Pro Surfer Kolohe Andino interview
He enters the gym wearing one flip-flop. Kolohe Andino clatters across the hardwood on crutches. His right foot and ankle are encased in a black pneumatic boot.
A two-hour physical therapy session is about to begin. It’s the final day of April and Andino is 10 days out from surgery he had to repair a grade 3 ankle sprain and some related cartilage damage. Sitting on the treatment table, here at a facility near his lifelong home in San Clemente, California, he removes the boot and unwraps an Ace bandage to reveal a tidy vertical scar and three small incisions. “I wish my ankles were this size all the time,” Andino jokes, pointing to the swelling. “That would be solid.”
Then it’s down to business. Andino has for years trained like a bulldog, obsessive even by professional athlete standards, and this PT session is no different. A certain groundbreaking competition is scheduled to begin on July 25 at Tsurigasaki Beach, located 90 minutes east of Tokyo, and the 27-year-old surfer plans to be ready. Andino and his rehab team have determined the date when he should be able to get back in the water—“June 17 is the target for that,” he offers, speaking like that’s in indelible ink.
The rehab does not look fun or relaxing. The best elite athletes are like normal people, in that they eat breakfast and brush their teeth like the rest of us, but they do not train like mortals. Andino’s hard cast was removed two days ago and he’s already doing dynamic movements—like a super clam, a complicated side plank with glute extensions— while wearing Blood Flow Restriction bands, which limit blood flow into his right leg to intensify the workout. Then he does a block of dynamic neuromuscular stabilization, a rehabilitation technique that rewires the body’s movement patterns. There are electronic pulses and massage guns and even toe yoga. “You know you’re super fit when moving your toes makes you sweat,” Andino says, laughing before getting philosophical. “It’s good to have some structure and be doing shit, but it’s so far from landing airs in the flats. Surfing is literally how I normally express myself.”
Moderation is not Andino’s default setting. For years he’s operated more like a light switch than a dimmer— always on at full power. But the pandemic has helped Andino, who’s been in competitive contest mode for most of his life, to accelerate his journey to a certain kind of enlightenment. Last November, for instance, Andino, who long has harbored ambivalence about his sport’s spirit in the age of Instagram, hastily organized a surf trip to Indonesia with four buddies that has turned into a big film project about friendship, the soul of surfing and endless perfect waves. He’s found more bandwidth to see how his surfing life, while anchored around competitive grit, is sustained by other elements of surf culture and creative interests, and in turn, that has deepened his love for it. Even his injury and surgery, poorly timed to say the least, pose an opportunity to reset.
“I’ve realized I’m happiest when I’m outside surfing. Why not lean into that?”
“It’s been a weird year,” he will observe later that day. “I really had a chance to deep-dive into myself and realized that I spent a decade weighing my happiness or success on how I did in my last event. And then when there were no events, I realized that I just actually love surfing, going on a road trip with no camera, or teaching my wife how to surf, or trying to learn how to shape boards, or filming my friends surfing—all of this rad stuff.”
Tokyo and the resumption of the World Surf League’s Championship Tour still beckon. And one of the hardest-working surfers on the planet will surely get back to eight-hour sessions and 4 a.m. workouts. But something fundamental has shifted, something that Andino thinks will help him perform in cutthroat comps. “I’m ready to compete in a place of joy and lightness, with a sense that I’m not scared to lose,” he says. “I realize I’m happiest when I’m outside surfing. Why not really lean into that?”
Andino has a lifelong connection to San Clemente, a beachside city that sits at the southernmost edge of the Los Angeles metro area. He was born here, in a local hospital that no longer exists, and though surfing has taken him all over the world, it remains his home base. “Yeah, I have a lot of roots here,” he says.
His father, Dino, grew up here and became a local legend—“even now he’s still the kingpin of San Clemente,” Kolohe says. Dino was a national champion in the ’80s and a successful pro in the ’90s. When Kolohe was just 2, Dino would take him out on a board, the toddler lying right under his father’s chest, as they carved turns in the famously friendly surf at San Onofre State Beach. “I’ve truly been around surfing my whole life,” the second-generation pro observes. Dino has been his coach since the beginning.
Pro surfing is packed with young men and women who were nudged (or pushed) by a dad to greatness, but no one else had a lifelong apprenticeship like Andino. After his retirement from the pro ranks, Dino transitioned to a job in the industry and often brought his son along on the pro circuit. Between the ages of 10 and 14, Kolohe says, he lived the life of “a mini pro surfer.” He went with his dad to events on the East Coast, in Europe, in Hawaii, and had an all-access pass to experiences that other youngsters could only dream about. “I got to hang out with all of my favorite surfers and go free surfing with them and all that stuff,” he says.
