Under a microscope
What does Rob Machado's Reef Sweetwater Pro win say about East Coast pro surfing?
"Who's gonna be the next East Coaster to make the ASP World Tour?"
Every so often a surf writer gets asked that question, or in Eastern Surf Magazine alumni case, every week. We're pretty quick to want to evacuate our favorite surfers from their local beach to the sport's Colosseum, aren't we? Some might think it doesn't matter anyway, as today's basement-level blogophiles and overly stylized surf mags try to make us believe there's some hyper-hip, avant-garde movement taking over surf culture -- basically a big wad of hair with limbs launching outstanding airs in average waves, rendering the more predictably packaged superjocks obsolete.
There ain't. The artsy hipster thing is no different than country soul with Wayne Lynch, aggro 'tude with Richie Collins, druggie chic with Christian Fletcher, or drifting follicles with Rob Machado. It's cool now. That's all. Something else will come along, or come back around, shortly.
But the ASP World Tour will always claim the best surfers on the planet. And while the karma-or-image-hungry transients will be remembered for about a minute, the achievements made on the Dream Tour last forever.
And anything less need not apply.
Like Ben Bourgeois, the penultimate ASP surfer , who did two separate tours of duty over the span of a decade, before assuming Reef's "Gypsy" role (scoring cover shots, video parts, and getting waves named after him.) Using Bourgeois' hometown pro event, the Reef/ Sweetwater Pro-Am Surf Fest, as a sort of no-wake zone for sizing up potential East Coast tour hopefuls from afar, we found that it wasn't a particular presence here offering hope. It was an absence.
This 7th annual event that has become a three-day pro/am with a bustling art and music festival, a favorite time of year for this otherwise off-the-radar beach town. And along with the 96 traveling pros and hopeful womens longboarders, a fun, if not too organized two to three-foot windswell came out to play as well. If you have any pro surf aspirations on the Atlantic side, this was the place to be.
So, who wasn't in Wrightsville? Discounting Puerto Rican threats Dylan Graves and Brian Toth, Eric and Evan Geiselman are the highest-ranked East Coasters by the ASP. Big mag covershots, big movie parts, and big pro results spell big things to come for the New Smyrna Beach, FL, siblings. But, in fact, they're never here in Wrightsville Beach. As relevant as this event is for the local economy, the Reef brain trust, and the dozens of surfers trying to make a quick buck or keep their sponsors happy, it's hard for the Geiselmans to justify doing a non-ASP-sanctioned neighborhood pro-am, no matter how thick the prize purse. Not during the surf industry's high season. They leave that local level stuff to New Smyrna homies like Aaron Cormican.
Being a fringe cult hero, the world according to Cormican doesn't revolve around the ASP power source. But honestly, how long can someone dominate an event before trading in the cardboard check for loftier ambitions? One look at the guy's Reef/ Sweetwater track record (2006: 1st; 2007: 5th; 2008: 3rd; 2009: 1st; and now 3rd to inaugural and current event champ Rob Machado) raises the question, "Why isn't this guy trying to qualify?"
"That just isn't Gorkin's deal," says close friend and sparring partner Jeremy Johnston, the 2008 Reef/ Sweetwater champ and a quarterfinalist at the recent 4-star Copa Quiksilver El Salvador. "He's been living in Newport Beach, doing some contests out there, making videos. A lot of people don't realize how expensive it is to do the whole tour (Qualifying Series). It costs about fifty to seventy grand. There aren't many surfers on the East Coast rich enough to do that on their own. And there aren't a lot of sponsors willing to shell out that kind of money on an East Coast guy, no matter how good he is."
It's a given, at least it has been in the past, that any surfer who wins the Open Men's division at the NSSA National Championships is guaranteed a pro contract. Freshly minted Open Men's champ Cam Richards is good, but he's no snob. He's competed in the Reef/ Sweetwater before. He's even indulged the amateur divisions from time to time. But he didn't show up this year. If he had, as opposed to whatever else he was doing out west or abroad, certain suits might question his dedication to fulfilling their goals for him. Their goals. Not necessarily Richards'.
During some office small talk, 2001 ASP World Champion and Dream Tour vet CJ Hobgood emphasized to this writer that, "Professional surfing isn't all about the youth. A lot happens to a surfer from age 25 to 30: physical growth, maturity, new pressures. It's really hard to claim a grom's gonna make the World Tour one day, and equally hard to say a twenty-something pro never will."
"I always like seeing the late bloomers do well," says Ben Bourgeois, who was sidelined this year from competition due to a leg injury, "Sometimes guys can surprise you, because they're older and wiser. Fisher Heverly [runner-up at this year's Reef/ Sweetwater Pro] is one guy who's really been stepping it up. He's always been a really good surfer, but he's just starting to figure out the contest thing and how to make heats. He almost clinched it in the end here."
The Carteret kid's effort was more than valiant. With all eyes on Cormican and Machado's face-off, Virginia Beach's Philip Goold got lost in the mix -- plenty smooth but not as smooth as Machado, plenty radical but not as radical as Cormican -- while Heverly steadily built momentum. With Cormican and Machado tied with five minutes left on the hooter, Fisher nailed a left three times, crossed the streams, nailed a right three times, slipped under the pack into a left, and tweaked a frontside air-reverse grab to vault him past Cormican, but not Machado, who grabbed a tidier left, cleared more than 20 feet on a floater, hacked hard once, and dunzo: the inaugural Reef/ Sweetwater Pro champ regained his title seven years later. Kure Beach's Tony Silvagni, fresh off a win at the Billabong ISA World Games, stepped his way to first place in the Longboard Pro.
If Heverly would've beaten Rob Machado, he'd have beaten a bona fide surfing superstar and a former contender for the greatest title in our sport. Heverly's North Shore exploits last winter cemented it: If there is to be another North Carolina surfer to follow Bourgeois' international competitive beat, it will be this athlete.
"Every sponsored surfer dreams of being on tour when they're young," says Heverly. "It's a lot of work, though, and it costs a lot of money. I do set my goals pretty high and we'll see what happens with sponsors if I get pushed that way, but my main goal is to keep getting better. Thinking about anything beyond that would be I don't know ..."
2011 Reef Sweetwater Pro Results:
1. Rob Machado, Cardiff, California $5,000
2. Fisher Heverly, Emerald Isle, North Carolina $3,000
3. Aaron Cormican, New Smyrna, Florida $2,000
4. Phillip Goold, Virginia Beach, Virginia $1,500