The year was 2001 and everything was turned upside down. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had changed the world as we knew it. The ASP season was cut short, but when the year was over, Clifton James Hobgood, of Satellite Beach, Florida, was the World Champ.
Asterisk or not, Florida had another world champ on top of Kelly Slater's (then) six world titles. Hobgood's wonder twin, Damien, was a Top 10 insider. Gulf Coaster Cory Lopez finished 3rd and his brother, Shea, was a regular in the Top 16. And it wasn't just Florida. Ben Bourgeois, of North Carolina had just done a stint running with the big dogs. Within a few years, the East Coast would smoke the West Coast several times at the X Games.
Today, Cory Lopez, after three years off the tour, has a legit shot of getting back on for the second half of 2011. Gabe Kling, on again/off again since 2006, is a perennial bubble boy. Lopez is 34 and Kling will turn 31 this summer. So, uh ... where are the rooks?
In the mid 2000s, there was a new crop of East Coast kids ready to shake up the game. They dominated Surfer Mag's Top 100, rallied at NSSA events, and chose the home school route, grooming to be the next World Tour elite generation.
But something happened along the way.
David Awbrey, Tommy O'Brien, Eddie Guilbeau, and Blake Jones are not on the world tour. Sterling Spencer seems to have found a combined freesurf/comedy calling (which he's very good at.) Alek Parker is hunting hurricanes. Lucas Rogers is busy with East Coast specialty events and video parts. New Jersey's Rob Kelly has backed up his competitive aspirations with part-time marketing for new sponsor, Billabong.
"There's a missing link," says Asher Nolan, of Jacksonville, who was on par with Kling before a series of injuries, "There are really good surfers in Florida, but not World Tour quality. Sebastian Inlet used to produce so many tour surfers, year after. There's about a 10 year gap."
Four-time national champ, Adam Wickwire, is now in an internship at the University of New Mexico as part of an intense para-rescue training course for the US Air Force. He hasn't seen the ocean in over a year.
"I had to step back and really think about if I wanted to follow that path, give up an education and wind up 30-years-old without a lot of options," says Wickwire, "A special ops career seemed a better choice than the surfing path."
Puerto Rico surfers are often considered East Coasters, partly because they spend their amateur careers flying to Florida for every NSSA event. Five years ago, Shea Lopez said that of all the East Coasters, PR's Dylan Graves and Brian Toth had the best shot of cracking the ranks. He was pretty much spot on.
Dylan Graves is at No. 81 on the ASP's World Ranking. Brian Toth recently won the 4-star Quiksilver Classico Mazatlan and is at 122. They both have shots at the big time, but it's a long road from here to there.
Toth is in the neighborhood of 23-year-old Eric Geiselman, a Floridian who Nolan calls gifted. But Geiselman, once an obvious future-Lopez, still occupies the No. 119 spot, and has yet to develop a consistent contest presence. Considering that the mid season cut-off will take the top 34 into the second half of 2011, he's not a likely candidate.
Graves, Toth, and Geiselman are good -- insanely good. New Smyrna's Nils Schwiezer will tear into gnarly caves with any North Shore hellman and has better grovel skills than most of them. That's gained him a comfortable No. 233 ranking. Jeremy Johnston can even make heats and he's at No. 359.
The reasons are varied. The ASP's World Tour only includes a very elite 32 surfers. Surfers build World Ranking points in Star events, surfing's equivalent of the minor leagues. This gets them entre into valuable Prime events. But the entire East Coast hasn't had hosted a qualifying event in years, whereas the West Coast and Brazil have three Prime events each. Brazil has six star events in 2011 alone. The East Coast surf industry is strong, but sponsors simply haven't seen the value in showcasing competition. (Vans did step up to support a 4-star at the East Coast Surfing Championships for this August.)
"In the mid 1990's, when the Bud Surf Tour consolidated and absorbed the ASP East, as part of the newly formed ASP two-tiered system, American surfers from both coasts were provided an opportunity to gain significant World Qualifying Series (the ASP's old system) points on home turf," says Florida's Mark Hartman, who published the official ASP Tour guide from 1992 to 2002 and was a PSAA judge.
It was then that the Lopez Brothers and Hobgoods qualified for the ASP Tour. Ben Bourgeouis and Gabe Kling followed.
