So , yeah, we’re just a couple of quasi adults in charge of six 14-year-olds in a Third World country. And sure, I’ll admit it, a few of them got sick. There was a night in the hospital. There was vomit. But let’s not focus on that. That’s not the issue right now. Right now the issue is whether or not the white swan — strapped to the roof of our taxi — is going to get its neck stuck in the power lines when we drive to the beach. The black swan on top of the other car is fine. The shark, turtle and stingray are safe, too. But this white swan…

Screw it. We don’t really have another option. The light is fading and these kids’ parents trusted us, damn it. What would they think if we brought them home without riding 6-foot closeouts on oversized pool toys? They’d never trust us again.

We reposition the white swan in such a way that, if it does hit some power lines, they won’t hook on its beak, and cinch the straps.

OK, let’s get outta here. Does everyone have their GoPros? Get in the car! Where’s Alan? Time’s a wastin’ and there are points on the line, people! Let’s go! (Tommy, Caroline — did you take your antibiotics?)

We’re in Bali for the fourth annual Grom Games, a 10-day event that pits the world’s best 14-year-old surfers against each other in pursuit of the title of Grom Games Champion (and a little bit of cash). This year’s contestants are Kade Matson (San Clemente, CA), Alan Cleland Jr. (Pascuales, Mexico), Tommy Coleman (Vero Beach, FL), Caroline Marks (Melbourne Beach, FL), Noah Hill (Venice, CA) and Eduardo Motta (Guarujá, Brazil). To win, the kids chase points through in-water events (best barrel/turn/air) and on-land competitions like coconut toss, Sprite chug, breath holding, foot race, etc. There is a $1,000 bonus prize for best GoPro edit, which Anthony Walsh is here to help them capture and cut. They’re staying in a luxurious villa in Seminyak (Istana Semer — Google it) and are ushered around to the island’s best waves every day that ends with “y.” They surf their brains out. They sing in the car. They order milkshakes at every meal. They dab. That the Olympics are happening concurrently doesn’t seem to register with them. To hell with Phelps. The only thing that’s happening on this earth is Grom Games. Is this day. This event. This wave. This barrel. This air. This. Very. Moment. Drink it in. This is the joy of youth.

It’s our first day in Bali and, from our villa in Seminyak, we race the sun to see who can get to Keramas first. It’s a tie. But when it comes to the race for first in the water, Alan Cleland Jr. is the clear winner — as he is for every subsequent session this trip. The kid’s hungry. Because not only is this his first trip to Indo, it’s his first time out of the Americas. Born in Pascuales, Mexico, to a Mexican mother and American father, Al wields two passports like they’re golden tickets to the Chocolate Factory. Imagínate las posibilidades. A stocky kid with a Dennis the Menace vibe, he’s got a swagger that says, “I’ll paddle 10-foot Pascuales,” mostly because he does. Here at Keramas, while his peers scrap for inside corners and head dips on the end bowl (because why not — they’re 14 and don’t need big waves to perform), Al waits out the back for the sets. Quiet. Patient. And when he catches them, he gets barreled and lays down huge carves and looks like a young Bruce Irons while he’s doing it. Three hours into this particular session, the wind switches and everyone gets hungry and the kids exit the water one by one. They find shade, pancakes and soda in the beachside warung. Meanwhile, Al stays in the water for another hour and a half, stomach growling, because his hunger for waves trumps his thirst for milkshakes.

There are certain Grom Games that are unfair. Most of them, really. For instance, how is Tommy — who’s a foot shorter than Kade — going to compete in the foot race or long jump? Some people don’t drink soda, and they’re supposed to chug a Sprite? We change events at the last minute and create new ones on a whim. It’s part of the fun, the looseness of it all. So we don’t think twice when we begin the billiards tournament and Brazil’s Eduardo Motta gives a nervous giggle.

“I don’t know how,” he says in heavily accented English. It isn’t an excuse, or a plea for a game change, just fact. Kade and Noah give him a quick tutorial before the games begin, which is well intentioned, but maybe a mistake. Because after Kade (the favorite) loses by scratching on the break, Eduardo goes on to sweep the field. Kinda like, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.”

This is Eduardo in a nutshell — talented and unassuming. He showed up on the first day with six boards, 19 words of English and five other kids staring back at him. If he was confident that he could take them out, it didn’t show. But after connecting with Al in Spanish, he blossomed and started to show his personality and talent in and out of the water. While Noah might stomp more airs, Eduardo’s are the loftiest, and if he starts landing them more consistently, he’ll be one of Brazil’s most promising exports. And he will start sticking them. Because he’s a quick learner — even when he’s behind the eight ball.

