Flipping out

Earlier this month, Santa Cruz surfer Zoltan Torkos made a tear in surfing's collective field of perception when he landed the first documented kickflip on a surfboard. For a small population of relentlessly progressive surfers, the trick has been something of a holy grail, and in 2007 action sports apparel giant Volcom placed a value on that grail: 10,000 dollars to the first surfer who produced video of the feat according to their exacting standards. For much of the rest of the surfing world, the trick has been just one more seemingly impossible move dreamed up by the aforementioned small population that may or may not come to pass. Well, thanks to Torkos -- a self-described "magician" -- the kickflip is officially a surfing reality. Let groms the world over begin wracking their little grom-sticles on the the rails of their boards as they try to repeat Torkos' feat.

You know something has definitively changed the sport when what was once an end becomes the means.

Volcom, for its part, was hardly definitive on the subject. In a very public flip flop, the company initially declared Torkos' kickflip to be a below-the-lip chop hop and therefore ineligible for the prize due to Rule 3 of their "Kickflip-Off," which expressedly forbid chop hops or entries below the lip. A week later, the company reversed course, awarding him the 10,000 dollars. In their final assessment, Volcom seemed somewhat ambivalent and failed to address whether or not the considerable online support for Torkos was a factor in their change of heart.

Wrapped into their (second) response to Torkos' kickflip was an announcement for the new and improved "Kickflip-Off," with a new and improved prize of 20,000 dollars. This time around, they've sought to clear up any ambiguity on what they feel a surfing kickflip should be; the infamous Rule 3 now states, "The kickflip must be a real air above and off the lip."

To his credit, when Torkos was first informed that he hadn't won the Kickflip-Off, his response was: "I am not here to argue with your decision. But I am here to revolutionize surfing." Ultimately, he didn't have to argue with Volcom. But the second part of that quote deserves some examination; has Zoltan Torkos "revolutionized" surfing?

If indeed he has, the evidence will appear over time. One by one, those groms will stop cutting their feet open on their fins and start landing their own kickflips. The line between old and young at the sport's highest levels will be determined by who can land kickflips and who can't. Some new version of the Modern Collective will showcase on film a variety of never-before-seen flip tricks set to an infuriating (yet oddly catchy) soundtrack. And then, about 10 years later if history is any guide, judging criteria on the ASP World Tour will be forced to figure out how to properly score these "newfangled moves" that everyone and their brother will already be doing.

Anyway, that's how it went with the last thing that revolutionized surfing: the air. But at the risk of revealing to the world my true nature as a crusty old man who regularly gets aired over in my local lineup, I'd suggest we don't hold our breath.

Look, the kickflip was amazing. And the suggestion made by my fellow grumps online that it was a waste of time is absurd. It's surfing. Surfers should surf however the hell they want to surf, and anyone who does something that so many have tried and failed to accomplish deserves all the credit in the world. But that doesn't necessarily mean we've seen something that changes the paradigm of the sport.

Remarkable things happen in action sports all the time that don't ultimately make it into their sport's cannon of influential tricks. Rodney Mullin's darkslides comes to mind, or Philou Poirier's fakie backflips in skiing, or Ben Hinkley's snowboarding double frontflip. These tricks were all noteworthy when they were unleashed, but ultimately proved to be relatively unique to the riders who did them.

Less than 48 hours after Torkos' kickflip and half a world away, World Tour sophomore Matty Wilkinson caused a tent filled with the planet's best surfers to erupt. In his Quiksilver Pro round three heat against Brazilian journeyman Heitor Alves, the young Australian took to the sky over a six foot wave at Snapper Rocks and whipped himself into a backside rodeo 540 to revert that he came within a fraction of an inch of riding away from. That he nearly landed it was mind boggling enough. That he even attempted it in the high stakes context of a World Tour heat -- a place where landing the air wouldn't necessarily give him the win but falling could certainly lose it -- says even more.

"You have no clue how big a statement Wilko made today," Surfing Magazine editor Travis Ferre wrote. "He made himself, right before our eyes."

For the vanguard of the sport, Wilkinson very nearly capped the air's 40-year evolution. Conceived in the '70s, above-the-lip-surfing has gone from an impossible dream to a derided gimmick to the provence of a hardcore few to, finally, a necessary part of any serious competitor's or freesurfer's arsenal. And in just the past few years, proof of how it's truly revolutionized surfing can be seen in the way that it's become a building block to jaw-droppingly technical moves like the one Wilkinson attempted. You know something has definitively changed the sport when what was once an end becomes the means.

Thirty years from now, maybe we'll look back on Zoltan Torkos' kickflip as the beginning a huge change in surfing. Maybe we won't. But if I had to bet on it, I'd say inverted rotating airs will soon be commonplace on the World Tour, but those kids airing over me in the lineup won't be kickflipping their boards any time soon. Now, it's up to Torkos and the groms to prove me wrong.