SEBASTIAN — A fear of drowning prompted Jaime and Charlie Coleman to make swim lessons a must for their kids, but the love of the water they fostered early on in son Tommy would prepare him to become a surfing prodigy.
Coleman, a homeschool student who turned 11 last week, has attained elite status not only among surfers in his age group, but also in the ranks of all American boys in general. It won't be surprising if the pre-teen one day earns a coveted spot on surfing's prestigious Association of Surfing Professionals Tour.
"I kind of remember my swim lessons,'' said Coleman, who recently was named the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Surfer of the Week, an honor which encompasses not only the East Coast but also the West Coast and Hawaii. "I know I've always really liked the water.''
The Colemans live in Vero Lake Estates and Jaime Coleman is a teacher at Osceola Magnet School in Vero Beach.
"It was something I did right,'' Jaime Coleman said of introducing the toddler Tommy to swimming.
"I remember as soon Tommy got in the water, I was determined to make sure he took swim lessons,” she said. “My dad was also very protective and wanted to make sure both kids could swim. Tommy was always doing stuff in the pool.''
"I think the swim lessons were more for us,'' Charlie Coleman said, noting the lessons provided reassurance, but that "Tommy could always swim like a fish.''
It didn't take long before the antics in the pool transferred to a more important stage. On a family trip to see Charlie Coleman's brother in New Smyrna Beach, 5-year-old Tommy Coleman was determined to get on his father's surfboard.
"I tried it and stood up on my dad's board and I was hooked,'' Coleman said. "It was so much fun – the feeling of getting out there was just amazing.''
It wasn't long before Coleman was competing in youth surfing contests around the state.
"His first ESA (Eastern Surfing Association) contest had to be when he was 5 or 6,'' Jaime Coleman said. "He ended up finishing second to a 12 year old. He was so confident and comfortable. You could see that he was meant to be on the water.''
Coleman's first big victory came in the prestigious 2010 National Kidney Foundation Annual Labor Day Surfing Festival in Cocoa Beach, where he prevailed in his age group.
"I was so happy after that – it felt so good,'' Coleman said. "That was the first time I spoke into a microphone. That's what I was the most nervous about. I don't think I remembered to thank half of my sponsors.''
Surfing gear manufacturers Billabong, Sanuk, Smith Optics, Neff, XTrak, FCS/Gorilla and others have lined up to sponsor the fifth grader.
Coleman is ranked first in the NSSA in Open Boys, Explorer Super-Grom, Explorer Menehuene and Open Mini-Grom.
And, there's still many more events remaining in the 2012-2013 season. Coleman has recorded 22 victories this season, more than anyone else nationwide. In December, he swept four divisions in each event for eight victories in the two-day, Southeast Conference competition at Ponce de Leon Landing.
John Holeman, who runs a surfing school based in Satellite Beach, has been Coleman's coach for nearly three years.
"Tommy is a strong Christian kid and that helps him with the ups and downs in life,'' said Holeman, who used to surf with Coleman's father. "Tommy has been tossed into a difficult arena of multinational corporations at a young age. That's a lot of pressure for someone that young to handle. He's extremely mature — emotionally and mentally — and that helps him in what he tries to do. He might be 11, but he acts like he's 19. He takes surfing very seriously.''
That became evident last season when Coleman got caught in the line of a fisherman during the nationals in Huntington Beach, which was his introduction to surfing in California. He ended up fifth.
"I tried to be positive out there,'' Coleman said. "I didn't want to think negative thoughts. I probably should have gone back in to get the line off. I eventually got the (fisherman to cut the line). It inspired me. I don't want them to write the story on the parking lot.''
Conquering adversity as a young surfer is imperative for future success.
"Tommy has good balance. You can't get caught up with it always being first place, first place, first place,'' Holeman said. "It's not always the best surfer who wins first place. That's not the concept on how to be better.”
Becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pond is the key to remaining humble.
“You have to go outside of the East Coast to Hawaii and Australia to realize and know the level that you're at,” Holeman said. “You have to train and travel to see what's out there and stay ahead of the game. The East Coast is five to eight years behind the times.''
Coleman recently trained in Puerto Rico, and he also has trained extensively in Costa Rica and El Salvador. C.J. Hobgood, a native of Satellite Beach and the 2001 ASP champion, also has selected Coleman to work out at Camp Hobgood in Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Coleman's sponsors also have talked about a trip to Indonesia, which would be a dream-come-true journey for Coleman, who lives in Vero Lake Estates.
Surfing excursions to Hawaii and Australia also are planned for the next two years.
Coleman doesn't play baseball anymore, even though he showed promise as a little league second baseman. He still likes to ride his skateboard on occasion.
From time to time, there's also a fishing or golf outing.
Free time is a luxury for someone who awakens to a 5:50 a.m. alarm clock each day. After surfing early in the morning at Sebastian Inlet or at Satellite Beach under the tutelage of Holeman, Coleman attends school for four hours in the K12 Homeschool Program. Then, there's another trip to the ocean for more surfing.
Workouts in the gym haven't become part of his regimen. He's too young for weight work at this time. On a dare, Coleman did 11 pull-ups to establish a record in elementary school.
"I could have done more,'' he said. "The record was 10.''
Coleman always is ready for the next challenge.
"Anytime I show Tommy a new maneuver, he's excited,'' Holeman said. "He's so young, so he hasn't developed a signature move that he's known by yet. He already loves doing no-handed aerial 360s. For a 9-, 10-, 11-year-old surfer, that's remarkable.''
Charlie Coleman, who graduated from Palm Bay High in 1991, used to surf with 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater and Slater's brothers, Sean and Skippy, at Cocoa Beach and other area surfing spots. He's amazed at his son's success.
"Some kids have that talent and it's so much fun to watch,'' Charlie Coleman said. "I might have surfed, but this is an example where talent skipped a generation.''
It takes more than talent, however.
"Tommy is a natural-born talent compared to others,'' Holeman said. "But he listens and applies what coaches tell him. Some will listen, but they don't apply it. That's what separates Tommy from others.”