From humble beginnings, greatness can be found. From tragedy, one can find inspiration.
Sammy Morretino of Koloa is such an example.
Morretino, 20, has been bodyboarding since childhood. Though things went badly in his first competition, the water kept calling and he kept honing his skills.
He persevered through personal turmoil, namely the passing of his mother and sister.
Through it all, he’d one day become a world champion. At that, he’d be the youngest ever to earn that title.
Morretino sat down with The Garden Island in Koloa and talked about his beginnings in the sport, overcoming his own tribulations and being crowned the youngest bodyboarding drop knee world champion.
How did you get into bodyboarding? And then when did you start competing?
So how I got into it, my dad used to be a bodyboarder. Not a professional, but he used to dabble with it. Had fun. Came here in, I think, late 80s or early 90s. He came here to bodyboard, and he just fell in love with Kauai. Met my mom and moved out here in ‘93.
When I was born, he bought me a little swimming pool for the backyard — the little blow-up one — and he used to just put me on the board. Just put me in the pool with my little floaties on and just chill on the board. Once I got big enough, he started bringing me out with him. I lay on the board, and he lays on top of me, kind of. He’d ride the wave with me. From there, he started teaching me. … The first time I rode a wave by myself was probably about 4 years old. I wasn’t going far out. Pretty close in, but I would try to catch the whitewash and stand up on my board.
When I started competing, I was probably about 9 years old. All my friends were doing it. I wanted to do a contest. The first one I did was at Prince Kuhio, at PK’s in front of the Beach House. The first contest I did, I got horribly smoked. I was dead last. You were only supposed to catch 12 waves. I caught 30.
After that first contest, I was kind of over it. It wasn’t really my thing, but then I just started practicing a lot. Every day, I would go to school. After school, I would hitchhike to the beach.
Competition, I took like a year off from it. When I was 11, I started competing again. Every contest on Kauai, I would try to do. It’s kind of hard sometimes when I wouldn’t have money to do it. I’d do the ones I could. After I won my first event, I was super stoked. I loved the feeling of winning. I wanted to be the best. So ever since I won that first event, my goal in life was to in one of these world championship.
You said after that first event, you weren’t into it anymore. But you kept at it. What fueled you?
My drive was, the whole competing thing, I started doing it after my mom passed away. My mom passed away when I was 10. … For that whole year, I was just like, “I can’t do this.” So, I would go to the beach every day just to get my mind off of it, and I’d surf. My whole drive was that. My mom never got to see me compete. In the back of my head, I’m kind of doing it for her because I know she would want to see me do that stuff.
That whole year was really hard after my mom passed away. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I barely even talked to my dad. It took me a long time to accept that my mom was gone. But that was my whole drive right there. My whole drive was just knowing my mom was looking down and watching me do this.
Sorry to hear about your mom.
It’s all good. She’s in a better place.
She had a heart attack in her sleep. It wasn’t preventable, but it happens. … It’s super tough.
The ocean’s kind of my savior. That’s the way I see it. The ocean saved my life. If I was 10 years old and I was living in California or in some gnarly neighborhood and my mom passed away, I’d be in a gang or something. You think of all these outcomes that could have happened if I was born not on Kauai. That happened to me, and I’m really grateful.
So, you starting competing at 11 or 12. When did you know you could compete at a world level?
After I got sponsored, I did my first outer-island event at Sandy Beach. Usually people, they’ll only do one or two divisions. I did all four. People were wondering, “How is this kid doing it?” Four divisions, that means you’ll surf 10 heats a day. Usually, guys surf two, maybe three heats a day. That’s when I was like, “This is what I want to do.” Kept going, and I was like, “I can make something out of this.” Not really (as far as) money, but I can get my name out there. I can do what I love to do, and I can maybe win a couple hundred dollars if I win the final.
So, you go to Portugal. Leading up to the competition, did you know where you were expected to place?
Actually, my dad is really crazy about my bodyboarding. He’s really into it. He’ll go on the websites for the tour rankings. He did all of the math himself one time. He played out every scenario that could have happened.