From early on, it was obvious that the kid was not destined to be a tourist out there with the heavy hitters. He won his first contest in 2002, at the age of 8. Three years later he won his first national title—yes, there’s actually a category called Mini Grom—and then went on to win junior national titles in the next four years. In the end he won nine NSSA titles, more than anyone in history. In 2009 he was favored to win the junior title but instead at 15 became the youngest Open Men’s champion in history. At an age when many kids are still collecting an allowance, Andino had top-shelf companies battling one another to sponsor him.
Andino qualified for the WSL’s Championship Tour— the pinnacle of the sport—at the age of 18, buoyed with confidence and a stable of corporate backers and a lifetime of grooming for that moment. It didn’t go as he planned. “I just got my ass kicked for the first four years,” he says. “It was weird.”
Along the way he learned that contest surfing on the CT is like a heavyweight prize fight every time. “Surfers are normally pretty chill people but out there we’re literally trying to rip each other’s heads off,” he says.
When asked to describe what it’s like out there, surfing heats against other top pros, Andino breaks his competitors into categories. Some guys he knows he’s going to beat, and other guys who are really good act like they’re out there alone, which can be unnerving. But, he says, the very best guys “put out this really thick thickening-of-the- air aura. When I surf against Kelly [Slater] and [Gabriel] Medina, we’ll be this close together, and the air actually feels heavy and dry.”
Andino rose to the challenge. He already had an intense work ethic and a demanding father-coach and felt the weight of expectations from within himself and those around him. Andino went all in with every aspect of his preparation. “I hate to lose,” he says. “So I try to be sure I did A through Z to be ready.” Andino says he tries to “train a lot and eat perfect”—which in his case is a perpetually mindful paleo-keto diet of vegetables and a wide mix of lean protein. He drinks zero alcohol, regularly surfs full-day sessions and works out at all hours. “The last year I was on tour I was waking up at 3:30 in the morning and getting an hour and a half of working out before the sun was up,” he says. “It gets a little crazy sometimes.”
Andino admits that at times his approach has led to overtraining injuries, but it’s also true that his obsessive work lifted his performance on the Championship Tour to a rarefied level. He had a breakthrough year in 2017, with four top-three finishes in CT events. And in 2019, the last full year of CT competition before the pandemic, Andino finished top five in seven of 11 events, earning second or third place results four times. This consistent excellence earned him an Olympic bid.
“It’s a really cool feeling to go into an event and feel like I’m in incredible shape,” he says. “I get this ecstasy-like machinery feeling where I know I’m ready. That’s a rad confidence thing, going into an event knowing that I’m not going to fuck up any wave I get. When I’m in incredible shape, I surf every wave at a really high level.”
“Winning isn’t like a magical Band-Aid that just makes you relaxed and happier.”
Even when discussing his training triumphs and breakthrough success, Andino is quick to note that he has never won a CT event. He obviously has a deep hunger to win, but he has earned some perspective on this the hard way. “Back when I was getting my ass kicked, I would do just about anything to finish in the top five,” he says. “But once I finished top five a couple times, I realized I still felt the same—I still felt this hunger to win. I was still living and dying by each result.”
He recalls a conversation with his good friend, John John Florence, who has won CT events seven times. “And after he finally won, he told me that he was surprised— like OK, that’s it?” Andino says. “Winning isn’t like a magical Band-Aid that just makes you relaxed and happier, or changes your life outside of the sport. You still have ups and downs with your family.”
Eventually he saw what needed to change. “Surfing heats can be so weird, because you can do everything perfect and it just goes out the window with the waves that you get, or the person you draw, or what kind of waves he got,” he says. “It’s really hit or miss. And it’s hard to frame your happiness around something that you have no control over. It was eating away inside of me, and I realized that there’s no way I can surf my best in that frame of mind. So I’ve been trying to flip that script.”
Andino pauses for a moment. “Surfing competitively has taught me a lot about life,” he says. “You have to deal with whatever the fuck gets dealt to you.”
At home, Andino has his right foot propped up on a table in a second-floor room he proudly calls his man cave. The shelves are lined with what may be the world’s largest collection of Los Angeles Dodgers bobbleheads. A sweet collection of vintage camera equipment—including a medium-format Hasselblad and a 35 mm movie camera— sit in a jumble on the desk. His two dogs, Dooley and Levi, wander in and out of the room with various objects in their mouths, including a sofa cushion. There is a big TV, where Andino and his wife, Maddie, cheer on their beloved Dodgers.
Over by the couch sits a large dry-erase board. It’s the storyboard to the surf film that Andino planned, funded, helped film and is now lovingly editing. It charts out the character quirks and arcs, the plot points and backstory and the tube-riding exploits of the film’s five key characters— Andino and four longtime friends from San Clemente.
