To me, surfing will always be the sport that got away. I did it all back in the day: soccer, basketball, volleyball, track and field, even swimming. But to be honest, I’ve only tried surfing once, and it ending up with my strapless top around my waist. Rookie move, I know. But growing up in South Florida and living in Jacksonville for six years has given me a special respect and love for the ocean. The saltwater does magic to the soul, and the sun and sand has a certain way of removing stress from the mind. Those who live within short distance of a beach are truly blessed.

Kayla Durden knows everything about that. Born and raised in Jacksonville Beach, Kayla is a 23-year-old athlete who discovered surfing when she was 5 on a family trip to Cocoa Beach. Kayla watched her brother catch a wave, and when her dad asked if she wanted to try, she said yes. From then on, Kayla embedded herself in a sport that had a playing field right in her backyard.

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Jacksonville is Kayla’s home. The Pier and 34th South are where she fell in love with surfing. She went on to attend Providence School and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of North Florida with a degree in marketing and a minor in Spanish.

Most professional surfers are home schooled or take online courses while they travel, but Kayla said she’s happy she stayed in Jacksonville for high school and college. Despite this, she does feel like it put her behind in terms of her surfing career goals, but is happy she put her education first.

“I always thought about moving to the West Coast, but there’s really no place like home.”

After that trip to Cocoa Beach, her family continued to take trips to local beaches. That’s when the learning began. It wasn’t until Kayla was 12 years old that she decided to start competing. Her first sponsor, Sunrise Surf Shop, are friends to her family. She even went to prom with one of the owner’s sons. Kayla also just started riding for Whisnant Surfboards, a local surfboard shaper.

“Mitch Kauffman is one of my biggest inspirations,” she said. “He’s a household name here. When I was 9 years old, I asked him to coach me. It’s been that way forever, and he’s been there every step of the way for me.”

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Having surfed thousands of heats and over 250 competitions since she began, Kayla is currently ranked 171 in the world, according to the World Surf League. But she’s got her eyes on the top 10. She had her best result in Puerto Rico when she placed second in the Corona Extra Surf Circuit earlier this year and even scored a nice cash prize. Now that she has completed college, Kayla’s ready to focus on her sport with no distractions.

“Because of where the sport is going, you have to train outside the water. I do crossfit three days a week at Crossfit Ragnarok and two days a week I go to Endless Training, which focuses on surf-specific movements. Training this way for the past three months has taken my strength, confidence and surfing to a higher level.”

Kayla makes it a goal to surf everyday, but the wave gods aren’t always friendly to Jacksonville Beach. If it’s an okay day, she’ll make it a point to spend an hour or two in the water. On the better days, she’s out there three to four times a day. All this training and practice leads us to Kayla on competition day.

Depending what time her heat is, she wakes up early and stretches, then checks the waves, and checks the time again. She usually doesn’t surf until about 30 minutes before her heat starts.

“I’m as good as I’m going to be on that day,” Kayla said.

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As the start of her heat nears, she stays away from people and doesn’t let the noise and commotion get to her head. She listens to music to get her pumped — a little Eminem.

This has been Kayla’s goal since she was 16. She has her family, friends, boyfriend and faith to support her and keep her grounded as she continues to participate in the Qualifying Series. This is her career, but she also understands she won’t be on the world tour level forever. Having studied marketing, her longer-term goals are one day getting into international business or sports marketing.

“There’s not too much pressure in the first two years, but if I’m not in the top 10 after three or four years, I might have to wrap it up knowing I tried as hard as I could.”

Kayla keeps in contact with all eight of her sponsors including Volcom, Reflekt Polarized, Let’s Party Traction, Outback Steakhouse, Sunrise Surf Shop, Whisnant Surfboards, JLAB Audio and Headhunter Suncare, which can be difficult due to the distance. Soon, she’s heading up to Virginia Beach for a competition and, more importantly, a qualifying event on October 5 that would help her seeding for next year.

At the end of the day, Kayla Durden is a Jacksonville Beach local with the passion, skills, smarts and positive attitude to increase her standings in professional surfing and beyond. Who knows, maybe she’s even convinced me it’s about time I give surfing another go.