Prime Women spotlights a special guest — a woman who thoroughly embraces her age and lives her life to the fullest. Surfer Patti Sheaff, who has always been a bit of a rebel and at 61 still travels the world looking for waves. We are inspired by her story and know you will be, too.
Patti Sheaff will blow your mind. While some of us do well to swim a mile in a pool or balance on one foot in tree pose, the 61-year-old surfer regularly rides ocean waves like a teenager. In 2010, back pain drove her to give up skydiving and snowboarding, but she never misses a day at the beach.
Sheaff, who grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, got hooked on surfing at the age of 14. “It’s all I have ever wanted to do,” she says. “My brother surfed. I grew up with The Beach Boys. The minute I was old enough to take the bus to the beach, I was there.”
By 18 years old, Sheaff had quit high school, moved to Hawaii to surf full time and started competing in surf contests. It was her passion.
For decades, “big waves were my thing,” Sheaff says. “The biggest wave I ever surfed was in the 12-to-15-foot range, off the coast of California. I love the power and energy of big surf. There is nothing like it when you are out there.”
Besides energy and drive, youth often includes another powerful element: drugs. Sheaff sought solace and escape from deep sorrow in drugs after the sudden deaths of her brother and best friend. Much has been written about drug use in the surf world, and Sheaff admits that for about 10 years, until 1984, the two went hand in hand for her. She says drug use dimmed her enthusiasm for surfing, but sobriety brought it back. “I got clean at 28, and surfing became my passion again,” she says.
When Sheaff was 32, she was working at Hollywood movie studios as a set dresser when she fell through a false floor, fracturing her back and severely injuring a knee. The pain she’s dealt with since could have derailed her active lifestyle — or prevented her from living clean and sober — but it didn’t. Instead, she took up healing her injuries with the same intensity that she surfs, eventually returning to skydiving (something she picked up a few years before the accident).
“The first time I went skydiving outside the United States was in 1989 in Indonesia,” she says. “I spent the next 20 years jumping out of planes all over the world. I’ve made 1,500 skydives and loved participating in big formation record jumps like 100-ways.” (Editor’s note: A 100-way is formed by 100 skydivers linking up in flight to create a breathtaking design.)
Patti started snowboarding at 40. “I jumped into that like I jump into anything — not to overuse the word but with ‘passionate’ commitment. I love fresh powder, and I would chase storms. Wherever there was a big dump, I would go to ride the powder.”
Sheaff’s 20-year tenure as a senior researcher and field interviewer at The University of California, Los Angeles allowed her the flexibility to design her life around the things she loves to do, but eventually, back pain caught up with her. She gave up skydiving and snowboarding after a fall in 2010, and by 2013 the pain had forced her to take a break from surfing.
But she would not be forced out of the water. In fact, she says, she knew she had to be in the water in order to find her way back to good health. “There is something about salt water that is like coming home. It’s very healing just being out in the water. It’s not the waves so much as it is the ocean. There’s a real joy that happens out there,” she says.
And so, when her back pain was so bad she couldn’t surf, Sheaff bought a standup paddle board and took off toward the horizon, “to hang out with the whales and dolphins and seals.”
Discovering Foundation Training changed Sheaff’s life.
The protocol, developed by a chiropractor who himself suffered chronic back pain, focuses on isometric body-weight exercises that strengthen and elongate the body’s core, with emphasis on the posterior chain (all the muscles that connect to your pelvis, whether above or below it). The method is endorsed by the likes of Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth, and there are thousands of people who say they have benefited from Dr. Eric Goodman’s techniques.
“I read about it online and ordered the book,” Sheaff says. “I tried the first pose, and I was floored by the release. Tears literally came streaming down my face.”
Convinced Foundation Training would get her back on her surfboard, Sheaff located a trainer near her home in Santa Monica. Within the year, Sheaff was riding waves again. Since then, she has attended numerous Foundation workshops and trainings with Goodman and is working toward her certification as a Foundation instructor.
These days, instead of monster waves, Patti stays in the 2-to-8-foot range. She says her love of surfing is greater than it’s ever been. When people first meet her, they are surprised to learn that she spends hours surfing every day. After all, it’s highly unusual to find a 61-year-old woman traveling the world with a surfboard in tow.
But Sheaff doesn’t even think about her age. “I am just out there surfing and enjoying my life.”
For more information on Foundation Training, go to foundationtraining.com.