Chris Keet never realized his boyhood dream of becoming a professional surfer, but he succeeded in making surfing his business and an integral part of his life.
And the local surfing community is grateful.
While the wave closed out on a pro career, another barrel formed that’s taken Keet for a long, fun ride.
For the 14th consecutive year, Keet will direct the Rincon Classic surf contest. The waiting period for the annual locals-only event at the famous beach break on the Santa Barbara-Ventura County line is scheduled to begin this weekend. [CONTEST GREEN-LIGHTED!!!]
Presidio Sports is pleased to honor Keet as our local Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month.
SPORTS FIGURE OF THE MONTH
Each Month, Presidio Sports recognizes a local sports figure for their extraordinary contribution to the Santa Barbara athletic community. It is our way to recognize those who are making a lasting impact in our sports community, whether it is an inspirational athletic performance, a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps a great example of leadership.
Keet turned his passion into a successful business. In 2000, he founded the surf school, Surf Happens. He has trained and coached several of the surfers who will compete in the Rincon Classic.
It was in 2001 that Keet resurrected the event. The contest hadn’t been held in four years after Roger Nance, owner of the Beach House, ran it for the last time in 1996. Keet added the Classic, which dates back to 1979, to a series of contests he ran on the local beaches.
“I thought I was changing the world but really what I was doing is what (Roger) had done and what others had done earlier,” said Keet about running the Classic.
Those were his salad days as the event director.
Today, Keet has taken the Classic to another level by landing some big sponsors. Channel Islands Surfboards is this year’s headlining sponsor and Hurley clothing company as the presenting sponsor.
“Lots of companies want to be involved,” said Keet during a break from preparations for the 31st Classic. “It’s nice we have really solid support.”
Keet is a local through and through. He attended Santa Barbara High and UCSB. He competed in the Classic as a youngster when Nance and Jeff White (founder of the Surf-n-Wear surf shops) ran it. He said in the last year of their directorship he lost to his church pastor.
In reverence and respect to Nance and White, Keet worked with Surf-n-Wear before he put his Surf Happens stamp on the Classic. In 2009, Deckers came aboard as the first presenting sponsor.
“That was the first year we sold the title,” Keet said. “It gives it credibility, and it’s still a locals-only event, so it still has the fundamental backbone it was raised on.”
Keet, 39, said there was no template to run the Classic but he had the backing of Nance. “He gave me the guidance, contacts, support and the belief ‘this would be rad if you started this again.’ ”
Keet has raised the profile of the Rincon Classic while keeping it local.
“I started with one little blue tent on the beach and a couple of tables,” Keet recalled of the first year he ran it. “We had some great prizes and the community came out. We had a full event of 120 people at the first one.”
For the 31st edition, he’ll have 250 local contestants from age 8 to over 60 vying for titles in 12 divisions. The beach will be lined with tents and there will be a scaffolding for staff, judges and photographers.
“We’ve gone from one tent on the beach to a full 10-by-20 scaffold and approximately 12-20 tents on the beach,” he said. “We provide food, all kinds of stuff for the contestants, a raffle for our nonprofit.”
He said he has a staff of 50 people “when all the guns are blaring.”
It’s a far cry from that first year.
“Oh my gosh, I remember when it would be just me and a buddy in the middle of the night or super early in the morning setting up. It was easy to do,” he said.
The event has attracted big crowds the last few years.
“The (increased number of) spectators is a phenomenon that started from 2007 on,” Keet said. “People just want to come down and enjoy the sun and watch the surfers, and the best wave in California.”
It doesn’t hurt that the area has produced some of the best surfers in the world.
The Classic yearly draws an impressive list of top local surfers, names like three-time world champion Tommy Curren, former WCT pros Bobby Martinez and Kim Mearig, Dane Reynolds, Killian Garland, Conner Coffin, Parker Coffin, Demi Boelestri and Lakey Peterson.
The legendary Davey Smith will be honored at this year’s event as the recipient of the Jeff White Aloha / Lifetime Achievement Award. White was a legendary waterman who died in 2010 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
Smith was a pro in the late 1970s and 80s and an innovator in the sport. He was executing aerial moves on a wave that surfers do today in competition.
“It’s pretty awesome what Chris has done over the years with local surfing in Santa Barbara,” said Peterson, who is entering her second year on the ASP World Championship Tour. She is planning to take part in the non-competitive “Expressions” session at the Classic. “Surfing is something that brings so many people so much joy and the fact that Chris has been able to help people feel that joy and reach their goals is amazing!”
Peterson was 11 when she surfed in her first Rincon Classic.
She said she’s excited about the chance of participating this year.
“I’m hoping to be in it, I have to check on a few things, but that’s the plan at the moment.” she said. “Rincon with only a few other people out, I’ll take it!! It’s going to be an awesome event and I’m so stoked to be apart of it.”
Conner Coffin, the two-time winning U.S. Open Junior Pro champion, competed in his first Rincon Classic when he was 8.
“I believe the very first contest he did was the Rincon Classic,” Keet said. “That was 12 years ago when he was 8. And he won the first year he did it.”
Conner is the defending champion in the pro division.
Boelestri, 23, is the winningest competitor in the Classic with nine consecutive titles.
“She was a standout at the Queen before Lakey, and Lakey looked up to her,” said Keet.
He said because it’s a relatively tight community, it’s not too difficult to seed the surfers for the Classic.
“They’re seeded by their previous year ranking, plus you know the surfers,” he said. “I love surfing and I love surfing Rincon, so I pretty know everybody that surfs Rincon that is from here. It’s a local contest, so that keeps it pretty easy. Plus, I’m a professional coach, so I know all the up and coming kids.”
“It’s the best non-contest contest around,” Smith told Keet in an interview for the Surf Happens web site. “It’s great to see all the generations of amazing surfers that show up. The sense that everybody is doing what they love to do, hanging on with family and friends and their dogs while surfing all day long, that’s what makes it great.”
Keet will have his family by his side at the Classic. He and his wife, Jenny, have two boys, Maddox, 2 1/2 years old, and Jack, 7 months.
While his pro surfing career didn’t take off, Keet said he feels blessed he’s been able to work in the sport he loves.
“I feel like I’m still the kid with an afro who first started running the event.”