On a warm November evening in 1986, a novice surfer named Andrea Johnson battled the six-foot waves at New Smyrna Beach on Florida's east coast. The 14-year-old rode the sets for three hours before a particularly powerful current ripped the ankle leash from her surfboard and tossed her into the jagged rocks of a jetty.
Troy Ather, 23, who was fishing on the other side of the jetty, rushed to his friend's aid. By hoisting herself onto the rocks, Andrea was able to grasp Ather's hand, but then she slipped on the slick surface and fell back into the roiling water. A minute passed. She was nowhere in sight. Ather began to cry.
Suddenly, Andrea resurfaced. Ather lunged, grabbed her bathing suit and dragged her onto the rocks. Clinging to each other and fighting the pounding waves, the two friends, bruised and bloodied, slowly crawled to safety.
"On the way home, we went to church and offered a prayer of thanks that our lives had been spared,"Andrea says now.
July 24, 1988
Her parents, Mary Nan and Davey Johnson, didn't find out about the incident until the next day. Davey, the manager of the New York Mets, and his wife were en route back home from an All-Star tour of Japan, following the Mets World Series victory over the Boston Red Sox. When they called home from Los Angeles airport, Troy answered the phone and told them the news.
"I cried for two hours straight," Mary Nan recalls. "Dave acted just like he did at World Series time—stoic. He kept saying, 'Don't worry. Everything's O.K. Nobody got killed.' He felt it was just part of the game, one of the risks we'd have to face sooner or later with Andrea's surfing."
The near-fatal accident gave Andrea a keen respect for the ocean, and now, at 15, she is Florida's best young female surfer. Her style is fearless, hard-driving and aggressive. She attacks the waves with her compact, muscular body (5'4", 120 pounds) and performs tricky turns and radical maneuvers to get the most out of her rides.
"She doesn't surf like a girl," says Russ Atwell, competition director of the Eastern Surfing Association (ESA). "In years past, women were doing stylish maneuvers with a board; they were tentative. Andrea has gone beyond that. She paddles right into the biggest surf and takes on the boys."
Says Andrea: "All the guys say I'm not like other girls. I'm willing to try anything when I'm surfing. Most girls kick out, let the boys take the best waves. I don't want anybody or anything to stop me from being the best I can be."
This year she has won three prestigious Florida amateur surfing competitions: the High School Championships, the girls' 13-18 category of the ESA Spring Break Open and the Platts, an ESA open sponsored by a clothing manufacturer. She also finished second in the ESA regionals held in Melbourne, Fla., in May. A year ago at the U.S. Amateur Surfing Federation Nationals in Corpus Christi, Texas, she placed seventh in the girls' 13-18 category.
These days Andrea gets up at dawn, throws on a swimsuit and, just about breakfast time, begins to pester her mother for a ride to New Smyrna Beach, which is 45 miles northeast of Winter Park, where the Johnsons live on the shore of Bear Gully Lake. Usually the Johnsons wait until late afternoon when the big waves start to roll, but on this day their Buick is on the beach by 11 a.m., dodging dune buggies and convertibles driven by blondes in bikinis or tanned hunks wearing Jams. Andrea has eyes only for the dancing waves. "Four feet and choppy," she squeals, quickly waxing her checkered fuchsia-and-chartreuse board before darting into the surf.
Mary Nan sets up shop beneath a blue-and-white umbrella planted in the sand just beyond the tide line. For the next eight hours, she reads best-sellers, sketches sandpipers and terns, designs banners for St. Richard's Episcopal Church and wades through the family's financial ledgers. At dusk she tunes the car radio to a station in Miami that carries all the Mets games.
Andrea taught herself to surf, and she is determined to master every intricacy of the sport. Time and again she quizzes other surfers about technique, asking, "What did you think of my wave?"
"It looked good, dude," is typical of the replies Andrea gets.
"No," Andrea says, "tell me the truth." Then the tips spew out: Move your feet back a little, widen your stance.
Andrea often gets so absorbed in her sport that she doesn't notice the jellyfish stings on her hands and feet until the ride home. Several times she has not noticed sharks swimming near her board.
"You can't do maneuvers without concentrating," Andrea says. "You've got to do them right; there's no goofing off. Surfing gets on your brain. Once you do it, you can't get enough."
