At just 6 years old, Ormond Beach native Alyssa Gilreath is already a natural at surfing.
A fourth-generation Ormond Beach native, 6-year-old Alyssa Gilreath has been surrounded by the sea for her entire life. Her father, Willey Gilreath, had her in the water as an infant. By the age of 3, she was clinging to the front of his longboard as he paddled out into the surf.
Alyssa has since learned to glide across the waves on her own. But she still remembers her first time standing up on her board.
The prospect of leaping to her feet while the water violently churned beneath her was a daunting one.
“I was a little scared at first,” she said. “But when I popped up, I wasn’t scared anymore.”
The Gilreaths are a surfing family. Both Willey and his wife surf. Willey grew up riding waves in Ormond Beach and even had aspirations of turning professional — until a motorcycle accident shortly after his graduation from Seabreeze High School in 1989 left him with a broken left femur. Still, he recovered from his injury and went on to compete in national competitions, which he still does to this day.
He passed his love of surfing on to his three children, with Alyssa being the youngest. It was a way to connect with each other — and with their environment.
“We have that connection with the water that not a lot of people have,” he said. “We love the ocean.”
“If I were to be bitten by a shark, I would still surf like Bethany Hamilton. I would never give up.”
A little over a year ago, when Alyssa was 5, she asked her father if she could start competing in surfing competitions.
Her first competition was hosted by local pro Shea Lopez in May 2018. They didn’t have Alyssa’s age division, so she competed against girls aged 14-and-under and placed third.
She now competes in the Gnarly Charley Surf Series, where she won the 2019 championships for 6-and-under and 10-and-under.
Due to her age, Alyssa competes in the “push in” division, which means her father helps push her out into the surf.
“It’s really unique that I get to be out on the water with her,” Willey said. “I’m like her personal Jet Ski.”
Others in the local surfing community have compared Alyssa to local legends like Freida Zamba, Mimi Munro and Lisa Andersen.
“She’s a natural,” Willey said. “It’s hard to find that in a child. One who has the tenacity and the ability and the strength to do what it takes.”
Despite having school, soccer practice and tap, jazz and ballet lessons, she finds time to practice surfing every day. And when she’s not at the beach, she’s in the pool in the backyard of her family’s home, practicing her paddling and duck diving.
Her personal hero is pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, who on Oct. 31, 2003, aged 13 at the time, had her left arm ripped off by a 14-foot-long tiger shark while she was surfing along Tunnels Beach in Kauai, Hawaii.
Alyssa’s favorite movie is “Soul Surfer,” the 2011 biographical drama that depicts Hamilton’s horrific injury and her triumph over it. She’s seen the film “probably about 200 times.”
But when asked if she’s ever scared about seeing a shark while surfing, Alyssa paused for a moment before answering.
“If I were to be bitten by a shark, I would still surf like Bethany Hamilton,” she said. “I would never give up.”