When Sam Cooke crooned that a change was gonna come, he was talking about today. He sang those words in 1964, years before pro surfing was a thing, but I’m sure that’s what he meant. After belting out his prophetic lyrics, Cooke promptly got drunk, attacked the manager at a $3-a-night motel, and was shot and killed while dressed in nothing but a sport coat and shoes. The outlook, from the perspective of U.S. pro surfing today, is as bleak as Cooke’s in that seedy motel – intoxicated, exposed, and headed for an embarrassing death.
Since Tom Curren’s ascendency in 1986, Americans have won the men’s world title 20 times in 27 years, 11 of those by Kelly Slater. When Kelly steps down at the end of this year, or sooner if he doesn’t remember how to finish a wave, we will awaken from this dream run. Reality won’t be pretty.
The new king won’t be Australian, or South African, or Hawaiian (I know Hawaii is a state, but they consider themselves to be their own entity). In other words, the new king’s English will be broken at best. His native tongue will be Portuguese, and he’ll be hoisting a green sheet made of polyester. That seemingly innocuous show of patriotic pride raises the hackles of U.S. surfers faster than you can spell Rio. The new king will be…ahem, Brazilian.
American surfers seem to have a problem with those other American surfers, so much so that we conveniently forget that those others are Americans too. We don’t like the way they talk, we don’t like the way they surf, and we sure as hell don’t like how the get so damn excited at the end of a ride. We reserve that sort of fervor for important stuff, like Nascar.
I used to be in the same boat (except for the Nascar part). I longed to see the Brazzos fall while shaking my red, white, and blue pom-poms. Now I’m merely a fan of good surfing and a good story. And our neighbors to the south satisfy on both counts. The young Brazilians, namely Gabriel Medina and Felipe Toldeo, are pushing the limits and doing it in a manner that is easy on the eyes. Seeing a kid from the favelas (or anywhere near there) winning a title will be the ultimate Cinderella story.
The young (North) Americans, by contrast, are full of holes. The California kids, Nat Young and Kolohe Andino, look like kids by comparison. Besides, their styles are twitchier than Elaine Benes at a dance party. No one is bothering to fit them for crowns. Hawaiian John Florence has the moves and the style, but not the competitive nature or passion. He’s more at home standing inside a cavernous barrel than atop a victory podium, so it’s just a matter of time before Hawaii calls him home. And unless the tour switches from thirty-minute heats to three-minute video clips, Dane Reynolds has as much chance of a world title as he does of being hired as Kelly’s hairstylist.
When the Brazilians take over, I suspect we’ll experience a competitive backlash like what happened in the early ’70s. Not only were contests uncool from the U.S. perspective, but surfing itself was counterculture. When we can no longer contend for world domination, we’ll quit caring, and the industry here will shrivel even more than it has in recent years.
If you don’t think The Slater Vacuum will be a big deal, there’s a bigger loss looming for U.S. surfing. There’s only one surfer in the world more popular (check their social media followers) than Kelly, and that’s Alana Blanchard. Beloved not for her surfing prowess, but her smoking hotness, Alana is also making her last run on tour. For some reason, surf competition judges only award points for what you do on a wave, not how smoking hot you look while doing it, leaving Blanchard without a single heat win all season. She isn’t just losing; she’s getting destroyed. It almost makes me not want to watch her heats. Almost.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that a backlash to competition and commercialism in surfing is a bad thing. Remove those aspects, and we’re left with the reasons we started surfing – the adventure, the camaraderie, and most importantly, the fun. I say bring on the Dark Ages.