Updated: Oct 31
Standing near the two-story scaffolding at the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic on the morning of October 28th in Flagler Beach, the first heat buzzer sounded and the scene exploded into action.
Groms were running to the sand with colored rash guards and excitement in their voices. Surfers of all skill levels — some of whom had tested their talents on the World Surf League Qualifying Series — were checking in for their heats. Announcers were dropping heat scores minute after minute. Both vans and trucks had backed towards the boardwalk and parked, creating a local's viewing area of the action in the water. Traffic was at a crawl as onlookers tried to catch a glimpse of the surfing — and find parking.
Beneath this action-packed surface, there were signs that this was more than just a surf contest. There were too many people to count wearing Tommy Tant contest t-shirts from as far back as 2001. A wall of images inside the main tent showed the community through the years, and on the schedule was a paddle out in remembrance of Tommy, along with an awards ceremony for scholarship recipients.
Surfing was undoubtedly the main draw at the 2023 Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic. But a beautiful byproduct was that it allowed important conversations of grief, healing, and faith to take place on the sand and the boardwalk.
Together, this is what made the Tommy Tant more than just a surf contest. It was a celebration of the community — past and present — that is Flagler Beach.
An annual sight for 22 years strong: the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic. Photo: American Surf Magazine
Not only is the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic the longest-standing surf tradition in Flagler County; it's high on the list of the longest-running surf contests on the East Coast.
In 1998, Tommy Tant, a local and beloved surfer, passed away unexpectedly from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm.
His death shook the entire community, with reverberations felt from the beach to Flagler Palm Coast High School and everywhere in between.
About a year after his death, the Flagler Palm Coast High School marketing class approached the Tant family with the idea — they wanted to put on a surf contest in Tommy’s memory.
The Tant family agreed, and its first few years were a resounding success. Then, in its fifth year, Tommy’s younger brother, Will, stepped into the event director position.
A collection of images inside the main tent at the 22nd Annual Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic tells the story from there to present day: images of Flagler Beach's homegrown talent showcasing their surfing skill, groups of young adults holding scholarship checks with a smile from ear to ear, contest winners hoisting an oversized check above their head, and much more.
Images that tell the incredible stories from the Tommy Tant Memorial Classic. Photo: American Surf Magazine
When I asked Will how he's been able to spearhead such a massive undertaking year after year while keeping the contest's core principles intact, his response wasn't so much about what he puts into the contest; it's what he and his family get out of it.
"This contest has saved our lives in two ways," Will said. "The first one is physical. If it wasn’t for this event, my mom wouldn’t be alive today."
Will explained that after his brother had passed away from a medical condition that no one knew he had, the Tant family was examined, and they were all cleared.
"They were wrong," Will said. "Ten years later, I was running this event, and did more research about the condition that took my brother's life. I went back to the doctor, and was diagnosed with the same life-threatening condition."
Will was told that because the condition was genetic, his parents should be examined again. The timing proved life-saving.
"When my mom had heart surgery, she was weeks away from dying."
A few years later, Will underwent what's known as the second most invasive heart surgery there is. "They stop your heart for an hour and a half, freeze your body to a state of hypothermia, and cut out the area that is the aneurysm in the aorta," he said.
Will also said it also saved his family's life spiritually.
"Whether you're a Christian, athiest, or Muslim — no matter what you believe — suffering always puts pressure on your worldview. It makes you ask questions. This contest has provided an opportunity for us to ask big questions about suffering, the purpose of our lives, and how we can weave a redemptive narrative into the tragedy of losing my brother."
Will continued: "It led us to be Christians. When we lost Tommy, our world was shattered, and over the course of 20 years, this event has helped us mourn in a healthy way. It's like washing out a wound each year. Over time it heals, but time doesn't cause it to heal; it's pressing into the beauty of community and coming to terms with the questions a tragedy raises about the meaning of life, and faith."
The Tant family along with American Surf Magazine's Cash Lambert and Mark Sawyer-Chu. Photo: American Surf Magazine
I asked Will if he ever expected the event to turn into a pillar surf event for not just Florida, but the entire East Coast.
"You never know the end from the beginning," he said. "A handful of other events have started from this, too. Imagine someone saying to me back then that the contest will start 4 or 5 other events, save your mom's life, save your life, cause you to ask questions about meaning, purpose, and lead to a faith in Christ. We couldn't have known any of that, but it has. It's beautiful in that way."
Will and his mother, Barbara, have been providing support and guidance to the Flagler Beach youth for years. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
As the sun rose above the watery horizon on Saturday, October 28, it revealed a powerful 4-6 foot swell — combined with onshore winds — that maintained size throughout the weekend and served as the biggest challenge to competitors.
Wave selection was key — drop in on a closeout bomb, and you could spend the rest of the heat trying to get back out to the lineup while burning your energy in the process.
On Sunday afternoon, the much anticipated Men's Final kicked off featuring Chauncey Robinson, Robbie McCormick, Austin Clouse, and Carl Burger — all of whom had been nailing big scores all weekend.
Even though Carl had previously surfed in Men's Junior Final — and won — if fatigue affected him, no one noticed. Carl started off the heat staying busy with a 2.50 and 4.70, and it was his third wave — an 8.20 — that helped him secure the victory.
Airs and turns: Carl Burger showcased his repertoire during both days of action at the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
"To win the Tommy Tant is a huge achievement," Carl said."I'm stoked."
I asked if he had a specific heat strategy.
"During my freesurfs before the contest, I was sitting in a spot that seemed to work well," he said. "I decided to sit in that same spot during my Junior Pro heat and won. During the Men's Final, I did the same thing, and caught some really good waves from that zone."
