstances all of the time, the key to living a really fulfilling life is to change the way you see it.
Words by: Shane Matteson. Shane is a small business owner, avid environmentalist, and proud father. Shane is a former student at the SOTW and is currently loving life living in Playa Hermosa eagerly waiting for the quarantine to lift so he can surf daily for the first time in his life.