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Student Wins Surfing Contest


On April 12, with water temperatures hovering slightly above freezing, 24 surfers congregated in Rye Rocks, N.H., for the Red Bull Ice Break Surfing competition. It was a typical winter day, with cloudy skies and big surf.

The competition’s winner, however, is not your typical championship surfer.

Zev J. Gartner, a fourth year graduate student studying chemistry at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, bested several professional surfers to capture the title.

“People most probably don’t think of an organic chemistry graduate student at a top school as anything but an extremely hard-working nerd, let alone a nationally recognized surfer,” David R. Liu, associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology, wrote in an e-mail.

In a press release, the Red Bull Ice Break said that the aim of the contest would be to discover the best big wave surfing in the harshest, coldest conditions.

“Only when optimal big wave and cold-water conditions are achieved will the event be held,” the press release promised.

The qualifying rounds were held in New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island throughout the fall. From each location a pool of 48 surfers was reduced to 8. These 24 surfers remained on call during a period from Jan. 15 to April 15.

The large time window for the contest, promoters said, ensured that the main event would be held in “the biggest and ugliest surf the North Atlantic can produce.”

Organizers of the event said this year’s particularly long, harsh winter postponed the championship event until last week, which was the established deadline.

Gartner said to compensate for the extreme cold, he wears a six-millimeter wetsuit with only his face exposed—and just barely.

“When the waves are good, you’re moving around enough that you stay warm,” Gartner said.

Yesterday, Gartner said he was still “totally shocked” at his victory.

Liu, however, was not.

“Although I was quite surprised to hear that Zev had just won a major multi-tiered regional surfing competition that included several professional surfers, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Zev reminds us that it is possible to be a first-rate scientist, a first-rate athlete, and a down-to-earth person at the same time.”

Gartner, a California native, attended the University of California at Berkeley as an undergraduate.

He said that he began surfing as a child when his parents would drop him off at the beach at Santa Cruz for the summer.

Though the surf is more consistent on the west coast, Gartner has been able to continue surfing while attending Harvard, he said.

He manages to surf year round, despite freezing temperatures and the time commitments of his schoolwork and research.

Gartner said that chemistry actually compliments his love of surfing.

The research is so “independently driven” Gartner said, that “you can work really hard and then when the surf is good, take off.”

Liu, Gartner’s professor, first met him back in 1999, when Liu was a graduate student at Berkeley.

Liu attempted to convince Gartner, whom he had heard was a promising prospective graduate student, to attend Harvard. Liu wrote that he feared Harvard would lose Gartner to the Scripps Research Institute in Claremont, Calif. “in part because the many unique strengths of our chemistry department do not include ideal local surfing (unless you are a penguin perhaps.)”

The press release on the Red Bull Ice Break’s website emphasized Gartner’s mastery of icy east coast surfing.

“Zev Gartner dominated the field with local knowledge, solid surfing and an uncanny ability to withstand the frigid water,” it read.

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