Meet Frank Chenault, The Fifty-Year-Old QS Grinder
“I think he feels like he missed out on living the dream as a kid… So he’s now fifty years old and he’s trying to get back in the WSL.”
Getting older ain’t so bad.
You may pack on a few pounds, it may take a while to work out the kinks each morning, your younger sexual partners may come coupled with daddy issues- but there’s enough upside to balance out the down. Grab a little wisdom on your way to the grave, earn a little money, gain enough perspective that those crushing defeats that are part of life don’t feel quite so bad. Part of trying is failing, and failing ain’t the end.
Frank Brent Chenault was brought to my attention as the Florida Pro, a QS 1500, ran at Sebastian Inlet in mid-January. An email from Ashton hit my inbox saying something along the lines of, “There’s this random middle-aged dude surfing right now and the commentators are losing their shit over it. I gotta know more about this guy.”
Frank didn’t fare so well during the heat. It was small, blown out junk; the other competitors struggled to find opportunities for single maneuver fin blows, whitewater bonks, reverses. Not the conditions in which a grown man will fair well against youth.
Chenault’s presence grabbed my interest and some light internet stalking blew it up. Frank wasn’t some local who entered on a whim. He’s a guy in his early fifties who’s been surfing multiple QS events since the late Oughts. Chenault has a website, bigsurfrankchenault.com wherein he states, “Frank Chenault isn’t a man to be called an overachiever, it will rather be safe to say he is a man who has undoubtedly tried to make the best out of all that life has tossed his way. Frank Chenault is a professional surfer, entrepreneur, and a quantum physics researcher.”
Taken together it painted a picture of a delightful eccentric. A man who was unable to chase his dreams in youth and so decided to take a shot in his middle years. Many things that are out of reach, financially, for young men are, in fact, not so expensive once you’ve built a career and earned a little dough. I wanted to learn more about Frank and, after a bit of back and forth, was able to get him on the phone.
Frank Chenault speaks with a salesman’s cadence, delivered rapid-fire and with a confidence intended to project success without self-denigration. He comes across as self-assured, though he has a tendency to name drop, espousing the belief that, while his age is a barrier to competitive victory, his ability on board coupled with heat tactics could provide him an actual shot at success.
Chenault’s initial foray into competitive surfing began in the 80’s, when he placed fourth in the USSF State Championships, earning a spot on the national team. He followed it up with some Bud Tour events, before life got in the way. He had a daughter, needed to earn a living, and hung up his jersey. Chenault quit surfing for a period, moved to Arizona in order to be closer to his offspring, until he was able to return to the coast and return to the sport that he loves.
“One of the things that keeps me fired up and coming back is when I went up against Andy Irons. It was Halloween day, of 2009, at Sunset and there was a lot of controversy about that heat. The end result was Andy got second, I got third, Chris Foster got last, and this guy from Big Island won the heat. A lot of people came up to me and were like, ‘You won that heat. Holy shit.’
“It took them forever to announce the results and, you know, I’m not taking anything away from Andy, but I trained hard too and they gave it to Andy. It was politics. The only reason I bring this up, because god bless Andy, I loved the guy. But I knew I beat him in that heat.
“But the thing is, that’s what keeps me coming back. What happened that day is probably the biggest driving force that keeps me coming back and doing events all over the planet—to make sure I qualify for Sunset. So you can call it making up for whatever, but that’s pretty much my story in a nutshell.”
It’s a bold and questionable claim, even if 2009 was the year Irons took a sabbatical from the Tour and was, unbeknownst to a large part of the surf world, struggling with demons and addiction. It’s also near impossible to verify, heat sheets are unattainable and results outside the finals, which saw Hank Gaskell take the win, are non-existent.
But, in the end, it doesn’t matter. We all tell ourselves stories in order to live, it’s true. And often those stories grow larger with each telling.
In his pursuit for competitive dominance, Chenault has turned to surf coach, Mike Lamm, for guidance. Lamm has worked with luminaries such as Tim and Nathaniel Curran, Lakey Peterson, Tia Blanco, and Nick Rosa. Lamm’s outlook isn’t quite as rosy as the one espoused by Chenault. But he thinks Frank has a chance to taste some success, though not on the level Frank hopes.
“Being really clear, I don’t think Frank’s dream, currently, is to win a WSL contest. He’s kind of a guy who did the amateur ranks in his twenties and then business took him away from his, let’s just say his middle life, when he felt that he really should have been training and surfing. I think he feels like he missed out on living the dream as a kid. Being on the world tour and what have you. So he’s now fifty years old and he’s trying to get back in the WSL.”
“His dream is, of course, pie-in-the-sky, to win a WSL event,” Lamm continued. “But what he’s communicated to me is that his dream to win a heat, or make a heat. To put together a really good heat against this level of competition. And after twenty-five, or thirty years of the sport advancing, he’s got to really play the game. What we’re working on is teaching him tactics. How to really organize and set up a really good surfing round. So he’s got really good tactical play. Then the next thing is his delivery on a wave. Once you catch that wave, what you’re going to deliver and throwback to a judge.
“I can’t guarantee that he’s ever going to win a WSL event. I can’t guarantee that. But what I can guarantee is that he’s going to understand his tactics beautifully, and we’re going to work on his technique. He’ll start to organize a much better round, I’m looking to reduce mistakes, so he’s not taking off on bad waves. Understanding how to play the game well.
“If he really makes beautiful tactics, really opens up and hits his level, is it an impossibility to make a heat? It’s not impossible. But, you know, I’m kind of a realist. If you’re going to Florida and it’s one foot and junky, the kids are just so fast and they’re flipping new school tricks and you just kinda go, ‘That’s not in your wheelhouse, braddah.’
“But if he gets in, you know, four or five foot surf and he really hits his level, I’m not going to tell him that his dream of making a heat here and there on the WSL is impossible.”
Is Chenault going to dial in his approach and take the ‘QS by storm? Probably not. He might make a heat or two, count it a victory, and move on with his life. But that’s the case with the vast majority of surfers. Each year the ‘QS is awash in names chasing a dream they’ll never catch. Chenault may be no different, but he’s also no worse. If anything, he stands to come out ahead of the young men destined to fail. He’s built a life and now gets to chase his dreams without worry of what comes next.
“I’m not going away, because I’m here to make a fucking statement. Those fucking judges are going to give me the goddamn scores and I’m gonna advance. I’m not here to win a title… I mean, let me rephrase that. Yes, I’m here to win a title [laughs], I would love that. I could win an event, if conditions are right and I’m able to put it together all the way through to the final. But what’s most important to me is making it through a couple fucking heats. And I’m not going away, because the fire is still there.”