//Cover Stories
Filipino surfer Jay-R Esquivel for The GAME April 2024 Cover

The Rising Tide: Jay-R Esquivel Is Bringing Philippine Surfing To The World 

Jay-R Esquivel made history when he became the first Filipino to compete in the World Surf League, but he reveals to The GAME that his story is just beginning.

When The GAME traveled to San Juan, La Union to meet the Filipino surfer Rogelio Esquivel Jr. — better known as Jay-R — we didn’t recognize him at first. Our agreed-upon meeting spot was Tagpuan sa San Juan, a popular hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked in one of the small side streets of La Union’s Surftown, and we arrived to a few other people enjoying their rice bowls. None were Esquivel.

But a few minutes later, a man who’d been sitting on the wooden bench across the street since we arrived got up to greet a passerby, and that’s when we realized he’d been there the whole time. Standing at 5-foot-5, wearing a simple tee, board shorts, and flip-flops, Esquivel greeted our team with shy hellos and a reserved smile.

To anyone who may not be familiar with Philippine surfing, you might not instantly assume he is the country’s surfing prodigy — the athlete who made history as the first-ever Filipino to compete in the prestigious World Surf League (WSL). His humble and soft-spoken personality is the opposite of what he has done with this title; Jay-R Esquivel is singlehandedly bringing global attention to the country’s vibrant local surf scene.

“Before nagkaroon ng Filipino sa World Tour, hindi pa kilala ang Pilipinas ‘pag dating sa surfing,” he tells us. “So ngayon, bigla nag-boom. May mga pro surfers na gustong pumunta dito, iyong mga surfer na kasama namin sa WSL…

Pinaguusapan na sa iba’t ibang bansa, na may mga magandang alon pala sa Pilipinas, may mga magagling na surfer pala sa Pilipinas. Nag-level up na talaga.

This is all a testament to his success as a surfer on an international level. And though he doesn’t admit it, he has become a Surftown legend. Later in the day, as Esquivel toured us around San Juan, people approached him left and right. He knew the staff members of each of the establishments we visited. In one store he took us to, they even had a painting of him on a canvas taller than him.

And yet, these are all things he never thought possible when he got on a surfboard for the very first time.

Born and raised by the water

As we chat with Jay-R Esquivel about the many countries that surfing has brought him to, it feels only appropriate that we do so at the very place where this entire journey started: sitting on some wooden steps facing the Great Northwest — one of the best surf spots in the country — which just so happens to be right outside his house.

Esquivel still remembers the first time he ever went surfing here, a spot he feels lucky to call his ‘backyard’. He was only six years old at the time, and he recalls, “First time kong mag-surf, tinuturan ako ng kuya ko, si Poks, at sobrang na-in love ako talagaAng unang ride ko, iba iyon feeling, so maslalo lalong ginanahan ako.”

His older brother, Ronie “Poks” Esquivel, was a surfing prodigy himself, well-known around the Philippines as the famed one-legged surfer from La Union, who was hailed as ‘The Prince of Tides’.

“One-legged surfer siya, pero kaya niya makisabayan sa mga normal na surfer. Kung ano yung mga kaya ng mga normal surfer, kaya rin niyang gawin, so iba iyong level ng skills niya,” Esquivel shares, naming his kuya as his biggest inspiration.

Sadly, Poks tragically passed away at the young age of 27 due to a heart attack and left the Esquivel surfing name to his two younger siblings, Jay-R, and their youngest brother, June, who is also another top surfer in the Philippines.

Although the Esquivels became world-class surfers, when they were still starting, surfing was not as accessible in San Juan just yet. Esquivel recalls that as a kid, Luke Landrigan, a well-known La Union-based surfer who also became his coach, would bring his extra surfboards to the beach and lend them to all the kids who wanted to try riding the waves. There were a lot of them, the Esquivel brothers included.

Mga six or seven surfboards ang pinapahiram ni Coach Luke noon, at sa sobrang dami naming mga bata, naguunahan kami makapunta para makahiram ng board para may gamitin.

At first, surfing was just a hobby for Esquivel. But it wasn’t long until this pastime activity turned into something more, as he joined his first competition when he was only 10 years old right in his hometown.

Turning passion into profession

Despite having the advantage of competing where he always surfs, it didn’t take long for Esquivel to realize that riding waves for fun and riding waves to win are two completely different things. “Noong first time ko mag-compete, unang round, talo ako kaagad,” he recalls. “Ganun pala ang feeling ng competition ‘pag natalo ka, wala ka na sa susunod, so parang mas kailangan mo mag-improve para sa next na competition.”

And so he did. From that point on, Esquivel was on the competitive surfing track, continuously joining competition after competition, aiming to get better each time. And though it took him two years to notch his first-ever win, once he started winning, he did not stop.

