Competitive Burning for Fun and Profit

The World Surfing League has advanced the image and the business of competitive surfing.

It has. This is true. Most of the rest of this piece is opinion. Mine. There are other opinions.

A couch surfer in Vermont or Ohio can now go to YouTube or go online and see professionally managed contests featuring wave riders from about ten years old to somewhere around 50 (even older than Kelly in some specialty events) going for the win, entertaining the audience with a succession of score-enhancing cranks and punts and cutbacks and floaters, throwing a creative claim when appropriate, always looking for an advantage over the competition.

On a recent Saturday, between sort of doing chores, taking a too brief nap, and writing until I forgot the original plot, I switched the big screen from restful music with soothing images and optimistic aphorisms, to Roku, then to YouTube. Whoa, there was a contest going on at Lower Trestles. Trestles! I loved the spot. This scene was way different than the way it was set up when I worked across the tracks and the freeway, and up the hill, in 1975.

While I, not fully aware of how lucky I was, was able to drive out as far as Uppers, the scene on that Saturday was of hundreds of big-tired bikes, sani-cans, judging structures. This was some sort of contest for kids, ages 10 (guessing- really young) to 16. Some of the competitors were there with parents (some well- known former competitors), some with coaches. They were in heats, going wave for wave with other kids. They all seemed to rip.

Contest rip. It is different from free surf ripping. Show. It is for entertainment. Going down the line on a perfect wave will get one three points. Throw in a couple of cutbacks, five. Big air into the rocks, excellent.

And there are the priority rules. They are somewhat similar to the classic lineup etiquette. The biggest difference is the absolute right to ‘sit on’ your competitor and/or to burn him or her if you have priority.

Priority.

Kelly, with priority, gets the double eagles from a 3rd degree-burned Joel Parkinson at pumping, dredging, draining, rip-torn Kirra. Totally legal.

What made me think about this is this: Unable to stay up late enough to watch more of the contest from Jeffrey’s Bay (I gave up after Italo was injured and spectators wouldn’t get up from sitting on the stairs to let him get helped up them- but Kanoa did get a buzzer-beater to win their heat), I got up early to see which one of my surfing heroes won the event. Fast-forwarding the post show, I saw replays of the interference call against Carissa Moore that gave Tatiana Weston-Webb an almost free pass into the finals. It just didn’t look right. It didn’t look fair.

Wait a minute. I suddenly flashed back to my second favorite scene from the docu-series “Make or Break.” My favorite scene was when Stefanie Gilmore was (I thought), goaded into saying, about winning, “Fuck them, I want it more.” The second favorite scene involved Tatiana and Sage Erikson in a contest in Mexico. An interference call had cost Sage the heat. Sage seemed to believe Tatiana had tricked her into going on a wave by claiming not to know which of them had priority. Then Tati dropped in. Sage wasn’t happy, and in stark contrast to the way the WSL portrays competitor interaction, all mutual respect and love, Sage called Tatiana out for the cutthroat move.

Tatiana looked… if she looked sorry, I didn’t see it. It was more of a “Fuck you, I wanted it more!” look.

Now, I should add that I am a huge Stephanie fan. I also should add that Trish is a Courtney Conlogue fan. Stephanie won the Mexico contest by surfing harder, making aggressive and high risk maneuvers with her classic smoothness. Sportsmanship (or sportspersonship) wise, after Steph beat Court in a heat at Jeffrey’s Bay, it was reassuring to see both of them in a warm-back-up hot tub. I am hoping both of their smiles were real.

I googled “Did Tatiana burn Carissa,” and got a story, with video, on Tatiana burning Moana Jones-Wong at Pipeline. Yes. The surfer Jamie O’Brian calls the undisputed “Queen of Pipeline,” a surfer who legitimately outsurfed every other woman competitor and beat Carissa Moore in the finals of the Billabong Pipeline contest, was locked into a tube and Tatiana dropped in on her, then straightened out.

Moana called Tatiana out on the beach. And on social media. A couple of points: Tatiana claimed she didn’t see Moana but didn’t drop in on male surfers; Tatiana had a coach or someone blocking for her in the lineup. Now, Tatiana said she was trying to earn a spot in the lineup, but Moana countered that, rather than “buying her way in” she had taken years to work her way from the shoulder to the peak, without dropping in on others. It is a matter of respect.

All this in a case against Tatiana is circumstantial, of course. But here’s more: Carissa has been surfing competitively since she was, guessing, ten years old. She knows the rules. It is difficult to believe she didn’t know who had priority. Tatiana waited until Carissa was fully committed on a dangerous and well-overhead wave before she dropped in, not on an angle, but straight down. There was no way Carissa could have avoided the interference. Tati made no real effort to complete the ride but fell in an overly dramatic way more reminiscent of the WWE than the WSL.

Did Tatiana Weston-Webb win the final heat fairly? As nearly as I can tell, she did. Is there a little tarnish on her trophy? Up for debate.

A last point: It seemed to me the commentators were risking injury in trying as hard as they could to not say there just might have been tactics at least underhanded if not all out dirty. Legal tactics.

Yes, the stakes are high. There is one more contest and few spots left in the Final Five. So much drama, so much hype. The waiting period for the one-day contest to decide this year’s top male and female surfers is September 8 through the 16th. Trestles.

Pump up the tires on your e-bike, check your Wi-fi connection. It might just be EPIC! It would be great if the winners win with pure surfing rather than tactics.

Again, I love that contests are so easily accessed, so expertly analyzed and brilliantly filmed. Live action. Replays. Members of the audience can pick our heroes AND our villains. We know something about the competitors, but we don’t really know them. Such drama!

Meanwhile, in the real world, priority disputes continue.

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