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Saturday, March 10, 2012
Updated: March 16, 3:07 AM ET
Where did you learn that?

By Nick McGregor/ESM
ESPN Action Sports

While Kelly Slater and the Hobgood brothers were busy slogging through sloppy Snapper Rocks at the Quiksilver Pro last week, a few fellow Floridians were wrapping up their winter at another iconic wave: Pipeline.

Jeff Crawford
Jeff Crawford set the tone for Floridians to charge Pipe in '77.

It's certainly not a new pilgrimage for Sunshine State surfers schooled strictly in small waves. Greg Loehr's tall, lanky frame fit perfectly at Pipe in the mid '70s. Jeff Crawford translated his Sebastian Inlet kingpin status into a win over Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell at the 1974 Pipeline Masters. In the late '80s, Cocoa Beach's Todd Holland shocked and awed his fellow WCT competitors there. Daytona Beach's Dwayne Maki dominated the '95 HIC Pipeline Pro. And Slater himself didn't completely ascend to his most-complete-surfer-on-the-planet throne until winning the '92 Pipe Masters. Meanwhile, goofyfoots Damien and CJ Hobgood have bagged repeat quarterfinal and semifinal finishes there over the years.

Outside of those veterans, the list of Florida boys excelling at Pipe has more recently revolved around New Smyrna Beach surfers: 18-year-old prodigy Evan Geiselman, his older brother Eric and their good friends Jeremy Johnston, Devon Tresher, and Nils Schweizer. In 2008, Tresher quietly earned a perfect 10 and eventual quarterfinal berth in the Monster Energy Pipeline Pro, and in 2010, Schweizer matched that at the newly christened Volcom Pipe Pro, overshadowed only by North Carolina's Brett Barley, who made the semifinals.

Nils Schweizer
Nils Schweizer, just like New Smyrna.

The list of Floridians charging Pipe is expanding, though, in northern, southern, younger, and older directions. In 2011, Vero Beach test pilot Oliver Kurtz impressed many at the Volcom Pipe Pro with his big-wave mettle. And this year, St. Augustine's best surfer ever, Gabe Kling, bagged the Sunshine State's best result, another quarterfinal finish. It's no secret where East Coasters from North Carolina, New Jersey and New York get their big-wave experience -- all those spots pack big barrels in between flat spells. But how does a Floridian transmute their skills in one-foot slop to Hawaii's heaviest lineup?

Kurtz, Johnston, Schweizer, and Kling, who represented Florida at this year's Volcom Pipe Pro, all chalked it up to old-school methods: hitting Hawaii early and often, surfing Pipe on imperfect days, and always going when your number is called. "Hawaiians love it when you pack a huge closeout, never pull back, or log five-hour sessions," Kurtz says. "It shows you're there to get a good one and not just make the water warmer."

For all of Kling's globetrotting experience on the ASP World Tour, he still says Hawaii required the most intense adjustment period. "Growing up in Florida it took me a while to get used to seeing reef when you drop in," he says. "But the crowd is just as intimidating as the wave. It's hard to position yourself and commit, all while thinking, 'Is there someone deeper than me? Am I dropping in behind someone else?' It's intense."

Johnston agrees, emphasizing Pipe's close-to-the-beach spectacle. "You can never say you're comfortable out there because you're always putting yourself on a stage," he says. "Learning everything you can about reading waves, holding your breath, calming yourself down … Hawaii puts you in all these situations that you're not comfortable with."

Schweizer, who spent nearly four full months in Hawaii this winter, puts it even simpler: "Go when the wave comes, and people will start to respect you a little more. Once you pull into a few big barrels you realize that you'll get lit up -- but it's not that bad."

Jeremy Johnston
Jeremy Johnston believes Pipe is like a stage. He just came out from behind the curtain, stage right, in January.

In fact, Johnston believes that Floridians feel most at home when Pipe is at its nastiest. "East Coasters get their best waves when it's Second Reefing," he says, "maybe because it looks like a big hurricane out there, and we're used to seeing the ocean like that." Proof of that came this year when Johnston and Kurtz won their first-round Volcom Pipe Pro exchanges in unruly 12- to 15-foot surf. "A heat out at good Pipe is a blessing -- a heat at bad Pipe is a nightmare," Kurtz laughs. "That day I literally couldn't see the horizon. I just tried to think about surfing knee-high slop in Vero to block out what I was getting myself into."

All four Floridians said their Pipe Pro heats this year provided a mixture of exhilaration and stress. "There are more butterflies in a heat," Schweizer says, "because if a waves comes, you have to go." Johnston adds, "East Coasters just want to make every barrel. We may not be pushing the limits like the Pipe specialists, but watching their positioning and how they paddle battle helps us learn for next year."

Even after all his heat-seeking years, Kling says he's still in awe surfing Pipe in a singlet. "Any heat there is so exciting -- it's a different feeling than any other contest. You have the lineup to yourself and the chance to get the barrel of your life. I treat it as a freesurf session, but you almost feel pressured to take advantage of such a great opportunity."

Oliver Kurtz
Ollie Kurtz, flying through the belly of the beast.

Which is what Pipeline will always represent for Florida surfers: the opportunity to expand their skills, further their careers, and boost their reputations. "We treat trips to Hawaii as training tools, not vacations," Johnston finishes, "Perfect waves at Pipe are what we want. And since we never get that here in Florida, when we do go to Hawaii we're always hungry."