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Wake Surfer Finds Niche in Public Health

Published: January 05, 2015
Michael La Macchia ’15 is a national champion wake surfer who has found a passion for public health research.
Michael La Macchia ’15 is a national champion wake surfer who has found a passion for public health research.


Back in October, when Michael La Macchia’s friends were posting on Facebook about using their boats the last time for the season, he smiled to himself. Being in Florida means he can be year-round on the water.

For a competitive wake surfer, this gives him a training advantage, which has paid off. He took first place in nationals and third in the world championships this fall in the World Series of Wake Surfing.

“I’m in the gym every morning before class, and then if my schedule permits, I try to do at least one other activity during the day to keep my endurance up. Wake surfing takes it out of you,” said La Macchia ’15. “A lot of my competitors do yoga and balance work. A lot of it is pushing and jumping off your board and sliding. It’s a full body workout. Every time we finish competing we’re sore. Even though I played soccer and surfed, with wake surfing there are new muscles I didn’t know I had.”

La Macchia isn’t new to athletics. He played soccer through high school and came to UT to play, though an illness kept him off the team.

“I’m very competitive by nature. Every sport I’ve tried I had to be the best,” he said. “But when I started wake surfing, it was just a way to let off steam.”

La Macchia is a public health major who is balancing school work, internships and job hunting, plus his wake surfing training, though he cites the latter as a source of serenity.

“It’s definitely an outlet. Being a public health major and senior, I have a lot on my plate,” he said. “Going out on the water on the weekend relieves stress and clears my head.”

La Macchia, of Sarasota, will graduate in the spring. He is considering a master’s program in public health to pursue a research-based career. When he came to UT he was an allied health major, but after taking Assistant Professor Mary Martinasek’s biostatistics course, he became interested in public health research.

“Martinasek and (Associate Professor Rebecca) Olsen are like my second and third moms away from home,” La Macchia said. “I interned with Dr. Martinasek on her hookah research last year, and this year on an e-cigarette project.”

La Macchia joined Martinasek and Allison Calvanese ’13 at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in New Orleans this fall where he co-presented research relating to the effects of hookah smoking on patrons in hookah bars.

“The senior year is one of the most rigorous for our program due to students having to complete 12 credits of internship in addition to their coursework. One credit equates to 40 hours in the field,” Martinasek said. “Michael spends many evenings and weekends collecting data for his internship.”

Oslen said La Macchia is able to balance his self-direction with a collaborative nature, while being “a consummate gentleman, consistently respectful of al people and ideas, extremely honest, trustworthy and generous.”

“He is also very passionate about what he does, and this passion is reflected in everything he does,” Olsen said. “He is very committed to learning, and learning by doing.”

La Macchia was introduced to wake surfing by a friend of his girlfriend’s family. Now she competes with him, along with her mom and her step-brother (she is at the University of Florida, applying to law school). La Macchia and the 15-year-old brother, Casey Currin, compete on the same team, Phase 5 Wake Surfing team. When La Macchia won nationals at the end of September, Currin took second. When La Macchia took third at the world competition, Currin took first.

“Casey and I teach each other everything,” La Macchia said. “If I learn a trick, I teach him and vice versa.”

In the World Series of Wake Surfing, La Macchia explained there are 12 qualifying events in the U.S. and abroad: Russia, Germany, Mexico, Canada and Brazil.

“I competed in the national events, because as a student it’s hard to travel,” said La Macchia, who because of his success moves to the second highest division (semi-pro) next year, which means he’ll need to compete internationally as well.

“The sport is so new that we’re surfing with the pioneers in the sport,” La Macchia said. “It’s a smaller circle of competitors, so you see similar people at the events. It’s a blast.”

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