Local surf legends. Every town's got that one guy who seems to be on an entirely different plane when it comes to their surfing. Though they may be awkward on land, they're in their element in the water, seemingly in sync with the ocean. No matter the conditions, they possess a fluidity and calmness that spits in the face of the biggest, baddest days. They'll paddle out in the thick of a hurricane swell and barely get their hair wet. They're always in the right spot, regardless of currents or rips and will always find the barrel, even on a day when none are to be had. The local legend also possesses a bag of tricks and a style that belies their surroundings. They are the first whiff of what it must be like to sit in the line-up at a place like Pipeline and watch the Slaters, Irons and Hobgoods do their thing. While growing up in Ocean City, NJ in the 80's and 90's, that guy for me was Mitch Leonard.
I never knew Mitch well, but would see him quite often as he managed Surfers Supplies for much of that era. He was (and still is) your typical blond haired, tan surfer, who exuded a calmness that silently spoke to far off, empty waves and heavy sessions. He was quiet and humble, yet approachable and fully engaging, especially if you were talking about anything surf-related. And he knew his stuff when it came to board design, forecasts and secret spots in distant lands. I was always in awe of him, feeling like I was in the presence of one of the sport's best.
There were two sessions that cemented Mitch's legendary status for me growing up and I still hold them in the same regard as the moment I saw Kelly Slater surf 12' Pipe in the '98 Pipe Masters from a front row seat on the beach. The first took place at the old 59th Street Pier on a good, but fairly non-descript, clean, chest-high day. A broken wrist kept me out of the water and I'd cruised up to the pier to hang out on the rocks and check the swell by the inlet. Within a few minutes, Mitch, Greg Beck (current co-owner of Surfers Supplies) and another guy I don't remember, came running down the beach with boards in hand and full suits on and bolted out to the line-up. Greg belted lip bash after lip bash. The guy whose name I don't recall had a few nice cut-backs and off-the-tops. But Mitch stole the show. Though crumbly lips abounded, he continually found the barrel on almost every wave he rode. And I'm not talking about head dips. I'm talking about 4-5 second deep tubes across the beach. It was like he was surfing an entirely different break than the other two guys, but he wasn't. He was sitting right next to them between rides. Uncanny. Amazing. Smoooooooth.