At last count, Andrea had two surfboards in the garage in Winter Park, and she could rattle off six Surf Report phone numbers from memory. When she signs her homework papers for Lake Howell High School, she adds a pair of tiny waves. Her bedroom is plastered with dozens of surfing posters and stickers proclaiming I'D RATHER BE SURFING and PRAY FOR WAVES.
"She's just like me," Davey says. "When she sets her mind to something, she won't waver. Andy's full of life. She can have fun in an empty room."
Of the three Johnson children, Andrea most resembles her dad when it comes to an appetite for sports. Davey Jr., 21, who didn't even play baseball in high school, works at a local auto shop. Dawn, 19, a dean's list student at Rollins College, where she's studying psychological counseling, also showed little interest in sports.
"I never pushed the kids into sports," Davey says. "I always told them, if they liked something well enough, I'd help them any way I could. Show me dedication, and I'll really get excited."
Andrea was born Sept. 13, 1972 in Baltimore, where Davey was a three-time Gold Glove second baseman with the Orioles. But she grew up in the sprawling one-story house in Winter Park. The 1½-acre lot originally belonged to Davey's grandfather, a local fruit grower. Davey bought it from the estate in 1962 with part of his $25,000 Orioles signing bonus.
Every February, Davey packed his suitcases, left the Bear Gully sanctuary and returned to baseball. In the summers, Mary Nan and the kids would join him wherever he was playing (Atlanta, Tokyo, Philadelphia, Chicago) or managing (Miami; Jackson, Miss.; Tidewater, Va.; New York). They were there for the highlight year of Davey's playing career, 1973, when he hit 43 home runs for Atlanta and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year.
When she was a toddler, Andrea sat patiently, perched on Mary Nan's lap, through her father's games. Afterward the family would meet Dad at the clubhouse door, and he would scoop Andrea up with a big hug. But in 1978, when Andrea was 5½, Davey ruptured two discs in his back sliding into a base. He could no longer play baseball. Nor could he sweep Andrea into his arms anymore. Instead they spent time together on a waterbed, talking and floating, while Davey rested his back.
"It's amazing how close they are," Mary Nan says. "Andrea got more of Dave than the other kids."
Andrea benefited from being born midway through her father's playing career. By the time Andrea was old enough to demand his attention, he was more open to revealing his vulnerable side. "I'll always remember how hard Dad worked, that he was often tired and hurt, and just how much he struggled," Andrea says.
For the last two summers Mary Nan and the kids have spent most of their time in Winter Park, which allows Andrea to pursue her surfing. Dad phones several times a week, and he hates it when he finds he has missed a special moment, like Andrea's first date, or a Father's Day barbecue (the family placed Davey's picture on the table in front of an empty chair).
"The life I lead is very disruptive," he says. "You pay the price, a severe price. People think nothing of it. They say, You make a good salary, meet other celebrities, hang around with guys like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter.
"But they never look at the downside. What it does to your family; how you miss the little joys of life—the people you brought into the world. It's almost like you don't allow yourself to think about what you*re doing because it would make the job more difficult."
Even though he's away from the family, Davey's presence can be found in most every room of the house on Bear Gully Lake. His pictures and awards fill the bookshelves and walls of two dens. In the dining room there's an enormous Japanese screen, a reminder of his two seasons with the Yomiuri Giants. Even the family dog, a mostly Labrador mixed breed named Dinger, serves as a reminder of the 136 dingers Davey belted in 13 years of playing in the majors.
"Dad looks so drab on TV," Andrea says. "All he does is chew tobacco and spit. You don't think he's a whole person. When he's home, he likes to play music really loud and dance to it. He loves it when I invite my friends over. We'll water-ski all day, then Dad will cook us hamburgers on the grill."
Now Andrea is busy preparing to compete in the Nationals again, this time at Sandy Beach on Oahu, Hawaii, July 23-31. Whether the young Florida surfer can excel in the big waves there (up to 10 feet) remains to be seen. What is certain is that she'll do her best. It's the way she's been brought up.
"I have a saying: 'What you give, you keep. What you keep, you lose,' " says her dad. "I've tried to instill that if you give the best you've got, you'll always know you gave your all. But if you hold back, it'll be gone forever."
It is a lesson that has not been lost on his younger daughter. "One of the reasons I surf is because it brings me closer to Dad," says Andrea. "It connects us. I always want to tell him when I win. I want him to be proud of me."
So bring on the big waves. Andrea Johnson is ready to surf.