In December of 1995, the surfing world went nuts as Kelly Slater dramatically vaulted the pack to claim his third World Crown in the season-ending Pipeline Masters. But that wasn’t the only remarkable achievement by a Florida surfer that year. Overshadowed by Slater’s heroic feat, a kid from the other side of the Sunshine State, the part whose shores are lapped by the lake-like Gulf of Mexico, slogged through the qualifying series and garnered a birth alongside Slater and the rest of the world’s Top 44 surfers. Shea Lopez’s ascension from Tampa Bay to the Tour was equivalent to that of Happy Gilmore earning his PGA card, only this wasn’t a movie. Pundits claimed that with this triumph, Shea had reached his peak and would soon be sent back to Indian Rocks Beach duct-taped inside his boardbag.
They were wrong.
Lopez worked too damned hard to be content with just showing up at the party. He wanted to dance. He backed up his spot through the WQS the next year, then moonwalked into the Top 16 where he held the floor for six of the next seven seasons, despite a constant barrage of ridiculously talented opposition. Names, no matter how acclaimed, didn’t faze him. Regardless of the conditions, Lopez quietly disposed of every “Next Big Thing” on tour. A rare beast, Shea is a thinking-man’s surfer, and while his freesurfing was filled with risk, his approach to competition was always to take care of business rather than go down in a blaze of glory. As a result, he was all but forgotten in favor of his awe-inspiring little brother Cory and the high-flying Hobgoods, not to mention Slater Man. After wrecking his knee on a daring floater during the 2003 Pipe Masters (no doubt trying to keep pace with his peeps), Shea missed all of ’04. He returned in ’05 as an injury wildcard but suffered a shocker from start to finish. Now, at 32, he stands faced with the arduous challenge of clawing his way back to the WCT, but this time, even his doubters aren’t betting against him. — Chris Mauro
surfer: At every step of your career no one gave you much of a chance, and even today few have acknowledged what you’ve accomplished.
That was because I wasn’t in Central Florida. They expected the next guy to come from there, one of the guys that Kelly surfed with, or one of the younger guys. I kinda just snuck in, you know. I surfed over there a lot, but nobody actually thought a kid from the Gulf could do anything.
surfer: The surfing world knows you as being from Florida, but people can’t truly understand the difficulty of growing up a surfer on the Gulf Coast, one step up from the Great Lakes.
You gotta live here to really appreciate waking up and looking at a lake. Every day driving to school and looking at it, and it’s so small you can’t even skimboard. But every night I went to bed dreaming of surfing, and every weekend I was hoping there was some way I could talk my dad into driving over to the East Coast.
surfer: I know there are a few surf shops over there in the Gulf, but is surfing even a part of the culture?
My dad and his friends were the guys who started it, their whole crew when they were in high school, late ’60s. There was a group that traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica all the time. There’s a little niche of surfers over there. Everyone knows everyone, and we end up all surfing the same spot. It’s probably one of the only places when you drive down the road and people still give the thumbs up or thumbs down when they’re coming from another part of the coast.
surfer: Your mom and dad moved from the Big Island of Hawaii to when your mom was pregnant. As much of a bummer as that might seem, it’s hard to imagine you would’ve gone as far if they’d stayed in Hawaii.
Yeah, it would’ve been a lot easier to just fish and surf and hang out, not have that motivation to get out and see the world and surf other spots. That was definitely my biggest motivation as a kid, to go out and see different spots of the world that have actual surf. I loved surfing so much I just wanted to get out there and be able to surf all those places I saw in the magazines and videos. I went to contests at these places and I wasn’t even thinking about the contest, I was just so excited to be there to surf.
surfer: Were there any contests in Indian Rocks, or did you have to travel just to compete?
