Thursday, September 13, 2012

And now for something completely different...

I've been cheating on horse racing. Like, hardcore. Honestly, who could blame me with the onslaught of retirements sweeping through our sport like a rampant disease? I'll Have Another. Union Rags. Bodemeister. All of our best 3-year-olds are gone, gone, gone, and so my interest has admittedly waned following the spring races. 

As someone who admittedly avoids most popular sports like a mange-ridden muskrat, it probably surprised me more than anyone I could fall in love with a new sport. Perhaps it's because this isn't just another game where the object is to move a ball from one geographical location to another; or partially due to the fact it's just so different from any other sport. Either way, there's a lot to love about this new [to me] sport.

I'm talking about surfing! As in in the ocean. With a board. And wetsuits. No, it's definitely not me doing the surfing. (Big HAH!) I like to leave that up to the professionals.

Watching professional surfing has become my new favorite pastime. You could almost say it's like racing in its obscurity, and in its organic fundamentalism. Like racing, it really hasn't changed all that much since the first daredevil ever thought, "Hey, I betcha I could ride that." Also, the sport demands more than just physical prowess--part of what differentiates a great surfer from a good one is the ability to read the ocean and mentally manipulate your opponent, kind of like how a great jockey can read his or her horse and have that clock in his head to know when to make a move. Obviously, this is about where the similarities end.

The last thing I would claim to be is a surf writer, or an aficionado, or even mildly knowledgeable about the world of pro surfing. Over the past year, I've been following the ASP world tour via webcasts and social media, loading up the live broadcast to watch the live action for a week at a time, getting to know the ins and outs of the sport as well as the pros themselves. It's not really comparable to any other sport, because you can't always guarantee the event will be on like in any other sport. When the tournament takes place in a moving, ever-changing arena, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature to give you perfect conditions (or in some cases, any waves at all will do). So how does this work, you ask?

The pro events are given a window of time to take place between two dates. Usually these dates are spread apart by roughly a week, and are timed during the year to give the surfers the chance of competing during the location's best swell. The ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Championship Tour spans across the globe, hitting up places like Fiji, France, Brazil, Australia, and in the States, California and Hawaii. Last year, they even survived the murky waters of New York. Each morning during the given event, there will be a call to announce whether surfing will commence for the day or if the weather is too abysmal to create a decent wave. If the event is called off for the day, it's called a "lay day," and everyone waits to see if surfing might resume the next day. Sometimes, the forecast calls for winds to pick up later in the day, and the event is postponed until conditions change in the surfers' favor. In this way, pro surfing is completely dependent on both the surfers' and fans' dedication. Everyone just wants to see big, glorious waves, and for the pros to get the chance to show what they can do.

Surfer at San Clemente Beach
My interest in surfing began a few years ago, when I stumbled onto the public beach at San Clemente, California, to watch the sunset over the ocean. Already a fan of the Beach Boys and all their catchy surfer songs, I was hooked forever at the postcard-worthy sight of surfers cutting through the sunset-dappled waves along the pier. As a photographer, my immediate response was to begin a new hobby--taking pictures of surf culture. At the time, I vaguely knew people surfed professionally, but I didn't think to research it. My introduction to Kelly Slater, heralded as the greatest surfer of all-time, was through Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. The two are friends, Pearl Jam also has songs about surfing, and because I was just beginning to become interested in this new world, I started to pay attention any time I saw people mention surfing.

And then, last year, I went on vacation in California with the intent on visiting a handful of new beaches--bonus points if they were mentioned in a Beach Boys song--and on the second to last evening of the trip, I rolled into Huntington Beach--Surf City, USA. The first thing I noticed was the oddly crowded streets. Then, I began to see big blue banners all along the sidewalks and the city businesses. My face pressed up against the window of the car door as I read the words, "US Open of Surf." No. It couldn't be. There was no way I was ever lucky enough to stumble onto a giant surfing event, was there?

But yes, Virginia... I'll never forget how my eyes about fell out of my head at the pictures of the surfers on the banners. Naturally, at the time, I only recognized one, but it was enough. Kelly. Not only was Kelly's picture on the big blue banners, but also on street posts advertising the US Open, and then I saw he had his own freaking street. Oh, not to mention his handprints in the surfing walk of fame in downtown H.B. In Surf City, Kelly is like a god. And I was there. But I had no idea what was going on, or how the event worked, or if he was even surfing that day.

Unfortunately, I was only partially lucky. As it turns out, Kelly had competed earlier in the day and I'd missed him by a few hours. The next morning, I headed out to the beach hoping to see some of the competition, but could only stay for a few hours, as I had to get back to LA that night for an early flight the next morning. I saw Joel Parkinson, Dusty Payne, and a handful of others. Only vaguely did I begin to understand how waves were scored, but it wasn't a bad way to be introduced to the sport. This was the day that ignited the flame, but the fascination didn't take fire until I got home and was able to watch the final on Fuel TV.

Legends are born from epic tales, and I was about to witness one in the making. My introduction to Kelly Slater was his match against Yadin Nicol in the final. To my fellow race fans, I equate it to never having witnessed a horse race before watching Rachel Alexandra destroy her competition in the Kentucky Oaks. Because Kelly didn't just win. He went in like a shark, psyching his opponent out before the match even started with a handshake that made the commentators bust up like they were about to witness a massacre. As it turns out, they couldn't have been more right. Kelly immediately went for the throat, making big scores out of waves Yadin refused glance at. A normal surfing heat usually lasts 20-30 minutes, but a final is 40. For 35 minutes, Yadin sat in the water waiting for the big waves, his opportunity for a huge score. But as the clock ticked on, Yadin began to look more and more like a stunned fish, and it slowly became apparent the champ must've psyched out the young Aussie. In 35 minutes, he never took a single wave. No one had ever seen such a lopsided final. Within the last five minutes, Yadin halfheartedly jumped up on a little wave that immediately closed out on him. Kelly said after the heat was over, "Well, I guess Yadin wanted me to win, he just didn't catch any waves."

Kelly Slater (I wish this was my photo!)
So, yeah. You could say I was impressed by my introduction to Kelly. More than just making me an instant fan, the US Open of Surf made me realize there were webcasts I could watch to keep up with the sport. It all began there, and I never looked back. Because of that event, I was able to watch Kelly win his 11th world title later in the year and re-solidify his already unparalleled legacy. With a career spanning 20 years, Kelly was the youngest surfer to ever win a world title when he was 20 years old, and in 2011, he became the oldest at age 39. Now at 40, he's still competing against the world's best, though 2012 has been tougher on him. Because of the nature of surfing, it's already an anomaly for Kelly to be competing in these events at his age, so there's always talk of retirement. He actually did retire briefly, (1999-2001) but came back  full-force.

And while talk of Kelly retiring for good may be common in surfing circles, as a fan who has seen her fair share of athletes retiring in their prime, my first urge was to see him as soon as possible before he leaves the pro circuit and I lose my chance to see him in person. There are some things so precious in this world, you simply cannot wait around with the hopes of one day witnessing them--you have to make it happen, or forever bemoan your hesitation. I flew to Santa Anita to see Zenyatta's farewell parade before she was un-retired for a year, and I don't regret it one bit. That happened to be the same trip I saw the surfers at the San Clemente pier for the first time. And so, tomorrow I will fly to California to see Kelly Slater surf at Trestles. And I know no matter the outcome of the event, to witness Greatness in the flesh will be no disappointment.

My only hope is my camera doesn't betray me.

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