UTPA student discusses being a surfer

At the age of 5, Scarlet Sawyer had dreams of becoming a competitive swimmer for the University of Texas at Austin and eventually making the Olympic trials. With a year-round swim schedule, the then 14-year-old injured her rotator cuff, the tendons in the shoulder connecting the upper arm to the shoulder blade. This crucial injury ended her career as a competitive swimmer at 17.

A year later, Sawyer found herself standing in a tattoo parlor at South Padre Island when a local tattoo artist invited her to go surfing, a foreign sport to her at the time. But with 13 years of competitive swimming under her belt, she boarded up and hit the waves.

“(Surfing) feels like your first love. Everything’s so exciting nothing can put a smile on your face faster,” she said. “The fear turns into a rush and keeps you thinking about it all day long. When I’m on the water nothing can touch me. The bad thoughts are stuck on the beach.”

Now 21-years-old and attending UTPA as a full-time student, Sawyer has traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica for the thrill of catching waves. Throughout her travels the McAllen native experienced life in a new way.

“(Traveling) opened my eyes in the sense of what the world’s really about,” the junior said. “It’s not about how much money I can make, it’s not about the car I drive and I used to think that. I just wanted to impress people and now I think ‘why bother?’”

Juggling 18 hours of classes and beach time, Sawyer regularly attends school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. She explained that one of the difficulties of being a student as well as a surfer is not living near the ocean.

“I make sure to pack all my classes into those three days and once Thursday hits, if the surf’s good, I’ll head out there,” she explained. “During those three days of class I don’t even check the surf forecast because I know if there’s good surf I would just drop everything no matter what to ride the surf.”

Standing at about 5 feet 8 inches, Sawyer routinely hits the gym, swims 2 miles a day and practices yoga to improve her balance.

“You have to be overall healthy and ready for it,” she said. “You have to be strong. Be strong and fearless.

The student surfer worked all summer earning money as a swim coach in order to travel to Kauai, Hawaii this December to gain more experience at what she loves to do. Come fall 2016, Sawyer will graduate with a bachelor’s in public relations in hopes of landing a job that will allow her to continue seeing the world in both her professional career and favorite pastime.


After a year of distinguishing herself as a surfer, Sawyer and some local headed to Mexico in 2012 on a four-month trip to ride the waves.

“Everything was gorgeous. It was endless hills and jungle,” she said. “We’re sleeping in hammocks and right next to us are villagers who live there 24/7. Every day we would eat, surf, repeat…it was the best time of my life.”

But before she and some friends packed their bags and their boards to head to Mexico, Sawyer first had to tell her parents about the new opportunity.

“(My parents) think my surfing is cool but I know they worry, especially since I have had some close calls,” Sawyer said. “When I went to Mexico for the first time, my dad was so worried I would die from the cartel or surfing…so they were on the fence about it, but they’re not going tell me no.”

Without being born into the life of a surfer Sawyer drew inspiration from professionals such as Kelly Slater, an 11-time Association of Professional Surfer champion, as well as Keala Kennelly, a professional surfer, DJ and actress.

“I constantly watch other surfers and surf documentaries,” Sawyer said. “You can’t look up a how-to, you have to go out and do it. People can tell you all they want about how to surf the right way, but you really just have to feel it.”

In the spring, Sawyer made her way to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, where she and some locals gave new meaning to the term “lucky.”

“A couple of us surfers had been out all day in this amazing water that turned purple during sunset,” she said. “But by the time we headed back to shore, the day turns pitch black, there were no stars and no moon out, the tide rose to our chests and alligators are common in those waters…I don’t know where I was going and I didn’t know if I’m going out to sea. I just paddled as hard as I could.”

Safely back at shore, Sawyer celebrated a good day on the water among surfers and villagers. As long as there’s a new wave to ride, a new feeling of excitement and different people to meet, she will continue making waves.

“I grew up a lot, in the sense that I started taking care of myself. It was just eye opening in the way that the universe takes care of us,” she said. “You think, ‘Oh, I don’t have a place to sleep or eat, but at least I’m in good company and we’re all together.’ Overall, you should just be happy. Now all I really care about is if I’m around my family, eating good food and at a pretty beach with some surf.”