The documentary, titled Reckless Isolation and set to be released in September, is a throwback to surf films of another era. It’s action-heavy, with a soundtrack that blends soulful folk with unrelenting screamo. But beneath all the footage of dudes surfing one perfect tube after another to thrumming guitars, there’s a quiet story about friendship and adventure—a story of what surfing once was and can still be.
“Surfing has become an Instagram sport, which is really just weird because in the past it was on the forefront of fashion and surf-bum counterculture and rock ’n’ roll—truly adventurous things,” Andino says. “I grew up with surf films—I got to see my heroes on the big screen. It was big and loud and it was a huge party.”
Late in 2020, Andino learned that Indonesia had opened up, and before anyone else jumped on it he and four childhood buddies jumped on a plane. They spent 20 days on a boat in the Mentawai Islands. “There were no phones, I got to invite my best friends, there were five or six incredible swells and I got to make a movie,” he says, offering a sort of elevator pitch. “It’s hard to explain just how good the waves were.”
Indeed, the film is a chronicle of barrel drunkenness, as Andino and his friends celebrate the intoxication of dropping into one perfect tube after another. There is playful shit-talking on the boat, an epic bonfire, the simple but profound joys of friends enjoying something special together. It’s like a dream, only with cooler music.
It was an entirely new—and entirely restorative—experience for the veteran comp surfer turned rookie filmmaker. “It was super exciting to watch my friends surf and try to make them look as big and good as possible,” he says, noting that everyone gets equal screen time in the film. “I try not to be like the big chest-pounding guy because it’s just not my style. It’s not the way I was raised. I just kept thinking how I’m in love with surf movies and had all my friends in Indo! The whole thing is super rad, something the surfing community needs.”
Andino is grunting at the gym, getting assessed and worked over by a trainer. The facility is in the headquarters of the surf-inspired sock-and-underwear brand Stance. Classic rock fills the loftlike space as a gentle breeze blows through open garage doors. Everyone present seems to be holding a winning physiological lottery ticket; during a 30-second break in the action Andino says a quick hi to NFL quarterback Kyle Allen, tossing a few wisecracks at his buddy about the ongoing draft.
There are a bunch of reasons for Andino to be at the gym so soon after his surgery. He needs to make sure his leg and core muscles don’t atrophy. It’s a chance for him to retool his body and fix some chronic imbalances. And perhaps above all, it’s a critical piece of self-care for an athlete who is used to long, hard hours in the water. “It’s an important thing to keep an elite athlete mentally engaged,” says his trainer.
“It’s stress release.”
There’s something comically impressive in watching an injured top professional athlete perform challenging rehab exercises to classic rock. His shoulder mobility is assessed to the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” In seconds he masters this 90-90 mobility drill, which involves a sequence of six different head-to-toe movements, to “Sweet Emotion.” He does a series of short recovery pulls of a heavy rope draped over a squat rack, grunting along with “Come Together.” “This is like serious glory rock,” he notes. But putting that one quip aside, Andino is pretty damn serious, picking up, refining and perfecting movements more quickly than most people could possibly do.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” his physical therapist told me earlier. “You can give him a little cue and he can change immediately.”
Later in the day, Andino recaps the mishap that landed him in PT. It was in February. Two months earlier he’d come into the first post-COVID event in terrific shape—at the iconic Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore—and lost in an early round. But around Valentine’s Day, Pipeline was really firing, so he decided to fly out and stay with John John Florence and surf the hell out of the world’s most famous barrel for five days. “I mean I love to surf and get barreled, so this is the best wave in the world,” he says. “So I was psyching to get over there.”
The first day there he surfed for six hours in the morning, and then, right in character, he went back out for an afternoon session.“I was tired,” he says. “I contemplated it for a while, and I decided to go out.”
At first it seemed like a great decision. “The first wave I got was one of the best waves I’ve ever gotten out there,” Andino says. “It was a big barrel and I was just in the thing and it was sick. I was really stoked. On a big day, Pipeline can get crowded and hard to get a good wave. And it’s gnarly and people are getting hurt. It’s a yard sale of emotions out there.”
“When I’m surfing, I want to be relaxed in between maneuvers, and then fierce when it counts.”
But just as he was coming out of this perfect barrel, Andino says, the wave bent out to sea ever so slightly and he got clamped. For a moment, fueled by the full force of heavy water, his board was pushed up while his body was pushed down. “For a second it felt like I broke my leg but then I knew I didn’t,” he says, noting that he actually surfed a few waves after that.
The next day his ankle didn’t hurt or seem swollen and Pipeline was still pumping, so he went out again. “And it happened again,” he says with a sigh. “So yeah, like my worst nightmare—overdoing something 10 times. Every time I get hurt, it’s because I oversurf when I’m tired. It’s the eighth hour of the day and I’m still going way hard.”