The first contest we did was 20 minutes from my house. It was Menehunes. I got First, Cory took Second, and that was it. Me and Cory, there was no one else. My next contest was the Dr. Pepper Easter Festival [in Cocoa Beach]. I got First in Menehunes, and that’s when I was first exposed to the Kelly Slater phenomenon. He won Boys, and he beat Rich Rudolph and Todd Holland and everyone in the Pro Division. It was like, “Oh, gosh. Who is this kid?” He was already a superstar. I was just looking on the sidelines. I got in with the Spectrum [Surfboards] crew, and he was in the [Matt] Kechele crew. We kinda went our separate ways from that point on.
surfer: So on the weekends you were becoming this fledgling surf star, but during the week you were a straight-laced Catholic school kid.
Yeah, exactly, making sure my grades were up so I could keep surfing. I got a “D” once in religion and couldn’t surf for a whole semester.
surfer: Did people in Indian Rocks get behind you when you started traveling?
No. It was a fight to get off school. Nuns didn’t think of surfing much as an occupation, you know. It became such a problem that I actually stopped going to Catholic school in 10th grade. I went to the regular public school at Largo, and I also went to public school in Hawaii one semester and in Melbourne [Florida]. Then I was kinda on my way, putting all my focus into being a pro surfer.
surfer: And you were pretty active in high school sports. That must’ve added something to your competitive mindset.
Yeah, there’s no doubt other sports help you. I played everything you could play in school: soccer, baseball, basketball, I was even doing BMX when I was a kid. Mental strategy crosses over from one sport to the next and they really feed off each other.
surfer: Weren’t you a pretty good baseball player?
I pitched and played shortstop. I made All-Star teams and everything. Played both in school and outside leagues, so I was pretty into it. It got to the point where my coaches wanted me to pursue that and stop surfing. They thought anybody who wanted to surf over here was out of their mind, especially if you were giving up on, you know, baseball dreams.
surfer: Without surf, you guys made do by skateboarding, wakeboarding, anything to keep your mind off surfing. Did those things lead to the type of surfing you and Cory helped cultivate?
Yeah, it made it real easy for us, especially because when we do get waves over here, it’s such little wind-chop beachbreak. We didn’t think about it as being progressive or doing anything different. It was just what we wanted to do. Cory’s style was so taken from skateboarding and Gulf Coast waves, whereas I watched video a lot more and studied pro surfing. Cory just went out and surfed the way he wanted to surf.
surfer: Compared to where you were from, just traveling to Sebastian, then to California, you were living the dream regardless of whether or not you succeeded in competition.
Yeah, I decided to go to California and give it a year, try to be a pro surfer, and if it fell through I’d go on to college. But it hasn’t fallen through yet [laughs].
surfer: You could’ve easily just gone to school or gotten a job like the rest of the East Coast guys who go out to California, huh?
Yeah, but I wasn’t content with that. I looked at a lot of the California kids that were in my age group and what they were doing to get themselves ready, get prepared for contests and surfing. They were all happy. I was not happy. I was out at five in the morning surfing the glass at the beachbreaks at the Creek or Newport, then I was at Lowers all afternoon.
surfer: When did you realize you had a future in surfing?
Honestly, in my head I always did. I always believed in myself and kept pushing it, doing what I could do. I think when I got Rookie of the Year on the Bud Tour, Machado and Chris Brown had won it before me. Those guys were already out there winning ’CTs then, competing against Kelly. I went, “I can do this, I’ve beaten all the California guys.”
surfer: Plenty of people doubted you’d ever make the WCT. Did you sense that?
I kinda felt that way from the industry. The magazines were all hyping up these other kids. I was getting, you know, a little push, but not like these other kids. What I did have was Bob Hurley. He and Paul Gomez thought the world of both me and my brother. They’d always support me, tell me, “You can do this, whatever you set your mind to.” But I didn’t get paid anywhere near what the kids today are getting paid. They kept me hungry. They paid for me to travel and to keep surfing but I wasn’t putting any money away, that’s for sure. It’s ridiculous. The amount some of the kids are getting, they’re getting paid more than doctors and lawyers at 16 years old. Why would they ever work hard?
surfer: So, you make the Tour, and your first Top 44 preview described you as, “Pretty, nice hair, nice white teeth, surfs good but he’s going to be eaten alive on tour.”