But it just so happened, I missed an event. There’s three events in the drop knee world tour. I did Pipeline. The second one was Makapuu. But a week before Makapuu, I did an event at Sandy Beach and I was in the final with Jeff Hubbard. … I catch a wave, and I’m like, “I’m going to do an air.” I do an air and land it, and there’s this rock sticking out of the water. And my knee goes straight into it as hard as it could. … I was out for three weeks.
I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to surf when I got to Portugal. Because of the injury, I missed the event. I had a month to heal before Portugal. My dad was like, “You’re out of the title race because you missed Makapuu.” I was like, “OK. If I’m out of the title race, I guess I’m just going to try to win the event.” That’s the second-best thing I can do.
Won my first heat. Won my second heat. I think I got second in one of my heats, but you still make it. You still advance. I keep advancing. I make it to the quarterfinals. Then I make it to the semifinals, and then they tell me, “If you make it to the final and win, you’re the new world champ.” I was like, “What? You’re wrong.” I kind of blew it off.
One of the head guys that runs all the events, he came up to me and was like, “You know if you win this next heat, you’re the world champ. You win by like 100 points.” I’m like, “What? No.” He’s like, “Yeah. Right here, look at the math.” I was like, “Holy …” It was good because I had no pressure on me up until that point.
Right before the final, I was like, “How long?” They were like, “You got two, maybe three hours before you guys surf.” So, I took a nap. Somehow, Dave woke me up like 25 minutes before the final. That was really cool. I told him straight, “Brah. I don’t know if I would have woke you up. I would have let them call your name a couple of times and see if you woke up.” Not to be a prick or anything, but that’s just what I would have done. So I was like, “Thank you for waking me up.”
He goes to the beach and gets his rash guard. He starts to stretch. I don’t stretch. He’s like a yoga master. Me, I’m just on the beach. I’m watching him stretch. I was like, “Do your stretches. I got you already.” I was thinking, “I got this.” It’s like what Andy Irons said, too. His rivalry with Kelly Slater. He’s realizes, “He’s human. He bleeds. I can cut him.” I used to look at Dave like he’s a superman, but he’s just a normal person. He bleeds, too. That was my whole mindset. “I could cut you and win this heat.”
I said a prayer to my mom and all my friends that passed away. I was like, “Send me the waves.” The first set came in, I just went. The whole thing about going against guys like Dave and his brother Jeff, they like to get the first wave and put the pressure on you. I’m like, “I’m going to get the first wave and put the pressure on you.” … I was amazing I got the first wave. I’m kind of re-living it right now. I haven’t really talked about it.
I got that first wave. I was going to put everything into this wave. I did like seven turns. I was psyched, like that was going to be a good score. Paddling back out, they were like, “Sammy Morretino. First wave: 8.5.” I was like, “Sick. That’s a good score to start off.” … Then Dave had priority, but he was just sitting there waiting for a good wave. I knew that there wasn’t really any good waves coming. Just got to take what you can get.
He was being super patient. He had priority. I just caught another wave under priority. I’m just going to get another score to back this one up, to start my campaign. I got another wave and got a 7.5. Right there, Dave’s just out of the heat already. He needs two scores to get first. I heard them say, “Dave Hubbard, you need a 9.3.” There’s like 15 minutes left in the heat. I was like, “Oh, my God. There’s no way you’re getting a 9.3 out here right now. You got to be a superman to get a 9.3.”
After that, I just followed him around everywhere. If he’s going for this wave, I’m just going to try to play a mind trick. … Sell him on a wave that’s not good. I did that two times in the heat, and he went. I was like, “Whoa. He never does that.” I sold him. This is what he usually does to me. I just flipped the whole script, and I was doing it to him.
Once it got to the five-minute mark, I was like I’m going to follow this guy everywhere he paddles like I’m his tail. He paddles over here, I’m right behind him. I was right on his tail. It was down to two minutes. I was like, “I don’t need to follow him anymore. I’m just going to catch a wave in. If he pulls off a 9.3 right now, he deserves it.” I went in, and there’s like a minute left. I was laying in the sand. He caught his last wave. … He tried to ride it so good, but it was barely even a wave. He put everything into it.
