SURF JUDGING, THE BRAZILIAN TAKEOVER, MICHEL, CAROLINE, KELLY, & MATT
MY SURF JUDGING PAST...
Once upon a time I was a surf judge for the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA). It was the early 2000’s and I was in the beginning years of my teaching career. My best friend, and landlord at the time, was a prominent surfboard builder in the area… Gee Rainbow, of Melbourne Beach, FL. He was connected to the NSSA organization because he sold surfboards to the NSSA Regional Coordinator who owned a surf shop down on the Treasure Coast. Aside from having a totally rad name, Gee was known up and down the east coast for making branded shop boards, as well as customs and stocks using his personal Escape Surf label. When he asked me one day if I’d be interested in working with him at NSSA as a contest judge, I was all-in. No hesitation.
This wouldn’t be the first time I had a paid gig involving youth sports. In the 80’s and 90’s I was a competitive soccer referee for about ten years, and I often worked the snack bar at the local soccer fields, hawking candy bars and sodas to soccer moms and local players. I could handle the pressure of coaches, fans, and parents hassling me from the sideline, or the other side of the counter. In the early 2000’s I was a public school teacher and a soccer coach, so I was pretty good at the measurement, evaluation, and feedback stuff. I had also been riding waves in Florida for about twenty years at that point, so I could watch someone surf and know what I was looking at. In fact, it wasn’t long before I became an integral part of the Southeast NSSA judging team, working events mostly between Sebastian Inlet and Spessard Holland Park, along the Central Florida coast. After a few years experience, I found myself out at Lower Trestles for the NSSA Nationals Competition.
Gee Rainbow and I didn’t have enough seniority to judge the Nationals, but the NSSA director, Janice Aragon did have a job for us, if we were willing… Snack Bar Operators! Haha. If you’ve ever been to Trestles, then you know it’s a solid walk from the parking lot (I guess the E-Bike changed that a bit… E-Bike or Die!). But there are no facilities on this beach. No food, no water, nada. And that doesn’t work too well when you’re holding a large surfing event with little kids and families. Honestly, I’m not even sure how NSSA gets permission to hold a contest at Trestles, with food and beverage. They hardly have the budget to provide such services… so that’s where Gee and I came in. Little John John wants an egg sandwich? no problem. Bethany needs a snickers bar? here ya go. Kolohe is thirsty for a Gatorade? yep. I often slept on the couches of California-based NSSA employees, for the duration of Nationals, then I’d head south to San Diego to surf for another week or two, hopping from one spot to the next. That was my entire summer for those years, and I made some amazing memories with friends that I still have today, and others that are sadly no longer with us.
It would be accurate to say that I’ve watched quite a few amateur-level competitive surfing heats over the years. And in some cases, I got to witness a few generational surfers while they were still in their developmental stages. I’m not ashamed to admit that even when they were mini groms, they all ripped way harder than I ever could, haha. About twenty years ago John John Florence was already drawing crowds like a rock star… Bethany Hamilton was destroying boys’ egos, on a regular basis, pre-shark accident… and Kolohe Andino was just beginning to exert his dominance. Those days were pretty rad to be an amateur surf fan, and I’m especially thankful to the folks from Southeast NSSA for giving me the opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed following these athlete’s careers post-amateur, and I’m not surprised to see how much impact and success they’ve had.
So when it finally became a reality that Surfing would join the Olympics as an official sport, I was excited to see two guys I’ve watched since mini groms, show the world what surfing is all about. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been following them on the ASP and now the WSL, but it’s not the same. I’ve always been a proponent of Surfing in the Olympics and I just felt the world would fall in love with these athletes given the proper exposure. I was also a little bit anxious about how Olympic Surfing might make crowded lineups even more crowded. But regardless of the fallout, and despite a less than stellar presentation and delivery by NBC, I thoroughly enjoyed watching… so here are my semi-surf-educated thoughts about the 2020, errr, 2021 Olympic Surfing debut.
