Source: Daily Pilot (Extract)
Posted: June 23, 2023

Going out on top is a rare thing in sports.

Then again, so is having a dog who loves to surf.

Dan and Amy Nykolenko of Newport Beach are retiring their 11-year-old French bulldog Cherie from surf dog competitions after this year. But Cherie, dressed in a pink shirt and with pink toenails to match, showed that she had a flair for the dramatic on Friday.

She defended her small dog title at the 26th annual Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge Western Regional competition at Huntington State Beach.

Cherie edged Gidget, a female pug from San Clemente trained by Alecia Nelson, in the small dog title heat for the second straight year.

Faith, a 12-year-old American pit bull terrier from San Diego, won the large dog title with her trainer James Wall. She topped Kioni “Kentucky” Gallahue’s goldendoodle Derby, also of San Diego, in the final.

The Nykolenkos were honored to have Cherie and Faith both at the top of the podium. They both started their careers a decade ago in the same event, the Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon in Del Mar, and even in the same heat.

“The entire way, we’ve been able to do this,” Dan Nykolenko said. “I’m super-stoked for that reason, that we both won together. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy. It makes my cold, black heart pump once or twice.”

Cherie came out first in the event off Brookhurst Street. Each surf dog competed in 10-minute heats, with the top two in both the small dog and large dog categories making the finals.

Nykolenko said the conditions weren’t great for his Frenchie, but they also weren’t rough.

“It was very calm, and you kind of had your pick of wave,” he said. “They weren’t super-big, but that’s fine with me, because I have a 29-pound French bulldog.”

Nykolenko said Cherie’s final surf dog event will again be the Del Mar competition in September, providing a full-circle moment.

But Wall, who trains Faith, said he has no immediate plans to retire his pit bull, who rides with a pair of dog goggles called “Rex Specs.”

“She’s going to keep going until she tells me she doesn’t want to,” he said. “We pulled up in the parking lot and she was whining to get out here, so we’ll keep going. She’s going to be the old lady of the circuit.”

The surf dog competitions are largely for bragging rights, but Wall said it felt good to nab his canine’s first Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge Western Regional title. The event will air on television starting in July.

“I’m just having fun with my dog, and it brings joy to other people,” Wall said. “This year’s been a little bit hectic for us. My kids play sports … and I think this is actually the first time she’s been in the water since October of last year. That proves that she knows what she’s doing. I’m just the person pushing her out there, the rest is all on her.”

Wall said Faith, like many of the dogs in action Friday, maintains a very active social media presence with Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube pages.

“Honestly, I think there’s an OnlyFans too, but we don’t talk about that,” he added with a laugh.

Sugar, a 12-year-old female surf dog from Huntington Beach, was knocked out prior to the finals. She had won the large dog competition four straight times.

“She kept falling off [the board] and weird stuff she’s never done,” said her trainer, Ryan Rustan. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work out … I feel bummed out, but it’s OK. I think she’s got another year left in her, hopefully.”

The Purina Pro Plan Incredible Dog Challenge, a free event that’s open to spectators, concludes Saturday at Huntington State Beach. The event headquarters is located between Beach Boulevard and Newland Street.

Events on Saturday include agility, diving dog, weave, fetch it and freestyle flying disc competitions.