From Scrubs to Trunks

Photo by Jeanne RiceThe sky and ocean are about the same anvil-gray color, but there are still lots of little kids flying kites and scores of shirtless guys and bikini girls lying out on the beach at 54th Street in Newport Beach. There's a line of maybe a dozen surfers in the water stretching south to 50th Street. Yellow caution flags are flying from lifeguard towers 52 and 56.

“The waves are lousy right now, but usually they're amazing,” says Bryan Doonan, who lives a few blocks away. His twin brother, Kent, visiting from LA, nods.

The 30-year-old Doonan brothers have spent the past two decades surfing every chance they can, professionally and for fun. As they have for the past few years, the twins compete in this year's U.S. Open, which begins July 26 at the Huntington Beach Pier.

It's not a bad achievement for two brothers who can't surf full-time on any professional tour because they're physicians. In fact, Bryan was still in his scrubs when I met him at 54th Street—he'd just finished his shift as a senior resident at the UCI Medical Center family practice center.

Because they don't have time to tour—what with saving people's lives and all—the brothers are not seeded in the U.S. Open. That means they'll have to paddle through countless qualifying sessions before this year's open actually begins.

“It's a marathon,” Bryan said. “It would be as if I went to Wimbledon and had to go through six matches just to get to where the pros are. It's tough. Lots of times it's windy or the waves are bad or you just don't catch the waves. The odds are against you.”

They have competed in pro events since they were teens, surfing OP Junior contests and such, but first took national titles in 1992. That year, Bryan won the titles for the U.S. Surfing Federation Western Regionals and the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) Open Men's National Title at Lower Trestles. With Kent placing fifth in the same NSSA event, it marked the first time in association history that twin brothers had finished so high in the same contest.

From 1994 to 1996, the brothers surfed as a package deal for Quiksilver. Not a bad deal, considering they were still in med school. Bryan plans to specialize in sports medicine so he can treat injured athletes at the X Games. Kent has always been more interested in research—he's done stints at the Salk Institute and at UC San Francisco—and would prefer a director of research position.

“I can't surf the world tour unless I take two years out of my life,” said Bryan, “one year to see if I could qualify, then another year to do it. But I'm really happy where I am. I couldn't surf every single day when I was in medical school or in residency, but being a senior resident means I have more time now. I can keep up my competitive edge. UCI has been great. They're giving me a week off to surf the contest.”

He's been eliminated in the sixth round of the past three U.S. Opens. “But it makes it that much more exciting,” he said. “Once I'm in the sixth round, it feels amazing. I'm against some of the best guys in the world. But then I'm on call the next day.”

Being doctors gives the Doonans a more cautious perspective on jumping into the ocean. “Never go in the water 48 to 72 hours after it rains,” warned Kent. “That's when everything is in the water—bacteria, parasites.”

“I've pulled two dead bodies out of the water,” said Bryan. “It was the 1993-1994 time period. The first was somewhat salvageable but I found out later that he passed away on the way to the hospital. The other was blue with rigor mortis by the time we found him. There was nothing we could do. I realized how powerful Mother Nature is, and how easily an accident can happen.”

Then again, if the waves are good, sometimes that caution disappears. Once, at Ewa Beach in Hawaii, the water was so great they didn't pay attention to a shark bearing down on them.

“At first I thought it was a turtle,” said Bryan. “Then I thought it was a dolphin. But then I realized it was neither. Then I went into panic. But it turned out to be just a tiger shark.”

“Uh, tiger sharks in Hawaii get as large as great whites out here,” said Kent.

“Yeah,” said Bryan. “But it didn't stop us from going out a couple days later.”

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