Carl's spray-infused frontside and backside turns led to big scores. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
How much of a confidence builder is it to win the premier surf event in Flagler, as well as Florida?
"It definitely builds my confidence, because I was going against really good guys, older guys," he said.
Carl Burger took home first place in both the Junior and Men's Divisions. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
The day after the contest, I asked Carl what his plans were to celebrate. "This afternoon, I'm actually going to go back and help take down the scaffolding," he said.
Carl winning both the Junior and Men's divisions was impressive; but what was even more impressive was what Tommy and Will's mother, Barbara Tant, had to say about him.
"Every year we have scholarship applications," Will told me. "My Mom read Carl Burger's scholarship application. In the margin, she wrote he reminds me of Tommy. My mom feels that Carl possesses some of the qualities that Tommy had."
On the Women's side, a talented group of surfers paddled out for the Final, including Maggie Demsey, Riley Sexton, Haley Stephens and Mya Sniadach.
Haley Stephens' excellent wave selection proved pivotal in her high scores during the Women's Final. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
Haley kicked off the heat with a bang —a 6.00, which proved to be the highest wave score of the heat. She backed it up with a 5.27, and held on to the lead as time expired.
"It's hard to put it into words, because that's how special the win is," Haley told me. "The Tommy Tant is a celebration of life, love, family and community, and it's a pillar of surf competition in Flagler Beach."
She continued: "I grew up helping out at the Tommy Tant — I remember being on the boardwalk and selling raffle tickets when I was in Elementary School. Then, I first competed here at age 14. Last year, I. was extremely pregnant with my son — I volunteered on Saturday at the event and had him on Sunday. To be returning from maternity, surfing against girls half my age, I'm so grateful to first have the opportunity to surf and second to come out on top."
Haley's young and energetic support crew: From left to right: Mason, Haley, Nic and baby Miles Stephens. Photo courtesy Haley Stephens
I asked Haley if she had a specific heat strategy, and she explained that since her youngest boy isn't walking yet, she typically carries him. But at the event, she had her husband take over at least an hour before each heat so she could save her energy for competition.
"I'm a firm believer that being a mom makes you a competitive surfer," she told me. "When you have small children, you don't get to choose when you paddle out. When you have the time, you paddle out no matter the condition and you're on a tight schedule, so it's like surfing in a heat. I was so engulfed with my children that I didn't have time to think about heat strategy; once I got into the water, that was the easy part."
"I'm a firm believer that being a mom makes you a competitive surfer," said first-place winner Haley Stephens. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
During the contest, it’s impossible not to see photos of Tommy, whether it’s on the multi-colored contest jerseys, t-shirts, or the scaffolding.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Tommy would think if he walked the contest site — a contest in his memory. I asked Will the same question.
The Flagler Community gathered to remember Tommy Tant on Sunday, October 29th. Photo courtesy AJ Neste
"He would say it’s as much about everyone here as it is about me," Will said. "It's about community, friendship, and having this common interest of surfing in the ocean. I love being able to put on an event like this and bring everyone together. Jesus was always wanting to surround himself with all sorts of people, and by us coming together, we’re getting closer and closer to the heart of God. I don’t have the perfect words to sum it all up, and I have more questions than answers, but that's the beauty of it all. To share a weekend together with the community, it's so beautiful to witness. I'm just always in awe."
All images courtesy AJ Neste
2023 Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic FINAL RESULTS
1st Carl Burger
2nd Chauncey Robinson
3rd Robbie McCormick
4th Austin Clouse
1st Haley Stephens
2nd Maggie Demsey
3rd Riley Sexton
4th Mya Sniadach
1st Carl Burger
2nd Kyan O'Rourke
3rd Silas Miller
4th Gavin Coluccio
1st Nohea Williams
2nd Shane Konrad
3rd Chaz Guernsey
4th Skye Blumenfeld
Tommy Team Division
1st FB G's
2nd Bob Lindsley
3rd Crockett McGraw
4th Jody Davis
1st Daniel Worley
2nd Tyler Dalecki
3rd Austin Daulton
4th Bubba Tyson
Open Women's Longboard
1st Olivia Jansen
2nd Julia Steward
3rd Whitley Smith
4th Safari McMandon
5th McKenzie Manhart
6th Adelle Holloway
Open Men's Longboard
1st Jonathan Galbraith
2nd Jay Wolfington
3rd Jon Bostic
4th Chip McGraw
5th Noah Christy
6th Jeff Milhorn
1st Chase Elmore
2nd Gavin Coluccio
3rd Stephan Nipple
4th Blake Stark
5th Ben Allen
6th Travis Ajay
1st Haley Stephens
2nd Carla Cline
3rd Antonia Almeida
4th Brianna Toth
Girls 17 and Under
1st Reese Lenox
2nd Mahina Friend
3rd Maggie Demsey
4th Sky Cecil
1st Bob Lindsley
2nd Lynn Harrington
3rd Kirk Oswell
4th Terry Tyler
1st Jimmy Blumenfeld
2nd Stephan Nipple
3rd Willey Gilreath
4th Chad Brasol
1st Eddie Guilbue
2nd Bubba Tyson
3rd Doug Johnson
4th Jay Wolfington
5th Noah Christy
6th Justin Wilmot
1st Forrest Lindner
2nd Christian Schwarz
3rd Dylan Martin
Boys 18 and Under
1st Blake Stark
2nd Kyan O'Rourke
3rd Silas Miller
4th Drake Wilborn
Boys 14 and Under
1st Zealand Stahr
2nd Tyko Tran
3rd Jimmy Brittain
4th Dean Manousakis
5th Crocket McGraw
6th Finn Hillis
1st Greyson Lane
2nd Curren Cristello
3rd Sailer Dunagan
4th Jensen SHaw