If he could have stayed in the water — riding the ocean waves and allowing the saltwater to heal his soul — Nancy Miller believes her son Jimmy would still be alive today.
But a series of life events, including a shoulder injury that kept him out of the water, the death of several loved ones and the onset of mental illness, led to her son taking his own life 15 years ago at age 35.
She wonders, now, how many people facing life struggles could be saved by the healing ways of the waves.
The Jimmy Surf Fiesta on Sunday, Oct. 13, at El Porto beach in Manhattan Beach not only paid homage to the surfer and lifeguard who once ruled the South Bay surf scene, but also keeps the momentum going for family and friends who hold surf therapy gatherings throughout the year to help those in need of a respite from life’s challenges.
“I want him to be remembered for creating this wonderful event that brings together community and family and friends, and the beauty of the ocean, which can heal all of us,” said Nancy Miller, board member of the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation formed in her son’s name after his death.
It was at age seven that Jimmy Miller got his first taste of surf stoke, riding a boogie board into a barrel near his Manhattan Beach home.
As his surfing improved, he made a name for himself around the South Bay, helping other rising groms hone their skills while also serving as a Los Angeles County lifeguard.
The Mira Costa High School graduate, who received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1991, had such a way with youngsters he worked in the junior lifeguard program.
In 1998, he started his own surf company, called Pure Surfing Experience, to give lessons and put on local surf events. He also created CampSurf to run summer day camp programs for the city of Manhattan Beach.
“He was a teacher, lifeguard, a dreamer, a traveler, a friend, and a worldwide ambassador of fun times and good surf,” reads the foundation’s website. “Inherent in his philosophy and mission was the belief that safely enjoying the ocean is good for all of us, physically and mentally.”
Pro surfer Alex Gray is one of those surfers whose life was changed by Jimmy Miller’s guidance.
“The simple fact is that Jimmy Miller’s influence would determine my career and passion for the rest of my life when I was nine,” said Gray, who shows up each year for the event.
Miller’s death, the same year Gray lost his brother to a drug overdose, was devastating.
“It’s so heartbreaking for our community and anyone who knew Jimmy,” Gray said. “He was the most kind, selfless, giving person. … He was basically an instigator for most surfers of my generation to even understand how fun and amazing surfing is. When we found the news Jimmy had taken his life, it was hard to even believe — and it was a realization that mental health is real and he was struggling, unbeknownst to most of us.”
Surfing, Jimmy Miller taught young surfers, should always be about having fun. He started a “fall showdown” contest, a laid-back event anyone could enter. That’s why the foundation created the Jimmy Surf Fiesta after his death in 2004, to carry on that tradition.
But the Fiesta is more than about a day of fun in the surf — it’s also a way to educate others about the ocean therapy work the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation does year-round.
After Jimmy Miller’s death, fellow lifeguard and occupational therapy student Carly Rogers approached his mom with an idea. Rogers was working on her master’s thesis on how the ocean could be used as a form of therapy, and the foundation founders decided that’s how they wanted to continue Jimmy Miller’s legacy.
Nancy Miller never realized how much surfing had kept her son happy through the years — and hopes the work they do can save others.
“He was not someone you think had a mental illness, he was a golden boy. Never had depression, never a drug program,” she said.
Twice a month, foundation representatives travel to Camp Pendleton to help Wounded Warriors with post-traumatic stress disorder or post-war injuries get in the water. They also do work with at-risk children in the Manhattan Beach area, and eight years ago started year-round surf programs with the West Los Angeles Veteran’s Hospital.
The foundation recently launched a program in Coronado to work with homeless and addicted veterans.
Each gathering starts with a therapy circle with people sharing about their struggles. At some gatherings, they take turns speaking while holding a wooden totem trophy Jimmy Miller earned during one of his many Catalina Classic 32-mile paddle events.
“Surfing was his life, body and soul,” Nancy Miller said of her son. “We know if he had been able to stay in the water, we truly believe he’d still be with us. Because the ocean gives so much back to anyone in it.”