Before he could even walk, Balaram was crawling around in the Florida shorebreak not far from where he was born, trying to keep pace with his two older brothers, who are both avid surfers. A few years later, he graduated to a boogie board. On the day his single mom moved the family to New York, when he was 5, his brothers took him out on a surfboard, thinking it would mark the end of their balmy beach life. But the Long Beach cold didn’t deter Balaram, and he was so adept at standing rather than lying on his boogie board that his brothers soon felt obliged to get him a real surfboard.
“He was a natural,” says Nelson. “Most kids have to be taught, but Balaram just sort of understood the wave. It was this strange, innate sense.”
When he was 12, his mother entered him in Long Beach’s annual King of the Beach contest. Even before Stack’s third wave, the officials concluded he had won and he was called out of the water. That afternoon, they sent him back out in the superheat—a competition for first place among the winners from each age division.
“He was just doing his little water bug,” remembers his mother, Mary. “His little zip zip, zip zip. The waves were so small he was the only one that could make anything of it.”
They announced the results: Stack had won. But because they couldn’t pronounce his name, they called him Bottle Rocket—so began a new nickname.
“We took him to Burger King to celebrate. And you know how they have those paper gold crowns? We got one, put it on his head, and that was it,” Mary says.
A couple of months later, he entered a regional competition, the Volcom Jellyfish tournament, and though he placed second, it led to a spot on the Unsound team and the tutelage of Nelson and Unsound co-owner Dave Juan. “We focused on getting him into contests where he’d be surfing against the nation’s best,” says Nelson.
That winter, Stack surfed almost every day before and after school, sometimes trekking over snow to reach the water, sometimes wearing two wetsuits on top of each other to beat the sub-40-degree water temperatures. On weekends he was competing in the Eastern Surfing Association, an amateur league, and doing well. All the training and competition paid off when Quiksilver rolled through Long Island in the summer of ’04 to host a one-day surf camp. Stack signed up, paddled out, surfed for a couple of hours, and by the time he came in, he had a new sponsor. Quiksilver sent him to Hawaii that winter to train with rest of the team. There he confronted what’s potentially an East Coaster’s Achilles heel: big waves.
The North Shore, where he stayed, is the mecca of professional surfing. And although Stack was humbled by waves three times his size, he returned with a newfound glint in his eye. At school he wrote essays about becoming a pro surfer when he grew up. Stack’s mom, recognizing determination, started actively working toward realizing her son’s dream. For the last two years she’s spent most weekends driving him to pro-am contests up and down the East Coast. Stack won the Jellyfish two years in a row, the juniors division of the 2006 Unsound Pro, and the ’06 Northeast Regional Surfing Championships. Sponsorship deals followed: Red Bull, Oakley, Sector 9, WRV, Vestal, Freak. Stack’s photo began regularly appearing in surf magazines and the pro-surfing career began to crystallize.
Today, it’s all about flying out to contests across the country, shooting with photographers whenever the waves are good, and spending winter break on Hawaii’s North Shore to work on his big-wave skills. He’s conquered his fear, and though big-wave riding isn’t a strong point in his surfing, he’s improving fast.
Some surfers, drawn to the glory of the double- or triple-overhead, will sit out the small stuff, but not Stack. At home, the small stuff is all he’s got. When the waves are flat, he’ll swim laps at the local pool. When they’re subpar—which is 90 percent of the time—he’ll put in fifteen-minute mock-heats in which he projects himself into make-or-break contest moments, and find ways to make even the smallest wave look powerful. The road to surfing superstardom has come to resemble Olympic figure skating more than the glazed-eyed hedonism of yesteryear, and Balaram Stack is leaving no stone unturned in his ascent.
The following afternoon, the waves come up. Stack pulls into the parking lot at the base of Laurelton with his buddy Richie Bogart. Richie looks too young to be driving his mom’s tan SUV, but he’s actually 19. They go straight for their boards without so much as glancing at the surf. They open the rear gate and pull out backpacks, wetsuits, towels, and tools and spread them around the car as if setting out a picnic. Stack then pulls out a board so spankin’ new it smells of wet resin. A semipro’s earnings are limited—but the boards, wetsuits, and endless gear he gets are free.
“Wearin’ a leash?” he asks Richie. Leashes are a sign of weakness; they’re for people who fall off their boards.
Stack wraps a towel around his waist and shimmies out of shorts and T-shirt and into a black short-sleeve wetsuit with reddish accents on the shoulders. There’s a transformation. Before, he looked like your average skater kid; now he’s morphed into a five-foot-three action figure and looks as if he could bust into a series of spinning heel kicks or triple somersaults at any second.