Monday, December 10, 2012

At long last, my epic Trestles blog

Unlike in horse racing, you don't get too many chances to see ASP events come to America. With my window to witness the greatest surfer of all time closing fast, I had but a few chances to see Kelly Slater this year without having to cross an ocean. My first choice was to see him compete at Trestles.

The San Clemente Pier
Considered a holy place for surfers, Trestles is located at San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente, California. Ironic my first encounter with surfers was in San Clemente, watching amateurs flounder near the pier, when one of the best surf spots in America was just a couple miles down the beach. While there are several great surf spots along this stretch of sand, the best and most consistent wave is at Lower Trestles, or as those in the know call it, Lowers.

The thing about Lowers? It just happens to be one of Kelly Slater's favorite playgrounds. Before going into the 2012 Hurley Pro, Kelly had won the world tour event at Lowers five times before, more than any other professional surfer. If Kelly is King of Surfing, Lower Trestles would be his kingdom. So, yeah, the first place I got to see Kelly Slater surf in person was at his home away from home.

The Santa Fe Railroad next to Trestles
What's crazy, and kind of awesome, about a surf spot like Lowers is you have to really want to be there to even get to the location. The only public parking is a 40-minute walk along an off-ramp to the interstate, and then down a dirt path through a natural environment and across a railroad track to get to the beach. Sure, you could just walk the three miles down the beach to get there, but I'd like to see the poor sap try who thought that would be a fun idea. The old public parking area is normally closed, but is open strictly for the athletes and some of the Hurley employees running the event. Even then, the parking area is still a 10-15 minute walk to the event location. Oh, and you're "not supposed to cross the railroad track," which everybody does, otherwise you'd have to come from Upper Trestles, across the beach like Lawrence of freakin' Arabia.

The Hurley Pro oasis
Once you actually arrive at the event location, with its temporary tents and towers brandished with sponsorship logos erected for the athletes and media, you kind of feel like you've discovered life on Mars. It's just a mini city sitting out on a natural beach with nothing else around it for a mile either way, except for aspiring surfers leaping into the waves outside of the event buoys warding off non-competitors. What's nice is they have ample porta-potties set up with a water and sanitizing station outside, as well as a couple food shacks with honest-to-God good food. Surfers, I have become aware, are not only environmentally-conscience, abiding to the rule of "leave no trace behind," but also have excellent taste in food. These guys aren't stuffing themselves with corndogs and fried chicken, so you get to partake in the same healthy choices they get. (On a semi-related note, I'm now obsessed with acai bowls.)

The beach itself serves as bleachers for the rabble of spectators toting their own fold-up chairs, beach towels, and umbrellas. (Note to self: buy a cheap beach umbrella if you plan to attend any future surf event.) The sun managed to burn me to a crisp the first day, even when I had on sunscreen. Think of yourself as a naked clam-blob slowly frying on a hotplate. Since the event stretches on for hours each day, with the rise and fall of the sun, that's plenty of time to accidentally turn yourself into a lobster. The event staff would coyly plant several free umbrellas along the beach during the day, but you had to get lucky to find yourself beneath one. They do allow you to take your umbrella at the end of the day and bring it back for the next day. I almost made it home with a Spyglass umbrella, but had no way of taking it home on the flight. Wah-wah.

Looking out at Lowers, and a seaweed monster.
Back to the even itself. The Hurley Pro was a big deal in the race to secure the world title, because the top four surfers were all a chess match away from rank-leaping. At the start of the event, the world #1 was Mick Fanning, followed by Joel Parkinson, John John Florence, and at #4, thanks to missing Brazil with an injury and a throw-out placing at Teahupoo, Kelly Slater. Up to this event, Mick had won the most events on the world tour so far (two), while Kelly and John John had each won one. While Joel had yet to win an event, he also had yet to finish worse than 9th place in any event, making him more consistent than the other three. As the sixth spot on the tour, the Hurley Pro would serve as a crucial turning point for one of these top surfers--someone would either keep their world title dream alive or have it wiped away by their result here.

