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Learning to Surf at 55

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Mary Wagstaff, artist, Larkspur, California

Her Aha Moment: Mary Wagstaff has always been captivated by the ocean. As a child, she spent idyllic summer vacations in Ocean City, Maryland, where foamy waves crashed on rocky jetties — and where she rode her first small swell at 17. Still, she’d mostly avoided the chilly waters near her Northern California home until 2004, when friends pestered her to join them for a day of surfing. “I was 55 and very resistant,” recalls Wagstaff, who hadn’t attempted to catch a wave in 35 years. “I figured I was too old, too stiff, and would embarrass myself.” But she agreed to tag along, and after watching her pals fool around on their rented boards, Wagstaff slipped into a wetsuit and paddled out to join them. A wave rolled in, and before she knew it, she was riding it toward the beach. After that, “I was totally hooked,” she says.

Her Learning Curve: Wagstaff and her friends started surfing weekly; since the youngest was 50, they called themselves OBOB, or Old Broads on Boards. Though she never took formal lessons, Wagstaff picked up pointers from more experienced riders and watched surf movies for inspiration. Eventually she invested in a stable longboard at a shop run by a veteran surfer. “He was my age, and he understood where I was coming from,” says Wagstaff with a laugh.

Her Payoff: In addition to giving her increased strength and flexibility, surfing has inspired her painting. A former advertising art director, Wagstaff — whose two children are grown — now spends long hours in her studio creating evocative, almost electrically photorealistic canvases depicting the glassy ocean and rolling waves. The sport has “connected me with a new daily contentedness,” Wagstaff says. “Surfing makes it easy to truly be in the present moment. The ocean is unpredictable, so the challenge is to be as alert and aware as I can be.”