The 24-year-old California native Emi Koch doesn’t really root herself down physically. “I’m a nomad with an irrational fear of cupboards, closets and chests of drawers,” she says. The young entrepreneur, who started a nonprofit called Beyond the Surface International when she was only 19, first discovered surfing as a toddler. “My father was an ocean lifeguard so he plopped me on a rescue paddle board when I was about two. I sat on the nose of the board and we would catch waves together.”

But it’s not only these early memories of surfing with her father that deepened her love of the sport. Growing up, Koch suffered from a learning disorder which caused her to experience severe bouts of hyper activeness in school. “I had this fear of being academically ditched,” she says. But surfing made her feel capable at something and appreciated for it. “Surfing became this magical escape. The ocean was a safe, peaceful space where I could fully and simply be myself,” she says. Koch has translated her personal journey into affecting positive social change. Her organization aims to empower young people in marginalized coastal communities around the world through surfing and other creative means of self-expression. “It’s my way of contributing to a more socially just and compassionate world,” she says.

A world traveler, Koch says the most unusual spot she has ever surfed was during the Munich Surf and Skate Festival in Germany when she went river surfing in the Eisbach, which literally means ice brook. “It was such a trip to be in the middle of an old European city and walking around in my wetsuit with a surfboard past people in actual suits and ties heading to board meetings.” As for her favorite places to paddle out, she’ll always be loyal to Tourmaline Surf Park in San Diego where she first learned to surf, but she also counts various breaks in India and Peru as being among her top surf destinations.

Yet Koch is no stranger to humbling experiences in the water. “There were a few scary moments in Ireland when it was hailing and the waves were like huge icy walls crashing down on me.” In India, while surfing with one of her mentors Jelle Rigole, founder of the Kovalam Surf Club, she came to terms with the sheer force of nature during a severe storm. “The sky was coated in black clouds with dramatic streaks of red from the setting sun. We were surfing some nice sets that were coming through and I remember hearing some screaming at one point,” she says. Turns out a man had drowned and his body had just washed ashore. “Sometimes I forget how powerful the ocean really is, but the sea feels more like home to me than land ever has. It’s a scary thing to realize that your safe space is actually one of the most dangerous places on earth.”

Name: Emi Koch

Age: 24

Where do you live: San Diego

Years surfing: 12 years

Surfing is: synchronizing your body and your soul with the flow of everything. It’s this surreal connection with the cosmos. Riding a wave is literally dialing yourself into pure energy and then playing with it.

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