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The Ritz-Carlton and Surfers Healing fifth annual contest a success

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Lucas Taub, Mike Copeland, Izzy Paskowitz (Surfers Healing co-founder), Aaron Stewart and Kevin Skvarna gather up for a photo during the semis of the Surfing Santa Competition. Photo: Andrea Swayne


By Andrea Swayne

With Christmas tunes playing in the background and heat after heat of talented surfers dressed as Santas or elves battling it out in the lineup, the fifth annual Surfing Santa Competition—the surf contest portion of the Ritz-Carlton’s annual fundraising effort to benefit Surfers Healing—went off without a hitch on Nov. 21 at Salt Creek Beach.

The waves were small but consistent—in the 2- to 4-foot range—and the costumes, music and knowledge that participation in the event benefits children with autism, put surfers and spectators in the holiday spirit.

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Gavin Day of San Clemente managed to keep his Santa look intact while competing in the Yule Loggers Open Longboard division. Photo: Andrea Swayne

The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel hosts the surf contest followed by a surfboard auction—now in its eighth year—to benefit the organization founded by Isreal “Izzy” Paskowitz and his wife Danielle to provide people with autism with a free opportunity to experience the joy and therapeutic benefits of surfing.

“Years ago the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Bruce Brainerd, decided to do something to give back to the community and we partnered with Surfers Healing, a locally-based but international charity that is an amazing organization,” said Deanne French, director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton. “We (at the hotel) sit overlooking the waves watching surfers every day and it made sense for us to partner with each other. It’s such a fun day for a great cause.”

Between the surfboard auction—running through Dec. 31 with boards on display in the hotel lobby—and the surf contest—held the Saturday before Thanksgiving—French said the events are expected to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000, at least matching last year’s total.

The auction includes unique surfboards shaped by master shapers, ridden by world-class surfers or designed by acclaimed artists, musicians and celebrities.

Pro surfer and Dana Point local Bucky Barry, a past Surfing Santa competitor who has been volunteering with Surfers Healing for over 10 years, served as an announcer for the surf contest.

“This contest a fun way to raise money to help us reach our goal of taking as many autistic kids surfing as possible,” Barry said. “The appreciation shown by the kids and the families we help at our surf camps is insane and the smiles on their faces are awesome. I would do it every day if we could. It feels great.”

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Kevin Schulz of San Clemente makes the most out of the smallish conditions in his semifinal heat. Schulz went on to place second in the Men’s Pro/Am division and winning the Big Air award of $1,000 and a Brawner shortboard. Photo: Andrea Swayne

Izzy Paskowitz and his wife Danielle founded Surfers Healing in 1996 after discovering the calming and therapeutic effects surfing had on their son who has autism. Since then the organization has grown to provide free opportunities for autistic kids in 25 locations around the country—Rhode Island to Florida and Hawaii—as well as in Australia and Costa Rica.

“This is a great way to get surfers involved doing what they love while helping people with autism,” Paskowitz said. “The partnership with the Ritz-Carlton has helped tremendously during our growth period because we grew so quickly. When you offer something free for autism, our spots book out fast and the Ritz has helped us keep up with demand.”

Paskowitz said Surfers Healing now “sells out” 5,000 spots in about 20 minutes each year.

“My mission has always been to provide our free surf camp to kids with autism but it has grown beyond that,” Paskowitz said.  “It’s more like awareness and acceptance, even with your own child. It was a great way for me to connect with my own son. It’s a great way for parents to gather with their kids and not feel so alone. Financially the partnership with the hotel was a huge help for us. We hope to continue this partnership for many years.”

For more information about Surfers Healing, visit To view and bid on the Surfboard Auction, visit and click on “Hotel Overview” and then “Hotel Events” or  see The official website of the surf contest can be found at www.


BIG AIR WINNER $1,000: 1. Kevin Schulz, San Clemente. SURFING RUDOLPH PRO/AM MEN 18+: 1. Josh Benjoya, Dana Point; 2. Kevin Schulz, San Clemente; 3. Sam Orozco, Dana Point; 4. Kolton Sullivan, Capistrano Beach. SANTA’S ELVES BOYS 17U: 1. Ben Benson, Indonesia; 2. Danny Kenduck, Dana Point; 3. Gus Day, San Clemente; 4. Callan Emery, Laguna Niguel. CANDY CANE PRO/AM OPEN WOMEN: 1. Malia Ward, San Clemente; 2. Bethany Zelasko, Dana Point; 3. Marii Baker, Capistrano Beach; 4. Brooke Daigneault, Huntington Beach. YULE LOGGERS OPEN LONGBOARD: 1. Gus Day, San Clemente; 2. Kevin Skvarna, San Juan Capistrano; 3. Ricky Fodor, Dana Point; 4. Kyle Perez, Dana Point. SLEIGH RIDER OPEN BODYBOARD: 1. Hayden Stein, Laguna Niguel; 2. Samuel Mehler, Dana Point; 3. Cole Darland, San Juan Capistrano; 4. Joe Grodzen, Dana Point.

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