Surfer Zane Kekoa Schweitzer is at the top of his game: Contending for world championships across multiple surfing disciplines, about to compete for a spot on the first-ever U.S. Olympic surfing team, and an ascendant eco-athlete.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with the young Hawaiian in December as he was about to compete in the last event of the 2018 APP paddle surfing tour at Las Palmas in the Grand Canary Islands about his career, his work on behalf of clean oceans and more.
GreenSportsBlog: Zane, thanks so much for taking time to talk to us in the middle of your competition!
Zane Schweitzer: Thank you, Lew!
GSB: How did you get into surfing?
Zane: Growing up in Maui, I could swim before I could walk. My dad is an 18-time world windsurfing champion and we all, including my mom and sister, basically lived on and in the water. Swimming, windsurfing, surfing, paddling…you name it.
GSB: Wow! It sounds like competitive surfing is in your DNA. And you are gaining on your dad as you now have 15 world championship event wins and you’re still only 25. When did you start competing?
Zane: Lew, you’re not going to believe this but I was three years old when I won my first surfing competition. And I was up against kids as old as six. I won a big surfboard!
GSB: I cannot imagine that at any age. When did you first think you could be a world champion?
Zane: Good question. I guess I was 13 when I started to think I could be a world champ. I got more serious about surfing — including wind surfing, got a sponsor and a coach. Then I went out on tour along with my friend and surfing partner Connor Baxter. I was in junior high, traveling Japan and South Korea in Asia along with Spain, Germany and Italy in Europe to windsurf. It was awesome!
GSB: Sounds like it. How did you handle high school while doing all that traveling on tour?
Zane: I went to high school in Maui for the first two years but then it got too crazy so I was homeschooled my junior and senior years, which worked out fine as it allowed me to really focus on my craft and building my own brand.
GSB: Which has worked out well for you. I understand you are a decathlete of sorts in surfing in that you compete and win in a wide variety of surfing disciplines.
Zane: Yeah, most people are unaware that there are multi-discipline ocean sport competitions, the most prestigious of them being the Ultimate Waterman championship, which is eight events. I’ve won it twice and they are the titles I’m most proud of.
GSB: Congratulations! Sounds like the surfing equivalent of the decathlon.
Zane: You’ve got that right. And it’s actually more than just surfing. We compete in long distance canoe and stand up paddle (SUP) races, underwater strength and endurance and more!
Zane Schweitzer competes in the Stand Up Paddle competition (Photo credit: Matt Schweitzer)
GSB: What is underwater strength and endurance?
Zane: The underwater strength and endurance discipline — a combination of swimming, breath holding and running with 50kgs underwater — is nuts!! The other events are stand up paddle surfing, stand up paddle endurance racing, prone paddle board technical race, OC1 or one man outrigger canoeing, shortboard surfing, longboard surfing and big wave riding.
GSB: Dang! That sounds impossible. How did your 2018 season go?
Zane: Earlier this year I won the indoor wave pool event at the worlds largest boat show in Germany, that was fun! Was crowned champion of the Santa Cruz Paddlefest and the Ventura Paddle Surf Championships both in the discipline of SUP Surfing. I set a new record time winning the Maui to Moloka’i 27 mile Hydrofoil race and placed fourth at the 2018 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru in the stand up paddle race.
During the Pan-Am SUP Surf discipline I had a technicality that did me in losing my qualifying position for 2019 Pan Am Games. I was pretty bummed about that! But it was a strong year overall and I’m grateful to finish the APP World Tour in second overall between Paddle Race and Surf combined results and as well as third on the APP World Tour in Stand Up Surf. It sets me up well for 2019 as I look to put myself in prime position to make the U.S. Olympic team when shortboard surfing makes its debut at Tokyo 2020.
GSB: That’s right — surfing becomes an Olympic sport.
Zane: It is so exciting! It’ll be shortboard surfing in Tokyo and then longboard and stand up paddle may be added for Paris 2024.
GSB: All the best! What inspired you to be an environmentalist?
Zane: Ah yes…My lifelong respect for the environment was passed down to me by my family. Growing up in Hawai’i in a culture in which environmentalism is almost a given also has a lot to with it. In Hawai’i we have a connection with nature from the mountains to the sea. Our “kuleana” or privileged responsibility, to care for the land and waters could be derived from the old way of living that was dependent on the health of the complete environment.
My dad passed down the pride and respect for “mauka to makai” or “mountains to oceans” mentality to me that embraced this connection to land, water and nature. He would take me dirt biking up in the mountains or fishing in the middle of the ocean far from land and we’d eat and drink off of the land, providing for our family and connecting with nature. It is my ethos.
And then, as I started to make a profession from ocean sports, I realized my competitors and I have a huge opportunity, because of the influence sports has, to share these unique experiences and appreciation for the ocean.
For me, the ocean is so much more than a big, unknown world. It is my classroom, playground, church and place of refuge that I deeply honor and respect.
GSB: Very well said, Zane. When did you start speaking out on the environment?
Zane: It really started in 2015. My surfboard sponsor, Starboard, had not been very eco-minded before then, but then they made an amazing flip, a true 180. They partnered with Sustainable Surf and Parley for the Oceans, nonprofits committed to inspiring innovation and behavior changes to help save ocean ecosystems, from our personal day-to-day choices to macro corporate production decisions. I was honored to work with them all and learn how I could adopt eco innovation personally and professionally. In 2016, Starboard invited me to the “Parley Ocean School” in the Maldives.
