By Breanna Benz

At only 19, professional surfer Leila Hurst has been familiar with surf success for years. Raised in the presence of some of the most legendary surf breaks in the world, she already holds multiple titles including Vans Triple Crown Rookie of the Year in 2010, three national titles, the 2012 ASP World Junior women’s title and second place in the Women’s Junior Final of the 2012 Nike US Open of Surfing.

Hurst recently joined the ranks of Zeal Optics athletes making news and lending powerful support and exposure for the brand’s strong-spirited sunwear. Zeal tops off her list, adding to an already extensive tally of sponsors including Vans, Sticky Bumps, Skullcandy and HIC Surfboards. All the more impressive at a time when the surf industry continues to feel the infectious effects of economic cutbacks, and surfers are hitting the water harder than ever to prove themselves for a slot in a single sponsor’s lineup.

She couldn’t be more pleased with the opti-sunwear pairing. “I travel ALL the time. And I’m always, of course, wearing beachy kind of attire,” Hurst explains, in an energetic surf inflection. “I just like super mellow, not too fancy sunglasses. That’s why Zeal is perfect for me because they’re an outdoorsy, adventurous kind of sunglass company.”

The surfer stumbled upon Zeal through a succession of links in the sport and sun industries. “The way that they ARE the brand, I’m attracted to. Everyone is so cool and mellow and laid-back.” Describing Zeal as a family, she says, “They are just super stoked on whatever you do. They don’t put a lot of pressure on you. They’re just a really good support team.”

Receiving her first pro sponsorship at age 9, Hurst grew up on the waves sporting the logos every surfer dreams of riding for. She knows the balance of sponsor-surfer relationships and understands that an incompatible matchup can make for a perfect storm. “Branding is everything. Because branding, for this lifestyle, is the people who are backing you. You have to be on exactly the same page, or else it’s not going to work out. The way they run their team, the way they think. You have to be psyched on what your brand is doing or else it’s not going to work,” she says.

“Zeal is really into plant-based products. They have the world’s first plant-based lens. Did you know that?” Hurst chirps with excitement.

The brand’s bio-based e-llume lens is leading a movement eliminating crude oil from sunglass production, along with Z-resin, a proprietary plant-based material used for all of their sunglass frames.

“That’s something that is really inspiring to me, because I come from Hawaii, and it’s such a mellow lifestyle. Everything is really eco-friendly, and that’s why I think Zeal is so cool because they’re doing something different than any other brand is doing,” Hurst says.

A Hawaii native, hailing from the island of Kauai, Hurst made the move to Newport Beach, Calif., a major hub of the surf industry, after graduating high school. She relocated to build relationships with sponsors, putting in face time and just hanging out. But she’s taking advantage of the hard-earned luxury of lifestyle-concentrated sponsors. She’s shaking up the traditional focus away from competing in favor of creating her own variety of what it means to be a surf professional, with a lifestyle that naturally rings true to her sponsors’ brand appeal while following her life passions.

“I travel. I do a lot of filming with my sponsors,” Hurst says. “It’s a lot more fun than just sticking to contests.”

Hurst is perceptively astute in defining moods and movements within the industry and knows exactly what surfers want. “Nowadays a lot of people are drawn to video content. Vans, being my main sponsor, have taken that role; they’re a lifestyle brand and they make videos of the surf team. I’m the only girl that rides for Vans, so I go and travel with the guys,” she laughs. “And we go and film surfing all day.”

Surfers may not sport shades offshore, but Leila says sunwear is beyond important to her and her board brethren. Endless world traveling, checking waves and staying fit outdoors require polarized sunwear that will stay on no matter what the conditions are during explorations amid wind, sand and swells of saltwater.

“We wear sunglasses hanging out at the beach all day, every day. I’m pretty concerned with eye and skin health. I’m always loading up on sunscreen, and I always have sunglasses. You have to be careful. It’s scary to think, we’re in the sun all the time—we’ve got to do as much as we can to save ourselves,” she says.

Zealously armed with sunwear, Hurst knows her shades and quickly identifies Zeal style Felicity as a favored frame. “It’s an active sunglass AND you can dress it up. It’s kind of everything.” She says of her wide, rectangular full-frame sunglasses with thick, beveled rims and sporty rubber-lined temple tips. “I have every color to switch them out. Once you find your favorite, you know. And they are polarized, and that’s one thing I NEED is polarized. It makes the ocean look so much nicer!”

Without living under the burden of rank-obsessed sponsors, Leila can also concentrate on family. “I get to do a bunch of things with my sister,” she says brightly. “I take her surfing through something called Life Rolls On.”

Hurst’s sister Sophia has spina bifida, making even walking a challenge. Life Rolls On is a nonprofit organization dedicated to help those with spinal cord injuries surf despite paralysis. Through adaptive equipment and the efforts of volunteers, Life Rolls On puts emphasis on not only the experience of surfing but the possibilities beyond disability.

“Somehow we got signed up for it, and my sister and I went and it was such an amazing experience for me. I had no idea what to expect. It was really cool because I’d never surfed with my sister before. To see her lying down, on a board, going on a wave, it was such a cool experience. I was in tears,” says Hurst.

Life Rolls On gives the sisters a special bond, and Hurst is elated with the chance to share her love of surfing. “My sister watched me my whole life on the go, and to see her doing that was just so cool. Sophia really enjoys it. And that’s what I’m seeing with other people when I go without my sister. I see these families, and I see such a connection with them and their kids,” she says. “Their kids are so happy.”

Steadfast to the commitment of using her own accomplishments to help others, and giving them hope at a future as bright as her own, she’d like to continue working with Life Rolls On or follow the current of creating her own foundation. “I’ve done a lot, with winning contests and traveling, it was so beyond that to see my sister in the water. People always ask me what I’m going to do after I’m done competing, and I hope, I really hope that’s what I’ll be doing. That’s definitely where my heart is,” she says.

For the time being Hurst is graciously flourishing in the tide of success. She wants to compete in the World Tour of Surfing and continue filming across the world with her sponsors. “I have the most terrific sponsors for what I want to do,” she says. “And Zeal has amazing sunglasses just right for an adventure.” Sun’s up, Leila… surf on. ■