"Most agree that competition is good and change is good -- from a global perspective. That does not necessarily mean this translates as a good thing for U.S. or East Coast Surfers. The tour is way more competitive now, and even if a kid has freakish talent, he has to really want to go after it, do the hard yards, and there are no guarantees."
But even if the next World Tour rookie isn't from Vero Beach, there are still plenty of stickers on the noses of East Coast sticks. The industry is still investing millions into guys who make their own films, teach surf lessons, get pits in Nicaragua, sell shoes, and occasionally lift up a check at some non-sanctioned event.
"Kids have a lot of choices these days and some lack the motivation and patience, or just get burnt out on contests. Losing is always tough and the glory of a win is fleeting and short lasted. They see all the videos on Youtube and some guys can make a few bucks doing the free surf photo thing," says Hartman, "The converse side of all this instant media access, is that many kids, think they are entitled to have instant success -- like an instant message, or text. If it doesn't happen that way for them, they lose their focus or interest."
Fair point, but Brazil has Twitter too.
"East Coasters get caught up in being celebrities," offers Wickwire, "Look at the guys who do make it. Adraino de Souza has one of the worst styles I've ever seen. But he's become a very good surfer. He's applied himself and hasn't let anything hold him back."
The reality is that the game has changed. There's just as much talent on the East Coast as there ever was, but perhaps other regions of the world have caught up.
"It's all coming down to support, training, and coaching. The kids need to be making money and getting as much help as possible," says Nolan.
The East Coast has never had the support that Californians enjoy, but in the past, it's been enough. With far more competition around the globe today, it's tougher to keep up. Plus, training and coaching, the new vocational options for older ex-pros, cost money. California's Mike Parsons has found a fourth career in coaching Kolohe Andino. Paker Coffin does yoga when Brad Gerlach tells him too.
So, with so much apparent complacency and lack of support, who does have a shot at being the guy that East Coasters tune into the webcast to see?
No matter how good wetsuit technology gets, the next Gudauskas brothers are not coming out of New England. New York is a slightly different story. Long Beach's Balaram Stack could be the Empire State's Andino. He's got the support and skills, but he'll have to finish better than Andino in at least three contests a year to improve his No. 388 ranking. New Jersey's hopes lie in guys like Pat Schmidt, Mikey Ciaramella, and PJ Raia, who are at least taking a shot outside of the Garden State. If there is some whiz kid busting no-handed 3's at Ocean City Inlet in Maryland, we have yet to hear about him.
How about Michael Dunphy? Virginia Beach has produced some talent in the past, yet until former Top 16'er Wes Laine's kids are old enough to surf Hawaii, it's not likely.
Brett Barley can continue to repeat his performance at the 2010 Volcom Pipe Pro (a 10 and a 9.6) for the rest of his life, but he, Fisher Heverly, and the other Tarheel surfers show little desire to head to 2-stars in Brazil. Though it seem an unlikely place to produce a surf star, South Carolina is hoping young Cam Richards can make a solid run.
And that basically brings us back to Florida. Noah Schwiezer and Luke Marks still have to get through puberty.Geiselaman's little brother , Evan, is the 17-year-old Golden Boy with 12 NSSA East Coast titles and win at the US Open's Junior Pro last year.
"Evan can make the tour. I don't see to much difference from he and Pupo or Medina, if he puts the work in," says CJ Hobgood, emphasizing the workd work. "And has a good friend Kolohe to feed off. There's no way in heck is anyone's surroundings are an advantage or disadvantage. It's all about overcoming obstacles."
But could all this weight on Geiselman's young shoulders be too much?
"The only pressure is my own pressure," says Geiselman, "I believe I will be on the tour. I do think we have a little bit of a disadvantage here, but a lot of people do, and your surfing will speak for itself. I honestly don't know about the guys a few years older than me. Maybe they didn't have the desire, or fell into the wrong stuff."
He seems to have the right stuff. In addition to Hurly, he's on the Red Bull, Nike, and Oakley programs. (He rides a Channel Islands and his father's a shaper!) It's a formula that seems to be working across the board for surfers these days -- plenty of dough to pay for travel, specialized training, and other opportunities his Right Coast peers don't have.
"Where surfing is heading now is more progressive and explosive than ever before," Geiselman adds, "It is being treated like a real sport now too. So it is definetly harder, but that being said, it's harder for everyone in the world."