The kids are in the pool and I’m concerned about their safety in the next event. “Maybe we should have them all in one corner,” I say. “If one of them passes out or something, it’ll be easy to help them.”

“I don’t think any of them are going to push themselves that far,” says Anthony Walsh.

“I will,” says Caroline Marks.

And I believe her. Caroline, the first-ever female Grom Games invitee, is a competitive specimen. She’s fresh off her second consecutive US Open Junior win, holds a hoarder’s house’s worth of amateur trophies, and puts losing in the same category as nails on the chalk board. So when it comes to the breath hold, an event that holds no physical advantage for her competitors, she sees it as a battle of the mind — a battle that she can win.

Everyone lines up at one end of the pool and — 3,2,1 they dip their heads and stop breathing. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. One by one they pop up, gasping. First Noah. Then Eduardo, Kade and Tommy. Then it’s just Al and Caroline left and — hold on — Al pops up. At 1 minute and 16 seconds, Caroline finally rises for a breath. Victory. And she didn’t even need to pass out.

And while she goes on to win the standing-on-one-foot contest (another battle of focus and will), Caroline’s most impressive showing is in the water. Her surfing is so powerful, progressive and consistent that she is easily the most productive in bagging clips each session. With every fin throw, ever barrel packed, every compliment from a stranger, Caroline proved that her inclusion on the trip had nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with talent. If she keeps this up, the world tour, and maybe even a world title, will probably come before she can legally have a drink.

We’re midway through the trip and my patience is running thin with these kids. It’s not that they’re misbehaving, they’re fine, for the most part. They’re just loud and don’t take care of themselves. They yell in quiet restaurants. They ignore reef cuts until they’re infected. They drink soda, not water, between sessions and wonder why they have a headache (hello, tropical heat). They lose their passports and find them hours later…in their pockets. There is a definite babysitting aspect to this trip, and being my first Grom Games, it catches me off guard. Among the adults, we utter the term “natural birth control” during more stressful moments. Conversations start drifting toward teacher’s salaries. “How do they not making six figures?” we wonder.

Anyway, we’re at Kelly’s in Bingin and half the kids are sick and the other half are spread throughout the beachside restaurant like it’s their living room. I’m talking to Alex, a Swiss doctor on holiday in Indonesia, and welcoming the break from discussing “dank memes” and the art of dabbing. I tell her about the trip and confess my frustrations with the kids’ lack of responsibility. She shrugs.

“It’s not their fault,” she explains. “When you’re that age, your frontal cortex isn’t developed yet, so you lack the tools to make what we consider basic cause-and-effect decisions...”

She continues with a bunch of other very sound, very confident scientific evidence that states that I’m a grumpy adult and they’re just being kids. I carry this conversation with me for the rest of the trip, reminding myself that they’re not just tiny grown-ups, and that they need some guidance. They’re still learning. I don’t tell the groms about this conversation, of course. I would hate for them to be self-conscious about their stunted frontal cortexes, or worse, have an excuse for leaving the half-eaten chocolate bar on the white sofa.

Bacteria doesn’t care how sweet of a kid you are. Doesn’t care if you’ve got photos and videos to capture. It certainly doesn’t have the courtesy to wait until after the best swell of the trip to attack your immune system. It’s a mindless menace, bacteria. Which is how we ended up here, in a Seminyak hospital, with an IV in Tommy Coleman’s hand. His good friend Caroline Marks is in the bed next to him— she’s got the Bali Belly, too. But Tommy’s definitely got the worst of it. To add salt on the wound, the IV in his hand caused it to swell to cartoon sized proportions. Poor kid.

“It just sucks that it had to happen now,” he says of the simultaneous arrival of swell and sickness.

I don’t really know what to say, because “there will be more swells” is true, but it’s also bullshit. He wants to perform here, for Grom Games. As we’re in the hospital, the rest of the crew is surfing perfect Bingin, a wave where Tommy would shine. So yeah, it does suck, but I can’t say that. I settle with, “It’s just part of the ups and downs of traveling.”

Up and down. Up and down. Up and up and up. In a few days, Tommy recovers and is back to his normal self, addressing the restaurant staff as “sir” and “ma’am,” giving half his sandwich to the mangy dog and befriending the 4-year-old English kid on the beach. Yes, Tommy’s normal self is a breath of fresh air.

And while he missed the best sessions of the trip, there is hope for the final day. As the regular footers grovel at Keramas, photographer Scotty Hammonds takes the goofies to the Uluwatu area. We have low expectations, but really need to try and get something of Tommy before tomorrow.