GSB: …The small island nation off the southern coast of India that is at serious risk now, in real time, from the effects of climate change.
Zane: Youʻre right. This became a pivotal point in my evolution as an eco-warrior and environmental ambassador! For eight days, our group of 16 was taught lessons from people like ocean health experts Silvia Earle and Paul Watson, along with leaders from a variety of arenas. I had a chance to host an engagement, sharing with the group, 1) my connection to the environment through sports and, 2) how I run nonprofit events for kids worldwide to inspire future generations to embrace a healthy, active, and environmentally respectful lifestyle.
We scuba dove together with local climate change experts and saw the devastation to coral reefs and Maldivian islands first hand. It was a pivotal moment in my life.
GSB: Was Parley Ocean School solely a gathering of elite water sports athletes?
Zane: No, it was an eclectic group of influencers that included actors like Chris Hemsworth and Diego Luna as well as Victoriaʻs Secret models, recognized environmental photographer/videographers, marine biologists and more! Ocean school was about sharing experiences, lessons as well as telling stories. The goal was to shift our minds and actions so we would make better environmental choices — and share that approach with as many people as possible.
GSB: How did you go about doing that?
Zane: I decided then and there to refocus my purpose towards environmental action and to inspire my community to take responsibility for the health of our environment with our own daily choices.
I committed to making “Blue Life Choices” such as:
- Adopting a plant-based, vegan diet,
- Only working with brands as sponsors whose values and actions on the environment mirror my own,
- Packing my own water bottle and lunchbox to avoid daily single use plastic consumption,
- Investing only in likeminded companies as far the environment is concerned,
- Hosting beach cleanups on my travels and even during competitions
I also pledged to show off my “Pocket of Plastic Challenge,” a fun campaign I started in 2015 that asks surfers and beachgoers to put their pockets to use by leaving the water and beach with a few pieces of plastic they may have found in the water or sand and dispose of them appropriately.
Zane: Then I began advocating against single-use plastics. Wanting to give as many people as possible a taste of the Ocean School, I started partnering with nonprofits like Sustainable Surf, 5 Gyres, Eat Less Plastic, Surfrider Foundation in addition to Parley for the Oceans to spread the word. As mentioned earlier, I only work with sponsors that are the greenest in their product categories. Starboard is leading the charge for eco-innovation in its class. Did you know they plant mangrove trees for every product sold to offset their carbon footprint?
GSB: I had no idea. That’s very cool.
GSB: …A B-Corp is a for-profit business that is managed to balance profit and purpose, not solely the former.
Zane: B-Corps are phenomenal but having them sponsor me was not enough. I chose to adapt my lifestyle and also my business to continue innovating and inspiring, so in 2017 I started hosting more events — such as Surf, SUP and Hydrofoil clinics — and retreats that included beach cleanups and environmental education. I also published a book, “Beneath The Surface,” based on 15 years of journaling that allowed me to further share with people how to innovate and inspire and live a Deep Blue Life.
GSB: What do you mean by “living a Deep Blue Life”?
Zane: It’s the idea that, since pretty much all waste ends up in oceans or other bodies of water, we need to make a collective mindset shift towards making ocean health a priority in our everyday lives. I’ll take it from the words of Sustainable Surf: “We believe that the key to solving most environmental problems, including climate change, is for individuals and organizations to begin making sustainable choices in their everyday lives that are engaging, cost effective, fulfilling – and yes, even fun.”
That’s living a Deep Blue Life. I can help because of my platform. If I see a dead animal on the beach with plastic inside it, I embrace the grief I feel, because there’s nothing more that makes me want my community to stop using plastic bags and straws than when I see these daily conveniences leading to the death of life. After praying for the life lost to single use plastic, I may snap a photo and post it on social media because I want my community to embrace that grief as well, and make “Blue Life Choices” themselves. And, since blue is a key component in the color green, living a Deep Blue Life also encompasses going green — from renewables to EVs to energy efficiency. So I’ve created a tribe of sorts, a following, via the hashtags #DeepBlueLife #BlueLifeChoices and #MyBlueLife.
I talk to high school and middle school kids about the Deep Blue Life — they get it immediately — as well as to corporate audiences through my partners such as Parley for the Oceans.
“Zane’s Deep Blue Day,” a 7-minute video, details Zane Schweitzer’s commitment to the environment
GSB: I bet the audiences love your messaging. Finally, how much do you engage your audiences on climate change? It is of course intimately connected to ocean health, from sea level rise to ocean acidification to death of coral reefs and much more.
Zane: I try to connect my audience with our changing environment through my personal experiences. I have not yet focused on climate change per se. However I am only 25 years old, have witnessed entire beaches near home vanish, species go extinct, reefs bleached to the point of no return, record rain falls causing deadly flash floods, and islands once lived on sinking into the ocean such as in the Maldives.
The phrase, “climate change” may not be a highlighted topic in my engagements, but the message is clear that the actions of humans have caused these accelerated changes and its up to us whether we decide to contribute to the solution or the problem. I’m definitely looking to contribute to the solutions. That’s why I’m happy to endorse a carbon-pricing bill, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which was introduced with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress in the fall.
GSB: That’s great news, Zane! You’ve joined a growing group of athletes from a variety of sports who are backing EICDA. And I’m confident the lion’s share of your audience of GenZ-ers and Millennials will be happy to hear about your endorsement.
Zane: My hope is that sharing my endorsement as well as my experiences of seeing environmental damage firsthand will resonate with my fans, leading them to take actions that will put them on the positive side of climate change.