It was amazing. They brought the trophy. My friend, Pohaku, he chaired me off the beach. The feeling I got with this trophy, I don’t even know. It was like pure bliss, honestly. All my friends, we all talked about this. We talked about this for years. The first time I leave this country to go to this event and win the world title, I couldn’t believe it.
They chaired me up the beach. The podium thing, they gave me a speech. It was really cool. I thanked a lot of people. Dedicated it to my mom. Thanked all the event organizers. Thanked Dave for getting me set for the trip — telling me what to bring and kind of chauffeuring us around. Everywhere we stayed was through Dave. Thanked a bunch of people. Thanked the municipal over there. … I’m the youngest drop knee champion there’s ever been.
So how are you and Dave now? Still competitive?
Oh, we’re good. As soon as I won, he came up to me after and he was stoked. He’s like, “Just so you know, it’s not over.” Holding this (the trophy), I’m like, “It kind of is.” I looked at him like, “No. It’s just the start. This is the first of many battles we’re going to have. We’re always going to be doing this, and it’s going to be great.” We’re all good sports. … That’s what it’s all about on our sport.
It’s not like surfing. If I win this contest for surfing, I get like a $50,000 bonus for winning the world title. If you win the event on top of that, that’s like 100 grand you’re winning. Three grand for winning the (bodyboarding) event, that was barely my plane ticket. We kind of do it for the love, you know? It’s pretty cool. We’re all good sports about it, and we all realize we’re not going to make a living off of it. We do it because that’s what we love, and we’re all kind of a big family.
If you can, how would you describe the whole journey? From what you went through as a child, to now being what you are.
All the hardships I’ve had in my life and after my mom passed away, I kind of went down the wrong road. I kind of went into a little trouble with the law and the court system. Went through a few programs. Went down the wrong road a little bit. But the best way I could describe from starting bodyboarding to winning this trophy and everything I went through, just no matter what life throws at you, there’s always a way to get around it and overcome it.
I persevered so hard throughout my life. There was times in my life where I was over it. I give up. I don’t want to do anything. I’m going to sit here and do nothing. But the ocean just kept calling me back every day no matter what. I could be pissed off at the world. I’d go surf, I’d come in and be like, “Why was I mad?” I’d fully forget. The water is what did it.
My whole road to winning this title has been a tough one. My mom passed away when I was 10. Went down the wrong road. Then last year, this was the hardest obstacle this last contest season, my sister passed away — my dad’s first daughter.
I didn’t go down that road again. When I was young, I did a bunch of stupid stuff. But I was stuck in a slump for a few months. I did a couple of events, but wasn’t too focused on it. Kept thinking of that. That was last year July, I think.
I’m sorry about her, too. How old was she?
She was 42. … She’s my half-sister. She was a heavy alcoholic. She was in and out of the hospital. They told her straight, “If you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to die.” She just didn’t.
Yeah. Let’s find a good way to put this whole (thing to an end).
OK then. Bringing the world title trophy home, what did that mean to you?
That’s when it really hit me. I was in Portugal with two of my friends. I’d look at this trophy every night like, “World champion. Sick!” It wasn’t until I came home and got off the plane and grabbing my bags, and I see one of my friends. I was like, “Right on. Only one person.” Next thing I know, everybody started showing up. There were like 40 people after that. Everybody’s putting leis on me and stuff. They were like, “Brah, you’re the world champ!” Just so stoked. Everybody was talking, and I was speechless. Starting tearing, and they were like, “Are you OK?” I’m like, “Brah, I did it.” That homecoming was probably the best I’ve ever felt in my life.
So you’re going to eventually have to defend this title, right? What’s next for you?
Until next year, there’s probably not going (to be competitions). Me and my friend, Pohaku, we’re trying to run some events on Kauai. The Kauai Bodyboarding Association, Pohaku started that. That’s how I started competing. That’s how I got introduced to competition. … We’re working on that right now. It’s called the Kauai Triple Crown. We’re waiting for the waves to get good, and then we just make the call.
What’s next for me right now, what I’m really working on, is trying to get a bunch of old boards from my sponsor and I want to do a free bodyboarding clinic somewhere for the kids. Just give back to the community and the island that’s given me the opportunity to do this, and everybody that’s helped me along the way. I want to give back to the kids and give them a chance to be in the ocean and enjoy it, too.