Updated: June 21, 2010, 10:35 AM ET

No Payne No Gain

Howard By Jake Howard
ESPN Action Sports
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Dusty Payne's make-or-break moment comes on a 12-foot day at Sunset Beach. After a crazy week of surf on Oahu's North Shore -- one more focused on survival rather than performance -- the 21-year-old from Lahina needs to advance out of the quarterfinals at the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing to qualify for the 2010 ASP World Tour. Payne stares down an angry sea.

After his first fully dedicated year on the ASP World Qualifying Series, Payne has excelled in places like West Australia and California, and slogged through places like Brazil. As Payne stands on the shore, he has friends and family lining the Kam Highway in full support mode. This is a moment that can transform his career and his life, and he comes to it after days of anxiety and dilemas.

Seventy two hours earlier, Ian Walsh gazed at the weather models on his laptop and worried. "Should I go back to Maui, where Jaws and Honolua are going to be good, or do I stay here, help Dusty and caddy for him?"

Walsh, who grew up with Payne on Maui and knows his way around the Sunset lineup like a ferret, had told his friend he'd be there in the channel for him. But given the unusual size and angle of the early winter North Pacific swells, and the fact that Maui was getting pummeled by great surf while Oahu was getting pummeled by weather and too many out of control days to count, the internal conflict made sense. In order to get some "work" done (i.e. go surfing and shoot photos and video), a lot of surfers on Oahu had gone packing to Maui.

KenworthyProficient in just about any conditions, Payne uncorks one.  Launch Gallery »

Had it been any other contest at any other time, it would have been a moot point: you go surfing. But Payne is on the brink of being the first surfer from the Valley Isle to ever qualify for the World Tour, and lifelong friends like Walsh, Granger Larsen, 2009 ASP World Junior Champ Kai Barger, and Hank Gaskell were torn. This moment was the culmination of an island-wide push to put one of their own on the Tour.

As early as 2004, Maui surfing's elder statesman, Tai VanDyke, speculated, "Dusty could be the kid that does it." Payne was already showing flashes of being the prodigal son to Bruce Irons. At 16 he had the style, the talent, and the bravado, he just had to get a little older. Proving that insult is the highest form of flattery, Irons quipped, "Dusty S--tstain? Yeah, he's alright."

Over the years there has been no shortage of talent to emerge from Maui, but up until this new vanguard arrived, getting off the rock's always proved to be the biggest hurdle. For some it comes from a lack of motivation or inclination. Why leave when you can find a good wave almost every single day? Others are the victims of poor decision-making. The tragic cases of Eric Diaz, who died in a car crash at 30 years old, Steve Cooney and Justin Roberson, who both died in car crashes before their 20th birthdays, are representative of how thin a line those that came before them walked./p>

KenworthyThick and chunky, just the way Payne likes 'em.  Launch Gallery »

Maui's "Gen Next" understands all this full well, and it's part of what inspires them to strive for greatness. "Maui boys. We're like a little team, we're there for each other, we push each other, we support each other, we're not going to let opportunities slip past us like might have happened in the past," says Barger. And while the road to the Sunset Beach waterline where Payne now stands hasn't been easy -- he's already had to battle back from one debilitating knee injury -- he knows full well what is at stake. "It's all on the line," he says, and paddles out.

Aloha being what it is, Payne's four-man heat includes Australia's Daniel Ross, Brazil's Jihad Khodr, and Payne's good friend and fellow Hawaiian Kekoa Bacalso. While Bacalso proves to be an ally, blocking for Payne, giving him priority and offering moral support, it takes more than a friend in the water to advance when Sunset's massive, wonky, and doling out punishing sections where they're least expected. Payne takes his share of abuse, but never loses his cool and proves that he excels in the kind of surf that often separates Hawaiians from everyone else. He takes second in the heat, moves on to the semifinal, and punches his ticket to the big dance.

[Kekoa] told me he was going to do everything he could to put another Hawaiian on tour," says Payne with a laugh. He's still dripping wet from the heat and there's a huge grin across his face. "There's no pressure now."

So there will be another Hawaiian on tour in 2010, but not just a Hawaiian. From the relative backwater of Maui, Dusty Payne finds himself positioned amongst the world's wave riding elite. More than that, he's poised to lead the next generation of surfers from his island home to the promise land.

"I did it for all the boys on Maui who passed away; Steve Cooney, I always looked up to him a lot, Eric Diaz, and Justin Roberson," Payne would say to his hometown paper, the Maui News, some days after his battle at Sunset. "I wanted to do better, prove that Maui belongs on tour."

KenworthyFrom Hawaii or not, Payne's not immune to a little sunburn.  Launch Gallery »

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