BRAZZO WORLD DOMINANCE
If you’ve been paying attention to Professional Surfing lately, you’d know that the Brazilians are dominating the men’s WSL rankings. Their radical, high-flying surfing styles reflect the aggressive nature that Brazilian athletes are known for in other sports like Futbol. They like to surf really fast, and they love to bust big airs. I first became aware of aerial surfing in Central Florida more than 30 years ago, at Sebastian Inlet. I saw guys like Matt Kechele, as well as up-n-coming shredders Danny Malhado and Kelly Slater flying above the lip, in person, at about the same time frame that Christian Fletcher and others were grabbing mainstream media attention for their aerial antics (Wave Warriors,1985) . But today, in the 2020’s, nobody is progressing aerial surfing like the Brazilians. Italo, Gabe, Felipe, just to name the big dogs, cannot be beaten when the wave conditions are providing sectioning ramps and landing pads. I’m not going to say that I prefer aerial surfing to rail surfing. I honestly think they both have a place on the judging card. But after seeing air, after air, after air, I just kinda get bored. I’m not saying that aerial surfing isn’t radical, because it totally is. I’m just bored watching. Gabriel Medina’s Olympic heats weren’t that exciting. Maybe I’m just so desensitized to Gabe’s aerial style that his surfing doesn’t appeal to me as much. I know this is crazy thinking. Airs are extremely difficult in surfing. So while I do have mad-respect for all of the amazing brazzo aerialists, I prefer watching surfers who focus more on their rail game. I simply find that style more visually pleasing. Plus, it’s just fun to root against the high-flying Brazilians, they get so worked up, win or lose.
MICHEL BOUREZ SHOULD HAVE MEDALED
Go back and watch Michel Bourez’s heats and tell me he didn’t deserve a medal. An argument could be made that he deserved to win every heat he was in. Every single one. When Gabriel Medina took him out in the quarterfinals, I was super disappointed. While I appreciate Gabe’s aerial game, I just thought what Michel was doing showed more command and prowess. He was connecting maneuvers in a more stylish manner AND he even found a decent barrel in the quarters. Michel’s wave selection, and style, just looked better to me. If you’re willing to consider that Medina’s aerial surfing was slightly over-scored, and Bourez’s rail surfing was slightly under-scored, I think we could agree that results would have been different. I mean take the first round, for example. Michel clearly ripped that heat harder than his competitors. He found the best waves, and milked that sub-waist high slop in a manner that nobody else was. He wasn’t just finding a ramp section to launch off of, he was drawing lines and connecting dots. Somehow Bourez was linking maneuvers together where others struggled just to get a rhythm going. But once Medina landed a few airs, the judges stopped favoring Bourez’s rail game. One big air, on a single-maneuver wave, seemed to get a better score than waves with multiple turns and maneuvers. Michel lost to Gabe twice in the Tokyo games, the second time knocking him out of medal contention. I don’t know, it hardly seemed fair, based on what I was looking at. When I go back and re-watch those heats, it’s clear to me that Michel Bourez was at least the third best surfer in this contest. Go look for yourself and tell me I’m wrong.
CAROLINE MARKS IS A RIPPER
If you watched Caroline Marks surf in the Olympics, you know I’m right. This girl will go on to be the most prolific surfer of all time, man or woman, mark my words. She is gifted with all the necessities. There is no weakness to her game, aside from maybe a lack of experience. But she’s still a teenager, so look out! I'm a big fan of Carissa Moore, but she’s going to have her hands full fending off Caroline in the coming years. Marks will be a WSL contender every year until she retires. Watching her in the Olympics just solidified my thinking. AND I firmly believe that if the waves had cooperated a little better, she would’ve gotten a medal. Caroline’s backside is so dominant, she looks like a young female Occy. I love watching her surf because she looks like she’s having so much fun. You can see her grinning from a distance as she rips the top off of a section, and then sets herself up for a radical finish. And she is a finisher. She’s not afraid to go vertical in a critical moment. She goes for it. I think this is only the beginning for Caroline, and if she continues on her current trajectory, she’s going to leave huge marks on the sport of surfing! How do you like them puns? :)
I’m not going to lie, I REALLY wanted to see Kelly Slater get a Gold a medal. If you’re going to sit there with a straight face and tell me that he wouldn’t have taken gold at the first Olympics, I won’t listen… you know you’re full of it. The fact that the GOAT himself was available, and healthy enough to surf, should’ve qualified him on those grounds alone. I realize that John John and Kolohe qualified fair and square, but c’mon man (as they’d say on ESPN). Do you honestly think Slater goes down in a heat of small, wind-blown, garbage waves? No way. He destroys those conditions, even at age 49. Then, to have the Finals take place in overhead, sloppy, wind-blown, storm swell… yeah, again, nobody is beating Kelly in those conditions, not even the high-flying Brazilians. So I’m putting an asterisk next to this inaugural men’s gold medal. You can’t say you’re the best when you didn’t have to face the GOAT. And there’s no way in hell Slater qualifies in 2024. I’m nearly 49 years old, and I know first-hand how a body feels at this age. What a waste. Slater should have been there, he’d have ended up on that podium for sure. Sadly, I think Kelly Slater retires after a run at the 2022 WSL title. Well, it’s sad for us, but awesome for him. I can’t wait to see what he does in “retirement”.