I'm gonna be frank. I wanted to see Mick Fanning go down. I'm sure he's a perfectly nice guy. I follow him on Instagram and he posts cute pictures of his dog and family--he can't be all that bad, right? But I hold grudges, and I could not (and still cannot) get over the final at Bells Beach (the second stop on the tour), where Mick and Kelly battled it out like Titans, only for Kelly to pull out a heart-stopping 10-point air and back it up with a plethora of scintillating maneuvers, only to lose to the homebred. I maintain the only way Kelly was going to win that  final was if he suddenly started speaking with an Aussie accent. Mick ended up with the trophy at Bells, and I ended up with a thirst for revenge. Maybe so too did Kelly.

The only way Kelly had a chance to stay in the race for world title was to win the Hurley Pro at Lowers, and everybody knew it. Every single heat counted. The tension was palpable. Also, I may have been radiating more nerves than anybody, because I was bound and determined to seize my only opportunity to snap photos of a living legend. The first round consisted of 3-man heats, which meant nobody would be eliminated from the competition, so I was guaranteed to see Kelly surf at least twice. If tragedy struck and Kelly somehow lost his second heat, he would be out of the event. Basically, I knew I had at least two times to see him surf, so I was practically puking with anxiety by the time his first heat came around. I mean, I had flown all the way to California just to see him.

So. Taking pictures of a surfer isn't exactly like stalking a Thoroughbred race horse. Cause, you know, you're just feet away from them, and they can actually tell if you're taking a picture of them, or are following them. So even though I'm a proud member of the Horse Paparazzi, I didn't want to be that nagging photographer who stuck to the surfers like glue and messed up their concentration. But I still wanted my picture, so I did do a little stealth-following, at a distance.

An apt introduction to Kelly Slater.
Thanks to my faithful watching of every event on the world tour via webcast, I had a vague idea of how the surfers would emerge from their tent and come running down the beach to hop in the water. I camped out along the dirt path at the top of the beach with my 300mm lens, waiting for my first glimpse of Kelly, practically trembling with anxiety. I saw the reaction to Kelly before he first came into view. Unlike the other surfers, who pass through the masses of people almost unnoticed, a cheer went up when the champ stepped onto the sand. A crowd had formed near the tent, the whoops and applause tittering like leaves as a car whooshes past, only this was an entourage of human beings, one with no need for wheels, just a board with four fins.

Like any super-creature, it's impossible to mistake one in the flesh. No, Kelly Slater is no towering Colossus built to intimidate through stature alone; he is simply a stream-lined machine, compact and fine-tuned for strength, flexibility, and longevity. He traded fat for muscle long ago, and looks as you might imagine the most fit human being on earth might appear. Yet even as he jogs along on the beach, you still can't understand how he is able to move on water as he does, with the balance and precision of a samurai master.

In a whoosh, followed by cameramen and bodyguards, he passed through the crowd and cut through the fans sunning themselves several yards down the sand. There is no direct path to the water, so all the athletes must pick their way between humans to get to the shore. Those sitting unawares an entourage was about to descend upon them and attempt to sweep past their umbrellas and beach bags were probably wondering what all the fuss was about until they caught a flash of the yellow jersey with the iconic name printed on the back. Kelly dropped into his trademark squatting position, burying his head in his arms to focus before lunging into the water. It's a portrait that is so Kelly; the pure image of someone who has dedicated his life to not only reaching the pinnacle of his sport, but remaining at the top for twenty years.

I was almost too close to him to get my shot, but so flanked was Kelly by curious onlookers and fans brave enough to walk right up to him to snap a picture on their iPhone, I had to settle with being slightly too close and cut off the whole image. It would end up becoming my only opportunity to capture a clean image of this pose without some numskull ruining the shot. Even having credentials wouldn't have helped me in this scenario. (Which I didn't have, anyway.)

After I got my close-up shots, I scrambled back down the beach to my spot, where I moved out to perch on the rocks like a seagull. Any time Kelly went out to surf, the masses of people on the beach suddenly doubled in size, and it grew harder and harder to find an impeded view. There was no way I was going to sit back on the casual safety of my beach towel when I could go out on the rocks and get a cleaner, slightly closer vantage point.

