The day I met up with CJ Dombrovskyi in Santa Monica, the waves were flat. The waves had been flat for weeks. I was bummed because we had texted each other about meeting up to surf and I had these visions of us bobbing between sets and chatting in our mutual happy place. Now we were meeting at the 3rd Street Promenade, a canyon with walls made of Apple, Tesla, H&M, Juicy Couture et.al – where sanctioned street performers, bohemian wanderers, and gutter punks brush shoulders with rabid consumers, aspiring actors, and selfie queens.
The “Surfer from Ukraine” was easy to pick out in the crowd: 6’2″-ish, blond hair in a Beckham-esque top knot, blue eyes, and a torso like Michal Phelps. And a big smile and a handshake.
“Want to grab a beer?” I said.
With late summer light turning our pints into golden chalices, I came right out with it:
“How the hell did you start surfing in Ukraine?”
Like most surfers, CJ’s story doesn’t start with a surfboard, but with a skateboard. CJ is 7-years-old and the Iron Curtain has fallen. For him and his friends, it is an exciting time; Western culture rushing in like water after a dam breaks, and their young minds open to new things.
“We were kids,” says CJ. “We didn’t understand how odd that period of life was for older people that had to face it – our parents, school teachers, neighbors. Seemed that the float of their lives kept going the same direction, but when in the middle of one of those loud and entertaining kitchen conversations was a few seconds of awkward silence, there was a question that everybody had but no one would say out loud, because not a single one would have an answer – ‘Now what?’ ”
While his parents ruminated on the next steps for their children, their future, and their country, CJ had found an old skateboard in his basement, an 80s cruiser-style board.
It was on.
Winds of Change
Burnt and abandoned buildings in Kiev became his favorite playgrounds. With no skate culture to draw upon, CJ and his friends created one of their own. Lots of downhills, rudimentary slalom courses, jumping off stairs, but one thing was missing: The Ollie.
“Having no internet, YouTube, social media, or access to any related info,” CJ recalls, “We just didn’t know that it was even possible. Just that feeling that there was something else out there.”
One day, an older dude with long hair passed through town with a modern-shaped skateboard and ollied over a shoebox. To CJ, it seemed like “This fellow was just floating 10 feet above the ground in the beams of light, with hair spreading in the wind and the whole world froze. For me that became a point of no turning back.”
In most countries, we know the rest of the story: the young boy sees the ollie and starts skateboarding every day, picks up sponsors, and wins the big contests.
But this is Kiev, Ukraine, a land plagued by war and the specter of more war. And it’s damn cold most of the time. Nothing kills skateboarding like frozen streets and snow drifts. So CJ skated when he could and carried on with his studies at Kiev Polytechnic Institute. He played ice hockey and, since the team was training for international competitions, they received special lessons in English and Western ideas.
His family vacationed at the Black Sea in the summers. “Swimming became another important component on the way to actual surfing. I loved water – jumping off the cliffs, diving, snorkeling, everything. I could spend hours by the beach or at the pool.” One day, CJ found a piece of styrofoam in a dumpster and tried skim boarding on it. But any notion of surfing waves was still far in the future.
It’ll Change Your Life, Bro
After graduating KPI, CJ moved to Barcelona where he worked as a nightclub promoter, staying up all night and skating the streets by day. It was here he had his first glimpse of surfing, albeit on the Mediterranean coast where the waves are usually small. Nevertheless, he saw his first ridden wave and starting talking with surfers. But it would still be a few years until he moved to California and started surfing.
“I got my first surfboard from my first salary a little over five years ago” he recalls. “I was 25- years-old, like Johnny Utah in Point Break. Remember the moment when he buys a pig board and kid in the shop says that it’s never too late to try surfing? Well, I’d have to agree that starting at 25, there’s not a lot to expect.. but not this time Bro, not this time….”
Finishing his beer, CJ tells me how, that morning, he’d driven to Paramount Ranch for a WestWorld casting call. He didn’t get the part, but this didn’t seem to diminish his dreams of acting. And why should it? Pessimism certainly isn’t how he found the courage to leave his country and become one of the few surfers from Ukraine. Pessimism isn’t how he managed to keep alive his relationship with his Odessa sweetheart for ten years of mostly long-distance dating (they are finally together in California).
In fact, as I sit across from him, I feel ridiculous for being bummed earlier about the waves. My whole life, I’ve lived 30-minutes or closer to the beach and I’ve never worried about missiles landing on my house. I grew up in a land of surf/skate shops and a rich boardsport culture.
Later that night, I thought about CJ and how he can’t visit his parents in Ukraine until he gets his Visa. I thought about how, after the pub, we’d walked to the Santa Monica cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Of course, it was sunset, and the tourists were out in force, snapping pictures in the orange glow, their faces tacitly saying, “I’ve arrived.” The end of the West, a promised land for seekers. Spandex, rollerblades, yoga, bikini babes, patchouli, and yes, surfboards. The waves were micro, but CJ was grinning and talking about paddling out tomorrow at El Porto.
I re-read an email CJ had sent me. At the bottom, he wrote:
“I believe that surfing is a culture built on respect to each other, to the ocean, and carrying the aloha spirit. We’re leaving the drama of this world behind to go out in the search for the perfect wave and being part of the nature. So this sport, more than any other, should bring people together no matter how different their views are outside of the ocean.”
And then he wrote:
” ‘Surfing is a source. Can change your life, swear to God.’ ” -Point Break