Industry Veteran Activates Community To Create Positive, Drug Free Role Models For Surfing’s Youth
For the past year, John Salanoa has been heading up the quest for a drug free surf community across southern California and beyond.
As an industry veteran and Hawaii native, Salanoa has worked as a professional freelance photographer with major companies like Quiksilver, Billabong, and Fox, to name a few, and has contributed articles for ESPN, Surfing Mag, Surfline, Surfers Journal, and several other major publications. With a steady finger on the pulse of the surfing community in Southern California where he makes his home, Salanoa became alarmed with the increasing amount of youth involved in drug and alcohol abuse.
Within the past year, he reached a breaking point where he could no longer sit back and watch youth endanger their lives, he says. Instead, he decided to use his connections to change the tide and re-shape the image around the sport. And so the Drug Free Surf (DFS) Movement was born.
“I was so bummed that at that time I had known six kids who had died of a drug overdose,” says Salanoa, about the time period last year when he founded DFS. “These last few months, that death rate hasn’t slow down. I watched some of these kids grow up from 10 years old. I have been to 13 paddle outs in the past 25 months. I started writing about it in Ghetto Juice Magazine and on my Facebook page, but that wasn’t enough.”
The surf industry vet started getting his campaign message out through a series of emails and word of mouth, and soon he was hearing from more and more interested advocates from within the surf industry. Pro surfers like Reef McIntosh, Nate Yeomans, and Ezekiel Lau signed on board, along with Big Wave world champion Peter Mel and his son Jon Mel, and Pipeline Legend Mickey Nielsen.
The DFS Movement just announced that it has gained support from the National Scholastic Surfing Association. The drug free campaign is one that is important to NSSA, after one of its own members—20-year-old Huntington Beach surfer and NSSA standout, Chris Love— overdosed on drugs three months ago. Love’s untimely passing had a huge effect on the local community, including Salanoa, pushing him to take DFS to the next level.
We’ve caught up with Salanoa to hear more about why he’s passionate about the cause, the groundswell of support he has already received, and his hope for DFS to influence youth in a positive way moving forward.
When, why and how did you decide to bring DFS into life?
I was hit very hard by the death of Chris Love from Huntington Beach and said enough is enough. I sent out an email to everyone I knew in the industry to see if they too had enough and if any of them would like to help get a message out to the youth that there is another side to life that is drug free. A few people responded with the same passion I have, and they are a big part of what is now the DFS movement.
I know that preaching to kids about drug use will not work. The more we lecture, the more they turn us off. And then peer pressure is an issue. They think everyone else is doing it, so why not. I wondered what if we could reverse that peer pressure? Make it cool to NOT do drugs, and let those who live a drug free lifestyle be the role models, especially well known surfers who kids look up. That’s when I thought about DFS.
Why do you feel like this campaign is significant within the action sports community?
The DFS movement is to uplift those who practice a DFS lifestyle. Kids now have outspoken pro surfers to look up to so they feel they too can live like their surfing heroes— drug free.
I want kids to see that the in crowd is not doing drugs. To make this happen, I needed help from some of the top pros I have known and have worked with through the years. I approached Brett Simpson first and told him about this and he was on board before I could finish the pitch. It went the same with Travis Logie, Nat Young, Chris Waring, Nate Yeomans, Matt Pagan, and Kanoa Igarashi who were the first pros to sign on. Now since we have launched just two weeks ago, Reef Mcintosh, Jason Shibata, Ezekiel Lau, Keanu Asing and many groms have come on board. There is one industry insider who really caught me off guard. I was walking in the south side parking lot at the Huntington Beach pier and Peter Mel called me over saying, “I need to talk to you.” I didn’t know if I should run or ask for forgiveness when he called me — you know it’s Peter Mel, and that man can be intimidating. “Me?” I said to Pete and he looked and said, “Yeah, you’re the DFS guy, right? I am now a part of this; somehow I need to be a part of this movement.” Peter is now our spokesperson within the surfing world and I am very thankful for his support.
Tell us more about your background and experiences working amongst the industry and its members?
I have been a freelance photographer in the surfing industry for going on eight years now, working with most publications and surf brands. I have been on surf trips and in the mix with pros. I appreciate and admire those who do live a DFS lifestyle.