Yeah, I kinda was trying to forget that one. Thanks for reminding me.
surfer: You made ’em eat their words, though.
Yeah, I hope so. I did pretty much everything I could do in surfing. I took my talent as far as I could. I hear the gripes about being consistent and all that, but as far as my freesurfing I think I can keep up with anyone. It’s just, I know what the judges want, and I know how to win heats. I’m gonna try to win every time. I’ve gotten some grief for that.
surfer: You didn’t have the raw talent of some of the guys on tour, but you made a career from beating them in the heat of battle.
There’s nobody who practiced more, or watched the waves more, looked for what the judges wanted, what they were scoring in heats. I made it a habit to put that equation together and use it to my advantage.
surfer: Preparation and composure and smarts trump talent almost every time. Do most people on tour realize that?
No, it takes some of these guys until their mid-20s to figure out that they gotta do more than just go out and catch a few waves in a heat. Andy Irons is the best example ever. Once he got it figured out, he was unstoppable. Kelly has it more figured out than anyone, and with the talent he has he’s still unstoppable.
surfer: As successful as you’ve been, a gazillion semis and a few finals, winning a ’CT event eluded you.
That one’s definitely gonna haunt me until I die. But I did have some pretty big consolation wins. The U.S. Open win was a good, mostly because all the same guys were in it, it’s a huge crowd, all that. It’s funny, because I’d always feel like everything was coming together, the boards and the waves, then I’d get to the semis or the finals of a ’CT and lose in the last second, or break a board, or break a leash, catch a rail.
surfer: Then again, you won the Fantasy Surfer league a few years back, which proves you are the ultimate student of pro surfing.
Yeah, well I figure I know them better than anybody. I’ve watched them surf in all conditions. I know their weaknesses, their strengths. Now that I’m back in contest I’m not able to keep up with it, which sucks, but my biggest tip for guys playing is to check the forecast the day before the event and pick your team accordingly.
surfer: You were once quoted as saying the judges were “stuck in an ’80s pack-’em-in routine.” As much as you utilized the format, you also spoke out against it.
Definitely, I worked the system because I knew what I needed to do to get scores. But there were times when I’d blow up a wave, pull off an air to layback snap to reverse, and get a 7. Later in the heat I’d do four standard turns and get an 8.5. I’m like, “What do you guys want?” I’m watching from the judges’ tower and I’m freakin’ out. I’m watching someone do three floaters that anybody in the world could’ve done and get an 8. There’s no degree of difficulty, they rode the wave straight to the shoulder, did three floaters, and got an 8. I would’ve loved to have gone out and had to push my surfing to the limit to get my scores. When everyone has to do that it’s great.
surfer: Are there days on tour where you just don’t want to go to work?
There were a couple times, you know, a big hurricane blows up on the East Coast, and you gotta go to Japan, or you gotta go to France and you know it’s gonna be flat for the next week. Anytime you gotta leave good waves to go to the next contest, you gotta leave J-Bay to go to Huntington, it’s a serious change of mindset, so you just pick out some different boards and try to get amped again.
surfer: With Kelly, the Hobgoods and your little brother, did you ever consider yourself unfortunate to be in the right place at the wrong time as far as getting noticed?
I think I’ve been really fortunate to have them on tour with me. It’s so much easier traveling with friends and people you can get along with. Nine months of the year traveling, if I didn’t have those guys I would’ve gone crazy a long time ago. It probably hurt some of my endorsement deals and magazine coverage, you got my brother and the Hobgoods, they’re going crazy everywhere. They’re younger, and they’re taking off on whatever waves they do at Teahupoo. There’s no other three kids that were even close to them. Big waves, small waves, they’re in a whole ’nother league.