Noong tuloy tuloy na iyong mga panalo ko, doon ako nag-start na mag-isip na parang maganda pala ang feeling — nagkaroon kami ng pera, nagkaroon kami ng sariling boards.”

It was a practical matter at first. But once Esquivel competed in his first contest out of the country, that’s when he started to notice something special within himself.

Esquivel competed internationally for the first time when he was only 13 years old. Thanks to the support of a sponsor, he was given the chance to fly to Malaysia with his coach, Luke Landrigan, to compete in an under-16 tournament. This was a huge opportunity for the youngster. It was the first time that he would get to compete against other talented surfers from around the world. And yet, he made the fact that he won his age group no big deal by simply saying, “Nanalo ako.”

Because he won his category where he competed with other surfers in the same age bracket, he was offered the chance to compete in the men’s open division, competing with all the other surfers who had some years on him. And again, very matter-of-factly, he shares, “Nag-second place ako.

Although his straightforwardness might connote otherwise, this was actually a turning point in Esquivel’s career. This was the first time that he truly felt that the skills he possessed were special; that maybe, he could be a great surfer, better than most.

Nabuhay iyong confidence ko na kaya kong makisabay sa tao sa ibang bansa. Mas naging masipag ako mag-surf, mas nagpursigi ako na mas mag-level up talaga.”

Ever since then, he started to hone in on his training regimen. He would spend a lot of time watching videos of professional surfers, and whenever he had the chance, he would hit the water and ride the waves, attempting new tricks on his board. And when the water is calm, he still trains in some other form — cardio, strength training, yoga, or pilates.

“Consistency” is one value that Esquivel truly believes in. This is why once he started, he didn’t stop training or competing, and this would ultimately lead him to become a two-time Philippine National Surfing Champion, securing his place as one of the country’s top surfers.

But in 2023, he proved he has what it takes to go far beyond local waves.

From La Union to the world

Last year, Jay-R Esquivel took his talents all over the world. But like all good stories, his journey started right at home.

In January 2023, the World Surf League — what is essentially considered the NBA to surfers — hosted the La Union International Pro in San Juan where many top surfers from all over the world came to compete right in Esquivel’s backyard. He admitted to feeling “starstruck” seeing so many of his idols gathered in one place and what’s more, riding the local waves. But, as far as the men’s longboard division went, none of the participants could match up to the man who calls this place his home.

Esquivel was named the Men’s Longboard Champion.

Soon after this victory, he headed to Bali, Indonesia for the Padrol Longboard Classic, where he, again, finished on top and was named the best longboarder in Asia.

With these titles, Esquivel’s name had already started to ring bells around the world as more and more people within the community began to take notice. This comes as no surprise as simply watching short clips of him surfing is enough to explain the wins he had under his belt up until that point.

But apart from the recognition, these titles also granted him the points he needed to qualify for the iconic Huntington Beach Longboard Classic and become the first Filipino to ever qualify for the World Surf League.

‘Di ko ma-explain kung gaano kasaya ako noon kasi [I was the] first Filipino [to qualify for] the World Tour. Iyon talaga ang pangarap ng bawa’t Filipino surfer talaga. Pero, at the same time, sobrang kabado kasi lahat ng magagaling, lahat ng world champions, ‘dun na.

Also known as ‘Surf City USA’, Huntington Beach is an epicenter for surf culture in the United States, famous for its year-round swell. The best surfers from all over the world dream of competing here, and in 2023, Esquivel made his dream come true. But qualifying is one thing. To actually beat the many other top surfers in the competition? This wasn’t going to be easy by any measure.

Esquivel was competing against the best longboarders in the world. In the opening round of the competition at Huntington, the rookie already overcame his first hurdle, 2023’s World No. 5 Tony Silvagni, to advance to the next round, where he defeated No. 3 Ben Skinner. In the quarterfinals, Esquivel again emerged victorious over No. 12 Richie Cravey to meet No. 2 Kaniela Stewart in the semifinals.

Before the semis, many were already surprised by how far the debutant was going into the competition. When asked to put it into basketball terms, for those who might not be familiar with the surf scene, Esquivel’s friend and documenter, Mike Eijansantos responded without hesitation: “He’s like Steph Curry.” Given his smaller build as a surfer, competing among the best of the best, he comes off as an unassuming contender — but on the board, his skill is undeniable.

In the end, it was only Stewart, the competition’s eventual champion, who managed to outscore the Filipino on his debut. And though he was eliminated by one of his idols, Esquivel concluded his first competition at Huntington Beach in third place — a huge feat. After all, this whole affair was a regular who’s who of the longboard community, and it still hasn’t sunk in that he’s now a part of this elite group.

But what was perhaps just as shocking to Esquivel was that they all knew him too — his competitors, as well as his fans.

Ang beach? Punong punong ng Pinoy,” he recalls.  