For a while after that trip, Andino hoped that rest would clear up the issue. But a few weeks later he went on a bike ride, the pain was too much and the ankle swelled up; he knew he needed to see a specialist. Thus began his sprint to get ready for Tokyo.
Andino’s gym workout ends with these core-mobility movements that look like three complicated moves pasted together. The trainer explains the new sequence once and the surfer just nails it with perfect form.
When asked how he perfected it so quickly, Andino shrugs. “Surfing is a dynamic thing,” he says, as “Dust in the Wind” soars in the background. “To do it really well you need to have a feeling of what’s happening with your whole body—and then posturize and compartmentalize individual body parts.”
Andino, crutches and all, is back at San Onofre, the spot where his father first took him out on a board when he was 2. It’s hardly the local break for heavy hitters—that would be Trestles, just a couple clicks to the north—but Andino is in his element. He throws shakas and boisterous good cheer at surfing acquaintances he sees and asks a few random passersby who shaped their boards. Over four hours of hanging at the beach, he looks at social media exactly zero times. He’s more keen to stare out at the water and watch kids cruising on longboards.
He has small waves on his mind. Andino thinks the conditions at Tsurigasaki Beach in July will likely look a lot less like Pipeline and a lot more like San Onofre. “I don’t think people realize how small it could be,” he says. “I think it could catch people off guard.” To that end, he’s framing his downtime and rehabilitation therapy as an opportunity to lose some weight and get even whippier on his board.
“The waves that we ride on the tour are normally big, windy, chunky waves where you have to weigh down your body and your board and sink into your maneuvers,” he observes. “Either that or it’s like big sections in Europen where you have to like hit and control a big wave coming at you like boom! So you have to be super strong and heavy-footed; whereas Tokyo will be a whole ’nother game. I’m at like 175 right now and my usual fighting weight for surfing is like 170. But it would be huge if I could get to 165 so I can get up on those waves and generate speed and do a couple of maneuvers.”
In a word, Andino is stoked about Tokyo. “It’s a rad opportunity for me,” he says. “I think if I was not in it, I would be super bummed.” San Clemente sits on the northern edge of Camp Pendleton, a massive Marine base that spans 195 square miles. Andino says that he now sees how this shaped his excitement to represent his country in Tokyo. “I grew up next to Pendleton and my whole life I’ve mixed it up with Marines and people who are stationed here and their kids,” he says. “I’m a very patriotic person.”
“I love my country. To be able to fly the flag and the colors means the world to me.”
Andino lights up. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to get the merch and all that cool shit,” he says. “I love my country and to be able to fly the flag and the colors means the world to me.”
If you want to get Andino fired up, ask him what he thinks about surfing and Instagram. “Surfing feels very much like a social media sport right now and it can seem very corny,” he says with enough animation to stir one of his dogs out of a nap. “Surfing is not supposed to be like bottle flipping on TikTok. Surfing is real—real surfers work real jobs and they’re core and they yell at kooks when they’re in the way like it’s a hardcore thing. Surfers are rock ’n’ roll in the water and they’re at the forefront of fashion. It’s supposed to have depth and darker elements.”
Andino is rock ’n’ roll in the water. There’s no doubt about that. Now, like the soundtrack to his film, he’s trying to blend some soulful folk with the screamo. “They say how you do anything is how you do all things,” he says. “My surfing is like that. It’s an expression of my life. With my surfing career, the trying was never the hard part. The fire and the passion were never the hard part. The hard part is getting me to relax and to let things happen. So, yeah, I’ve worked a lot on that, being relaxed and having that kind of strength from the inside and not the artificial strength.”
When he’s surfing at his best, Andino looks simultaneously tranquil and explosive, seeming at once spontaneous and deliberate. Through this fluidity and duality, he expresses himself on a surfboard. “When I’m surfing, I want to be relaxed in between maneuvers,” he says, “and then fierce when it counts—like bang!”
Andino is representing a lot of people when he surfs. He’s out there because his dad pushed him out there and helped mold him. He’s out there repping for the rest of his family and brands that have been behind him a long time and his San Clemente buddies and everyone who knew he’d be a big deal 15 years ago. And this summer he’ll be out there at Tsurigasaki Beach, in his red, white, and blue merch, representing his country.
All these things matter, but they are not why Andino has spent his life surfing, obsessively trying to work a little harder and do a little bit better. “All this has not been for anyone else,” he says, trying to explain one side of the coin, his long hard grind toward true excellence. “It was just because I wanted to do good. I wanted to feel worthy within myself.”
And on the other side sits something bigger than his competitive fire, even larger than self-expression or joy. “You can probably tell from spending a little time with me how much I love surfing,” he says. “I’m fascinated to learn more in a noncompetitive way—surfing has given me so much that I just want to know as much as I can about it. Surfing is just like my life.”