Emerging surfer Jhonny Guerrero using sport to escape impoverished upbringing

Rare opportunity: Emerging surfer Jhonny Guerrero has used the sport to escape an impoverished upbringing in Peru. Picture: Adam Brown.
Rare opportunity: Emerging surfer Jhonny Guerrero has used the sport to escape an impoverished upbringing in Peru. Picture: Adam Brown.

When the World Junior Surfing Championships concluded last Wednesday, athletes from around the world began to make their way back home.

For some that meant returning to the comfortable surrounds of California, the Sunshine Coast or Hawaii. For Jhonny Guerrero, that meant returning to Chorrillos, an impoverished district in the Peruvian capital of Lima. A district where the crime rate is high, drugs are common place and gangs are prevalent. 

For Guerrero, surfing is an escape.

It’s a chance to escape from the dangers of living in a district filled with crime. And it’s his one chance to help his family escape from the district for good. 

“I started going to a beach with a friend from my neighbourhood and I always had a feeling for the sea,” Guerrero said through a translator.  “I most like the nature and the waves and if I don’t go surfing I feel empty. It’s my passion and I want to use it to help people.”

Guerrero initially fell in love with the ocean as a young child, first riding waves on a cushion, and later on a second-hand surfboard that had been gifted to him by one of the region’s experienced surfers. 

“I started surfing at 10 years old and I realised I liked it and was good at it when I started winning contests. After that, I realised I could do it. I’m very passionate in whatever I do and I’m just following my passion and trying to keep improving.”

Everybody went running, but I froze and was hit.

Jhonny Guerrero

Chorrillos is home to one of Peru’s most famous surf breaks, La Herradura, and Guerrero quickly caught the eye of the break’s regular surfers. Word of Guerrero’s talent spread to 2004 World Champion Sofia Mulanovich, and she invited him to join her junior academy. 

The academy was set up to provide Peruvian children with opportunities to succeed and Guerrero was the perfect fit.

“Jhonny has an incredible natural ability, a raw talent,” Mulanovich said. “When you see him surf, it’s electrifying, you just have to stop and watch.”

Through Mulanovich, Guerrero has been provided with numerous opportunities, including the chance to train at the Surfing Australia High Performance Centre.

Guerrero recognises that Mulanovich’s impact on his life cannot be overstated. 

“Sofia has been the most important thing for my career,” Guerrero said. “She gave me the first opportunity to go overseas and was supporting me. She took me a couple times to Australia and has been a really big support for me.”

Mulanovich quickly helped Jhonny recognise that he could help others through the sport of surfing.

However, with opportunity comes expectation and with millions in sponsorship deals and prize money on offer to the world’s best surfers, Guerrero feels the pressure of making the WSL Championship Tour and helping his family move into a safer district. However, he also knows his family will always support him, no matter what he achieves.

“Economically I have a good opportunity, my family believe in me and are supporting me and I hope to be able to help them.”

Guerrero was eliminated in the second round of last week’s event at Bombo Beach, and while he would have liked to progress further in the competition, his desire to become a professional surfer was only reinforced during the event. 

“It was a great experience. I’m learning from my mistakes and I now realise I have the level to do it. If I keep training and practicing, I can do better next time.”

The importance of using surfing as a way out of Chorrillos was made clear to Guerrero in May 2016. 

Guerrero was walking from his house to buy breakfast when he was caught up in a drive-by shooting. While not the target of the shooting, the then-16-year-old was caught in the crossfire and shot in the arm. He suffered a fractured arm, which required surgery.

“My neighbourhood sometimes has shootings,” Guerrero said. “There are people selling drugs on the streets, and often there are fights. It’s kind of dangerous.

“I woke up one morning to go have breakfast and I had the chance to cross the street at a crossing. But I didn’t cross and stayed in the corner with some other people. Then there comes a car speeding up and it brakes strongly and starts shooting. They were looking to shoot the people standing near me.

“I was unlucky and was hit by the bullet. Everybody went running, but I froze and was hit. But I turned my body a little bit and the bullet hit my arm and went in and out very fast.

“If I didn’t turn my body, it would have hit me right in my front and I wouldn’t be here to tell this story.”

Guerrero’s injuries were non-life threatening and he was fortunate the incident had no long term effect on his surfing. However, it did result in Guerrero making changes in his life to ensure it did not happen again. 

“The shooting doesn’t affect my surfing now. I was really worried when the bullets were flying everywhere that I might die. But when I was taken to a hospital I knew I would keep going.

“Sofia has a house that is not in a difficult neighbourhood, so I stay at her place where it’s more quiet. When I am at home, I go out fast, I don’t spend much time on the street so I don’t get in trouble.”

As one of Peru’s best teenage surfers, Guerrero acknowledges that thousands of Peruvian children are looking up to him. 

And while his team might struggle to get him to relax and place less pressure on himself, Guerrero is comfortable with the position he finds himself in. 

“Helping Peruvian children really motivates me,” Jhonny says. “I want to show the people in my neighbourhood that it is possible to succeed doing things the right way instead of wasting time and fooling around doing nothing.”

This story 'If I don't surf I feel empty’: shooting survivor among entrants in Kiama first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.