A few hours later — ping — a text from Scotty, “Tommy just had a career session.”

Scotty’s excitement is confirmed while reviewing the footage that night. Deep barrels. Technically flawless wraps. Multiple airs on waves. This is the Tommy we’ve been waiting for. Healthy, under pressure, performing. Up and up and up.

We joke that Kade Matson started the trip 6’ tall, but will be 6’2” by the time we leave. And this morning, as he enters the common area of our villa, he’s gotta be at least 6’1”. It’s 6:28 a.m. and this is important because last night we decided on a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, and Kade is the only one up. I give him a pat on his very long back and go to wake the rest of the crew.

Kade, the shaggy-haired man-child, is a huge asset on this trip. He always wakes up first, always ready to go, always there to help me strap the boards to the car. After a few days, I realize that I can use him strategically. With every helpful thing he does, I start to lay on the praise. “Thanks so much, Kade,” “I really appreciate your help, Kade,” etc. After a couple of days of positive reinforcement, the other groms take note. They stop chasing butterflies and start chipping in. Strapping the boards on the car. Searching the restaurant for anything left behind. For anyone that helps out I jolt them with 50ccs of thanks. On one of our final days, I return to the car and the kids have already taken my fins out, packed my board and strapped it on the roof. And it all started with Kade.

He’s gotta be 6’2” by now, and what impresses me the most about him is that, through this rapid adolescent growth spurt, he’s been able to maintain near perfect form in his surfing. He surfs low to his board, arms perfectly placed, and unleashes big hacks that look like they’re coming from someone twice his age — especially on his backhand. One can only imagine the damage he’ll do when he gets that long, beautiful hair out of his eyes.

There are five of us in the car heading to Canggu, and Noah Hill groans. “Oh, man. That brownie is not sitting well.”

“You don’t get brownies for breakfast,” Tommy says (it’s 7:30 a.m.).

“I always get brownies…” Noah says, head against the window, watching the sunrise bounce off the rice paddies. “…my friend’s dog’s name is Brownie.”

And with a collective giggle from his fellow passengers, he’s back. What brownie? What stomachache? He’s got an audience and a Beats Pill and can sing every word to NWA’s F--k Tha Police. There’s 10 minutes left in the drive, he’s got some entertaining to do.

Random. Confident. Hilarious. Of all the groms on this trip, Noah understands that the world’s a stage, so he might as well play the leading role. He wears pink Crocs. He teases himself about pimples. By the end of the first day of filming with the GoPros, Noah had already made an edit, complete with music and dialogue and punch lines and cheesy graphics to emphasize the punch lines.

Noah’s the type of kid who, if professional surfing doesn’t work out, SURFING Magazine would want to hire when he’s done with school. Oh — and he’s actually in school. A real one, with other kids and attendance records and dances and stuff like that. At one point, I think while he was searching for Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”, an audiobook on Greek gods poured through his stereo speakers. Whoops, summer reading.

By the trip’s end, Noah has made three different GoPro edits — one surfing, one comedy, one mixed. He easily wins the GoPro Filmmakers Challenge, along with $1,000 (with which he plans to buy shoes). If you find it online, you’ll see that his surfing is not unlike his editing — smooth and surprising and with so much promise. (But, if the surfing doesn’t work out, Noah, please come work with us.)

Great news: The white swan and the rest of the pool toy armada make it to the beach unharmed. Questionable news: It’s bombing. Solid 10-foot faces capping on the outside but saving their strength for the inside sandbar. Boom! Boom! Boom! A set unloads. Is it too big?

“I don’t know if they’re going to be able to make it out,” says Anthony Walsh.

“They might be able to sneak through that little rip over there,” Jimmicane says, hopeful but unconvinced. The groms stare at him like a dog waiting for the OK to eat their dinner. Salivating. “We gotta try.”

A collective cheer comes from the kids and we peel the animals off the cars. Every grom grabs their favorite animal and sprints to the water like the sand is lava. Screaming and laughing and paddling oversized and awkward swans, sharks, stingrays and turtles. They battle through a barrage of whitewater lines, throwing their flotation over each wave. I swim out with them, filming with a GoPro. The lifeguards are blowing their whistles at us. Tourists stop and stare. Every kid eventually makes it out through the rip. Every kid gets worked and comes up laughing. It’s chaos, and a scene that is as ridiculous as it is perfect. This is where they belong. Not in a quiet restaurant or in a hospital bed or stressing about getting clips. But right here. In the ocean, being silly, being loud, climbing on top of a giant white swan and sending it on punishing closeouts. Yes, there are points to gain from this event, but nobody cares, because everyone is winning.


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