What has been the reaction from brands, athletes, and youth in general to this campaign?
I have been turned down by a few athletes but for the most part it has been an open arms welcome by the surfers. I’m stoked to tell the DFS story to execs at all the brands. Any one who will listen. It doesn’t take much to reach even one kid.
You have a pretty impressive advocate base so far. Can you expand on who is involved and who you hope to recruit in the coming months?
The roster grows everyday but as of right now Brett Simpson, Travis Logie, Nat Young, Chris Waring, Nate Yeomans, Matt Pagan, Reef Mcintosh, Jason Shibata, Ezekiel Lau, Keanu Asing, Christian Saenz, Jake Saenz, Peter Mel, John Mel, Nolan Rapoza, Tia Blanco, Matt Passaquindici, Daniel Glen, Kanoa Igarashi, Jack Boyes, Tony Bartovich, Brad Ettinger, Hawaiian legend Mickey Nielsen, Torrey Meister, Colt Ward, up-and-coming groms like Abby Brown, Micky Clarke, Zackary McCormick, and Sebastian Mendes. I would love to get Jordy Smith, Kelly Slater, John John Florence, and all the other World Tour guys who live a DFS lifestyle.
In what ways does DFS plan to support the surf industry?
DFS is a movement to save lives, to really build positive peer pressure around the “surf drug free” lifestyle, at all levels of surfing from the top pros to the seven-year-old groms. The movement is about the kids paddling out into a line up and seeing a DFS sticker on a board and thinking, “Wow that’s my hero and he lives a DFS lifestyle. I want to be like that.” We have meetings scheduled with ASP International and are asking for PSA spots on every webcast in the world that is ASP sanctioned, and to have signage at every event. We also just received an endorsement for the NSSA in which they will have DFS at every NSSA contest.
What specific partnerships do you have in place and which ones do you hope to grow and evolve to further this mission?
DFS has a partnership with the NSSA right now but I hope that that will soon change to all bodies of surfing competition. This movement is solely being run by myself, Shawna Sakal-Beaty, Chad Wells, and Peter Mel. I don’t want this to be a project for one brand but a project that all brands will support. Time will tell.
What are some of the opportunities that the surf industry has to get involved, and how do you hope to continue to grow these opportunities as the campaign grows?
The surf industry as a whole can play a key role in spreading the DFS message. Surfers can put the stickers on their board. Brands can add the logo to their website. We hope to be part of surf events. The possibilities are pretty endless.
Will DFS remain as a sole campaign or do you plan to grow this into a brand with apparel, accessories, etc?
DFS is more of a groundswell movement than a brand. Right now this plays out as a sticker campaign. We could look into apparel somewhere down the road but our goal is to promote a drug-free lifestyle first.
On the retail front, which ones have you been partnering with and how do you hope to build on that, especially if you are thinking of branching out into including product under DFS?
No one as of now, but we would love to partner with any company that promotes a DFS lifestyle and wants to help us get the word out.
What are your thoughts on the overall state of the surf industry?
I think the sport is in a transition stage with huge opportunities ahead to leverage sports media and grow the audience. This is important for anyone connected to surfing, and to those who look up to surfers, the way athletes in other sports are looked up to. You have to separate the sport from the industry, and we hope the brands that make up the industry will take notice of DFS and want to support the concept.
What opportunities and challenges do you face? How do you hope DFS makes a difference overall?
DFS is a voice. It might be a small voice but it will grow louder as the effort to promote a drug-free surfing lifestyle builds momentum. DFS also gives surfers an opportunity to show the world that they live drug free. We strongly believe groms will follow.
The challenge for the movement is to get the word out and build that momentum around the world.
We want groms around the world to have DFS surfers as role models. There is a huge opportunity to reach kids before they get caught up in the social media-fed party scene.
Any closing thoughts?
I’m sorry kids had to die to wake us all up to the harsh realities and impact of drug use in surfing communities. If we save one life, then every ounce of effort will be worth it.
I know this isn’t an easy subject for people to talk about, but if we don’t talk about it, and show kids the alternatives, more will die. And I hope we’re done burying our youth and burying our heads in the sand.