Like welcoming back an old friend, the Lowers was good to Kelly that morning. The first wave he took, Kelly scored an 8.33. I've said this before, but you really can't appreciate Kelly Slater's style and grace until you've watched other surfers for comparison. Not to say other top professional surfers don't have their own style and talent, but Kelly's is transcendent; when this man gets in the water, it's magic. Nobody is faster, more fluid, has more finesse, or is seemingly made out of the same kind of rubber as this man. He is, to put it simply, existing in a different universe. But I knew all of this going into Trestles, obviously. This was the first time, however, I noticed Kelly also throws more spray than any other surfer. His powerful carves, frozen in still images, are proof Kelly isn't just out there slaying waves--he is rendering works of art. It's reminiscent of the sorcerer in the movie Fantasia, conjuring the water to do his bidding.

The first match was a non-elimination round consisting of 3-man heats. Kelly ended his heat with a stylish 360-air, easily winning his first heat in the competition; Mick won his, as well, meaning they would move on to round 3. Surprisingly, Joel and John John lost, meaning they would both surf in round two. I won't go over every detail of every round spanning the week-long event. What is important was that from then on, Parko began surfing like a freak on a mission of world domination. He slowly began to rack up some of the highest-scored waves of the event, and began to take on the image of a runaway train blowing through the competition. Needless to say, this made me nervous. As much as I liked Joel, I'd clung to the hope I'd be able to see Kelly win his historic 50th event in person there at Lowers.

@mattwilko8 posted this on Twitter after their heat.
Kelly won his heat in round three versus Matt Wilkinson, and moved on to the fourth round, a 3-man heat against Julian Wilson and Taj Burrow. Before this heat is when I decided to cheer loudly for Kelly as he jogged by, because I am both a dork and have little self control when it comes to my fandom. (In my defense, I was generally respectful of his space and never got in his way...) Thus, I will forever link this little outburst to the result of the heat, which went down in history as the first time ever Kelly was slapped with an interference. Was my little cheer to blame for disrupting Kelly's concentration, as it tore his eyes from the goal to glance at the only person along his path screaming "GO GET 'EM, KELLY" on his way to the water? Whatever be the case, I resigned myself to never making another peep before he hit the water, in fear of spoiling his mojo. Needless to say, the call of interference sparked a flurry of controversy, and while it made Kelly lose the heat, he was able to go onto the next round more fired up than ever. (Woe be the surfer who gets in Kelly's way when the champ gets angry.)

My name is Kelly Slater. Prepare to die.
Round five is when it really got crucial. Mick defeated Julian Wilson, and Kelly beat Jeremy Flores, so both the world #1 and #4 progressed to the quarter finals. Kelly, Mick, and Joel survived the quarters, but John John was defeated by Adriano de Souza and eliminated from the event.

In the semi finals, Kelly and Mick were sent to go head-to-head in a battle of giants; it was the first time they had met in a heat since spring, in that epic final at Bells Beach. Kelly charged to the water looking like a man thirsting for blood. Setting the scene to battle royale perfection, a pirate ship floated in the background as the two champs took to the water.

Kelly never let Mick have a chance. The 11-time world champion went for first blood, scoring an 8.10 on a rambling wave that gave him the chance to rip up some of Mick's early courage. While the ocean didn't serve up its best sets, it was enough to let Kelly annihilate the world #1. On Kelly's third wave, he comboed Mick with a dreamy air rotation, scoring a 9.17. Mick was finally able to score a 6.67 over the halfway mark with some nice carving turns, but was never able to duplicate his best form, caving to the king, who began throwing away scores for fun. Mick ended up with a total score of 9.34, while Kelly rode to victory with a total of 17.27. Talk about sweet, delicious revenge! The lesson, kids? Don't piss off Kelly Slater.

Parko carves a little off the top.
Not to be outdone, Parko continued to lay ruin upon his opponents in the semis. Scoring a pair of 9.13s, Joel decimated the venerable Adriano de Souza. So confident was Parko, he ended up riding back to the beach over a minute early while Adriano struggled to play catch-up.

The final for the 2012 Hurley Pro was set up to be an epic sea battle, with the most dominant surfer of the event going up against the most winning surfer of the event. With the pirate ship still bobbing in the background, the duel began with Kelly drawing first blood with a solid 6.77 score. The thing about competitive surfing is, it's not just about surfing. It's about tactics, strategy, and taking what the ocean serves up to make the most of what Mother Nature gives you; and almost more importantly, it's about peaking at the right time and not burning out too quickly. If there's anything Kelly Slater knows, it's about maintaining longevity.

