In the shadow of surfing, the hugely popular bodyboard struggles to resurface

He was the first European to win the world tour. But in the aisles of Santiago airport, Amaury Lavernhe is an average traveler. As we call him in the hubbub of Chile’s capital, the two-time world champion is on his way to Arica, where the first of eight stops on the world bodyboarding tour will take place this Friday. In his suitcases, two old boards from the Sniper brand, three neoprene wetsuits, two pairs of fins and a strong desire to shine. His goal ? “Make a top 3”, slips the Reunionese. At the height of his 36 years, the French rider considers himself “at his best level”. However, it is on his personal budget that he goes to South America for the biggest world competition of a discipline in crying lack of recognition. A picture ? The winner of this Chilean stage should pocket around 4,000 euros, the equivalent of the monthly salary of a French 3rd division football player.

Since he started bodyboarding twenty-five years ago, Amaury Lavernhe has never seen his sport regain the hype it had in the 1990s. The French rider delivers a candid explanation for this “crisis”. “In the early 2000s, some people in surfing deliberately shaded the bodyboard because it was taking up too much space. Suddenly, we saw all the well-known brands like Rip Curl, Billabong or Quicksilver drop sponsorship”. Slowly, foam boarding has seen its popularity recede and today only has a handful of licensees. Its practitioners today represent only 8% of the members of the French Surfing Federation, compared to 20% in the 1990s. “And we cannot move forward without licensees because in France, sport works by federation. On Wednesday afternoon, parents want a teacher, a club, a training schedule like in karate. But we don’t have any, ”regrets the French champion. Other greats in the discipline have harsh words to analyze the situation. “We are seen as a beach sport like Frisbee. And on some spots, we go a little for m…”, recognizes Julien Le Séhan.

The man is the president of the Minou Surf School in Locmaria-Plouzané, in Finistère. On his own, the Breton is able to draw up a long list of arguments in favor of bodyboarding.

“It’s quite easy, lighter to handle than surfing, cheaper in equipment. Beginners pass the bar more easily and can enjoy themselves very quickly without being afraid. It is a very complete sport. As soon as you try, you are seduced”.

The problem is that it is difficult to convince the kids to opt for the foam board. “They all want to become like Kelly Slater or Jérémy Florès. Surfers are a bit like rock stars”. However, all those who have already paddled in the waves in the summer have delighted in the sliding sensations of this physical but so euphoric sport. “The sensation of speed is unique. You are at water level, you feel like you are flying over the ocean in a wild environment. It’s a great sport, ”abounds Pierre-Louis Costes.

Double world champion, Amaury Laverhne is one of the best French representatives of bodyboarding.
Double world champion, Amaury Laverhne is one of the best French representatives of bodyboarding. – AR Photographer

The French world champion is one of the references in the discipline. And the only Frenchman to live from it, thanks to loyal sponsors who have supported him for several years. “I have the impression that bodyboarding has suffered from a degraded image. I think mentalities can change if we manage to have results on the world tour,” says the man who discovered his sport in the waves of Morocco with a pool board. The great challenge of the discipline is to build loyalty. “It’s a little-known sport that almost everyone has practiced. It’s crazy. How many people have ever been in the waves with a dolphin board bought at the local supermarket? asks Stéphane Sisco. The one who works as press officer for the French Surfing Federation is crazy about bodyboarding. He too started in the steep waves of Saint-Leu, Reunion. His view of his passion invites reflection. “Everyone wants to surf because it’s the dream. It’s a bit like the difference between skiing and sledding,” says Stéphane Sisco. But who would take a lesson to learn how to sled?

Having become an Olympic sport since the Tokyo Olympics, surfing reigns supreme in the world of board sports, overwhelming other disciplines. Two years before hosting the events in Tahiti for the Paris Olympics in 2024, French bodyboarding has already borne the brunt of the hegemony of its “big brother”. A few weeks ago, bodyboarding was removed from the list of top sports by the French ministry. Consequence: “the tap of public aid is cut”, explains, disappointed, Stéphane Sisco. Instead of bodyboarding, the ministry prefers to subsidize stand-up paddleboarding and parasurfing, depriving several high-level athletes of modest but valuable aid. The story is cruel when you know that the Teahupoo wave where the Olympic events will take place was discovered by a bodyboarder.

The Olympic surfing events of the 2024 Paris Olympics will take place in Tahiti on the mythical spot of Teahupoo.
The Olympic surfing events of the 2024 Paris Olympics will take place in Tahiti on the mythical spot of Teahupoo. – G. Boissy/AFP

Renowned as one of the most dangerous spots in the world, the wave of Tahiti is as much adored by bodyboarders as it is feared by surfers. “Bodyboarding has the advantage of going everywhere. You can ride all the waves”, assures Pierre-Louis Costes. The Frenchman admits having come close to the impossible when he took part in the Annaëlle Challenge last winter. This competition organized on a secret spot in northern Brittany gave rise to walls of water in which no surfer would have ventured. “It was absolutely huge, I had never seen that,” admits local Julien Le Séhan. These very hollow and very fast waves are the best publicity that exists for bodyboarding, which does not hesitate to praise its very spectacular side. “We can send aerial maneuvers impossible to do in surfing with huge waves that surfers cannot take”, assures Stéphane Sisco.

As always, the future of the discipline is taking shape among the youngest. And there are good grounds for hope when looking at French spots, where foam boards are making a quiet comeback. The reason is “cyclical”. Cradled by their parents who experienced the golden age of bodyboarding, more and more teenagers are opting for the rusk by imitation. Bodyboarding is not dead.

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