Shaper and board manufacturer Matt “Mayhem” Biolos has come a long way from punk kid to top shaper in the world. You’d have a hard time defending the position that Biolos isn’t the best shaper in the world, given the sheer number of champions that have his boards under their feet. Over the last thirty years, the guy went from sweeping up in Herbie Fletcher’s shop and selling t-shirts with his clever illustrations on them, to being a global surf apparel and board manufacturing giant. Some of that had to do with his business partnership with Mike Reola, who was known around the UF Surf Club because he was an alumni. But the two of them have arguably created one of the most powerful surf brands on the planet.
I met Matt Biolos once in 1993, at the University of Florida Alumni Surf Challenge in St. Augustine Beach. He was already well-known among my circle of friends because he had been selling Lost merchandise with his logos on them. My college roommate’s hometown crew included Matty Reola, Mike’s little brother, so we had a ton of gear that we wore around campus. We thought we were cool. Some skateboarders that I had become tight with let me hangout at their house periodically, where they had a super fun halfpipe spine ramp in their backyard. These guys always had tons of Lost gear to which I became the beneficiary. I was an average to good surfer and skateboarder, but an above average partier. That’s why I fit in so well with that crowd.
I began buying Mayhem surfboards about a decade ago when Gee’s manufacturing slowed down and it became difficult for him to fulfill orders. After moving to New England in 2012 buying boards got even more difficult due to a lack of selection in the local surf shops here. There just weren’t a lot of options for higher performance crafts that would work for bigger guys. I’m nearly 6’3 and fluctuate between 190-205 lbs depending on the time of year and physical shape that I’m in. I’ve always had my boards made with a little more foam and with wider profiles. My daily go-to shortboard from Gee was 6’4 x 19.5 x 2.5. For like 10 years. I probably had a dozen of these in every tail shape. But once the potato chip revolution of the 90’s and 00’s was over, shaping trends started to get wider and thicker, and everyone became volume-obsessed.
I have owned more than a dozen Lost Mayhem surfboards at this point. Not because of my UF Surf Club connection to Matt and Mike, but because the boards just work. I can buy them stock, at any reputable surf shop, and I know what I’m getting. Mayhem’s shapes are extremely well thought out, and always innovative. And since they started doing the wider outlines and healthier foam designs earlier than most, I trust them more. From the first fish designs, to the Rocket groveler, through the early V2 shortboards, to the Puddle Jumper series, I‘ve had much success with Mayhem surf crafts. Thanks to Matt, and innovators like him, I no longer have to guess why a particular surfboard works the way it does. The consistency from board-to-board is reliable, and because of that reliability it’s easier to make adjustments aimed at progressing my surfing. In the 80s, 90s, and early 00’s it just seemed like there was a certain kind of magic that a board needed in order to work really well for your body type. But there’s way less guessing in a Mayhem shape and you can pretty much rely on what Matt says a board will do.
So I’m just really stoked to see this guy have so much success in life. The Lost empire was built off hard work and the respect gained from authentic surfers. Matt wasn’t spoiled in any way, he had to earn his reputation. I’ve also never been a fan of the clean-cut, surf jock image that big surf corporations try to push on us. Lost is an anti-industry brand and that’s how they position themselves within the market. Smart.
It’s my humble opinion that the most radical and progressive surfers aren’t industry suck-ups. The biggest rippers are always the darker dudes with the bad attitudes. As an NSSA judge I’d often hear people comment how good a guy was, but that they “just wouldn’t make it being pro” because they “weren’t clean-cut”, or “partied too much”. Maybe it was just that some guys felt a need to be authentic, and not part of the conformist party. Lumping all non-conformists into one group, dismissing them as partiers, and denying them access to the industry was pretty standard for most corporate surf entities. It preserved status quo and gave them power they didn’t deserve. Kooks. So while an industry-prepped corporate kid (who was likely brought up in a system resembling youth soccer) probably had a real chance at going pro, the outcasts, who got no prep from the industry, and yet somehow found a way to become rippers despite all the roadblocks, those guys were expected to pull their boot straps up and “find a way”. Lost certainly found their way, and they gave the outsiders in this industry a home. So congratulations Matt, you deserve the Gold.
Well, that’s all I have for now. I'm sorry that I haven’t been posting a lot recently. I blame the lack of waves, and the major life changes I’ve made lately… mostly the latter. Have I mentioned that I've recently retired? Yeah. Well, I just mentioned it now. The cat is out of the bag. So expect more blogging moving forward as I shift my focus in life to full-time wave slider. Hope you’re surfing where you are. Take care.