Kelly scored on three waves before Parko was able to take his first, his third scored a 7.33. It seemed that Parko was going with the all-or-nothing mindset, looking for the big scores instead of taking what he could get. In the middle of the heat, Kelly lost priority on a wave, but on the second wave of the set, Parko couldn't get into position and Kelly took it, scoring a second 7.33. Never underestimate Kelly Slater's fire in a final. The champ followed up that wave with a 7.83, pumping up speed to float over a rail, slash off its head, then top off the maneuver with a spectacular air-reverse. Parko finally followed up his 5.33 with a powerful carving turn, managing to score the best wave of the heat thus far with a 8.33. Drama much? All Parko needed was a 6.83 to defeat Kelly and claim the glory.

Kelly's final wave of the event.
As the two surfers sat out the water just feet apart, waiting for the waves to come, it seemed the ocean was calming down. When finally a wave raised its head, Parko forced Kelly to use his priority. That was a mistake. Kelly went absolutely mental, pulling out every ounce of style and tenacity on that rip of water like he was settling a personal vendetta. The crowd went insane, and Kelly bettered Parko's effort with an 8.67. Parko was able to snag a wave a minute later, but it petered out before he was able to make much of it. It would not be enough to catch up to Kelly. With less than a minute left, Kelly took one more wave. It became instantly apparent this wave was not only a tactical move, to keep Parko from finding the score he needed, it was also a victory lap for Kelly. The whole beach began to cheer as final scores began to drop from the previous waves and the situation became clear--Kelly had won the event, and his would be this final show. After all of the drama and anxiety of the heat, it came down to this, just watching the best surfer in the world glory in the throes of the ocean. Yup, there were tears on my part. I didn't know if it would be the last time I ever witnessed this again, and I wanted to soak in every single grain of atmosphere and relief and triumph of that scene. After the water gave him a playful dunk, Kelly took one look over his shoulder to see if there were any sets coming in for Joel, but the ocean was flat. With 25 seconds still left on the clock, Kelly rode into the beach and threw his arms up in the air.

Kelly realizes he's just won Lowers.
It was over, and we had just witnessed something that will probably never be done again--Kelly Slater had just won his 50th world tour event. The crowd enveloped the champ as he reached the rocks and chaired him up the beach. I couldn't make it down for the photo, so I shot up to the stage for a prime spot for the trophy presentation.

Needless to say, I could not have picked out a better world tour event to attend all year. Operation Kelly now a personal victory, I had come to merely see the champ surf with my own eyes, and had been rewarded with the experience of a lifetime. It took some tenacity and determination on my own part to get up at the crack of dawn every morning and make the trek down to Trestles, not to mention battle the sun for 8 hours each day, but clearly, it was worth every effort. The whole thing now exists in my mind like some sort of out-of-body experience. Was I really at Trestles? Did I really spend the better part of a week watching the greatest surfer of all time land a historic victory? It was more of a dream than I ever could've hoped for.

* * *

Kelly takes a champagne bath at Lowers.
Kelly's win bumped him up to third place in the men's world rankings, with Mick staying at #1 and Joel at #2. John John would have to make way for the champ, and Mick and Joel would have to keep up the heat in the following events of the world tour to ward off the advancement of Kelly from climbing even higher.

But Kelly stayed on fire after his victory at Lowers, going on to win the next event, the Quicksilver Pro France. It marked the first time Kelly had won at France in two decades. Mick's French trip ended early with a poor result, forcing him to plummet down the ladder in rankings. Parko became the new world #1 while Kelly continued to make up ground and snapped up the #2 spot. In the next event, the Rip Curl Pro Portugal, Parko was the lone member of the top 5 to make it to the semifinals, where he lost to Gabriel Medina. Parko and Kelly stayed as the 1-2 leaders in the world title race, which would be determined in the final event of the tour, the Billabong Pipe Masters in Hawaii.

Will Kelly end up winning his 12th world title at Pipe, or will Joel 's consistency finally earn him his first world title victory? Tune into the webcast December 8-the 20th to find out.

Joel Parkinson holds the 2nd-place trophy.

Kelly celebrates after winning his 50th world tour event.

Kelly's self-portrait with the fans at Lowers.
(That's me in the flannel to the left of his head!)
CLICK HERE to see more of my photos from the 2012 Hurley Pro on Flickr.

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