Esquivel shares that the organizers at Huntington were surprised by how many Filipino fans had showed up waving flags in the air and banging on drums for support. And no one could mistake the noise for anyone else’s fans. After all, he was the first and only Filipino to compete in the WSL, not to mention how the drumming noises would stop as soon as each of Esquivel’s heats concluded.

The Filipino’s popularity in the United States truly came to show while he was in California. Even Pinoy boxing star Mark Magsayo came to watch one of Esquivel’s competitions, and on top of this, the surfer also got to travel to the well-known Wild Card Boxing Gym in Los Angeles, where he met the iconic Freddie Roach.

It’s plain to see that the Fiipino now sits among legends — Huntington Beach put him on the map. But his travels did not stop there.

From California, he went on to compete in the Bioglan Bells Beach Longboard Classic, where he finished in ninth place; the Surf City El Salvador Longboard Classic where he placed fifth; and finally, to end the year, the big kahuna: the Malibu Longboard Championships, where he finished in eighth place.

It may not be a win, but make no mistake — finishing eighth meant that Jay-R Esquivel, the first Filipino to ever carry the Philippine flag in the WSL, is now ranked among the top 10 longboarders in the world.

All this in just his first year in the World Surf League.

Wave after wave

As we sit outside Jay-R Esquivel’s home in San Juan, he shows us his collection of surfboards. Over the years, he’s collected several, but there is one in particular that stands out. It’s blue with a red outline and a white stripe down the middle. The champion surfer shares that this is one of the boards he’s won with. But something that makes it even more special to him is the fact that it was specially made just for him by Michael Takayama.

In the same way that people on the red carpet ask celebrities, “Who are you wearing?”, in the surfing industry, people are always asking one another, “Who are you riding?” because the making of a surfboard is a craft in itself. And if a surfer’s answer to this question is Michael Takayama, this means they have something truly special to ride with, as Takayama is widely known for hand-shaping some of the best surfboards in the world. The New York Times even wrote that his boards are like “a magic carpet built just for you.”

After Esquivel’s semifinal finish in Huntington Beach, he and his team recall being approached by Takayama himself. Impressed by the Filipino’s stunning rides, the famed Hawaiian surfer offered to make him a custom surfboard that featured the colors of the Philippine flag.

Esquivel’s team was stunned. But now, in his home in La Union rests his one-of-a-kind Takayama board that other surfers could only dream of having in colors that represent his home.

Indeed, Esquivel has come so far in his career as an athlete. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, he didn’t even have a surfboard to call his own. But now, he has beaten some of the best professional surfers, he is recognized by major names in the community, and he’s a part of the top 10 longboarders in the world. And with every passing wave, he is getting closer and closer to his goals as an athlete.

Gusto kong maging World Champion, at gusto kong makapasok sa Olympics,” he reveals.

In 2028, longboarding is finally getting its Olympic debut, and Esquivel knows he stands a good chance at representing the Philippines in four years’ time.

Sobrang laki ng chance namin na pumasok. Sa Asia, isa ang Pilipinas sa pinaka-top ngayon, especially sa longboarding, so sobrang excited kami. Pinu-push namin na mag-level up every time na may training kami para makapasok sa Olympics.”

Like many other Filipino athletes, the Olympics would mark a huge milestone in Esquivel’s career. But, his dreams go beyond personal feats.

By the time this story comes out, Jay-R Esquivel will be in El Salvador getting ready for the 2024 ISA World Longboard Championship, where, once again, he will be competing against the best of the best in the world. After this, he will be coming back to La Union for a short two weeks before heading out again for a competition in Mexico. And later this year, he will again compete in Huntington Beach.

With a year of travels ahead of him, every wave pushes him closer to his goals. But apart from this, they also help him achieve his dream for Philippine surfing: “Gusto ko makilala sa buong mundo na ‘pag dating sa surfing, hindi lang sa Surftown, pero ang buong Pilipinas, kasi sobrang daming surf spots sa Pilipinas na sobrang ganda ng alon talaga. ‘Yan ang dream namin.”

It’s not an overstatement to say that Esquivel is already making this dream come true. He tells us that many of the pro surfers he’s met in international competitions were surprised to find out that there’s a vibrant surf scene here in the Philippines, and some of them, including Tony Silvagni, have already come to the Philippines to see what all the hype is about for themselves.

And the hype is real. Every wave Esquivel rides for every major competition is proof that the Philippines has surfing talent that measures up to the rest of the world. And this story is just the beginning.

Photography KIERAN PUNAY of KLIQ, Inc.
Drone Images EXCEL PANLIQUE of KLIQ, Inc.
Creative Direction MARC YELLOW
Sittings Editor SID VENTURA
Shoot Coordination ANTHONY MENDOZA
Shot on Location SAN JUAN, LA UNION
Official Food Partner TAGPUAN SA SAN JUAN
Official Venue Partner ULA HOMES LA UNION

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