Over the past nine days, hundreds of thousands of fans, more than 100 professional surfer and dozens of pro skateboarders descended upon Huntington Beach for the Nike U.S. Open of Surfing, an unapologetic ode to Southern California culture complete with plenty of sun, skin and sex appeal. Equal parts raw athleticism and populist beach festival, surfing's biggest contest of the year saw a sea of bikini-clad girls soaking up the sun, posses of preteens with hormones gone wild and a mix of families, media and more packed along the sand where bleachers, tents and retail stands teemed with activity.
"This is the Super Bowl of surfing," said industry veteran Sal Masekela, who has been hosting the event since the late 1990s, and will emcee the Red Bull Signature Series telecast Sept. 15. "If you win the U.S. Open, it's a place where dreams are made.
"Most of the events that happen around the world are in remote places," he said. "These guys' [pro surfers'] next stop on the World Tour is on a little speck on a reef in Tahiti. The only people who are able to be there are in the industry, on boats in the channel, and people watching on the webcast."
In contrast, he said, fans at the Open can literally high-five their heroes on the beach -- that is, if they're willing to brave the masses for a few days of barefoot hedonism.
The annual event, which is free to the public, featured several surfing and skateboarding competitions simultaneously, in addition to evening concerts, surf movie screenings and athlete autograph signings, among other activities. Surfers' competitive organizing body, the Association of Surfing Professionals, had a contest for its men's Prime circuit (surfing's farm league) in which up-and-coming athletes could compete for spots in heats against the elite World Tour surfers (like 11-time World Tour champ Kelly Slater), in a push for points that can launch them to the top ranks, and win $100,000. For the women, only the elite tour members competed for $15,000 and points, while the aspiring surfers could show off their wave-riding skills in junior boys and girls contests.
Yet amid the throngs, there was no mistaking who ruled the U.S. Open, both in the water and out: This was the year of youth. On land, a casual glance at the swaths of bare skin, identical outfits and roaming high schoolers in dubious mind states revealed the re-emerging frontier for an industry that grew up, struggled for identity and may now see a renaissance of the sunburnt variety.
Professional longboarder Joel Tudor, who at age 36 has won the U.S. Open multiple times and is an icon of the sport, has seen the re-emergence of his style of surfing, which went out of athletic fashion from the late 1990s until late 2000s. "Look around," he said, nodding to the beach after one of his heats in Huntington Beach. "There's a whole new generation of longboard kids. Really, the event's about them. I already had my moment, and just come up here to goof around and have fun.
"There's a cool little beach culture happening, with all the kids out of Newport," he added after removing his ear plugs ("That's how you know you're getting old," he joked). "It's so different from mainstream surfing, it's refreshing. We're the last noncommercial bit left."
The roar of the next generation also was undeniable in the competition lineup. In one major upset, reigning U.S. Open and World Tour champion Kelly Slater, age 40, was knocked out of the semifinals by 20-year-old Brazilian Miguel Pupo, thanks to Pupo's precision as he slashed waves apart and landed tricks with near-perfect accuracy. Pupo would go on to lose in the finals to another young upstart: 23-year-old Australian Julian Wilson, a dreamboat of a rising star whose combination of progressive aerials, poster-boy looks and affable demeanor have won him devotees across the industry.
The women's final was also a battle of the youngest, as 17-year-old Lakey Peterson bested reigning U.S. Open champ Carissa Moore, 20. In comments to press following the contest, Peterson touted youth power and all its sex appeal, particularly for the women's tour, which has seen its contests dwindle in recent years and whose available prize purse is a fraction of that for the men.
"I'm the youngest girl on tour, and I think the oldest is 25," said Peterson -- who, with long blonde hair and carefree confidence, is literally a poster girl herself. "Looking at the women's side of the sport, I think the younger generation is helping [to grow it], because we're cute, we're fun, we're young. Sponsors are liking that."
The U.S. Open, with all its pubescent fans, UV rays and emerging stars, could be just what Peterson has in mind: "Once people realize how amazing surfing is," she said, "the money [for women] will catch up."