It’s a brisk January morning in Huntington Beach, California. The surf is 3 to 4 feet and peaky, a playful respite from a month of nonstop El Niño swells. As the sun rises over my left shoulder it lights up the two 30 x 60 foot American flags we’ve draped over the south side of the infamous HB pylons.
Here today are Kolohe Andino, Nat Young, Brett Simpson, Courtney Conlogue and Kanoa Igarashi. Four CT staples along with Kanoa — the country’s youngest qualifier since Kolohe in 2011. This is the first time they’ve all gathered together in Huntington since the US Open of Surfing back in July, but today they aren’t here for points. Instead they’re here to smash the shit out of the punchy pier bowl right — flanked by the Stars and Stripes. And the goal? To nail photos like the one you see on this page (and the cover). For the America Issue. Our first in two years.
The five paddle out just after 8 a.m., with six photographers and two videographers strategically placed to capture their every move with the red, white and blue prominently displayed in the background. I take a seat on the cool sand next to Kolohe’s dad, Dino Andino, and we spark up a conversation.
“What do you think of this concept?” I ask.
“I love seeing American media pushing America. I really do,” Dino answers. “What’s going on with competitive surfing right now, with back-to-back Brazilian world champs and all of the talent coming out of that country, it reminds me a little bit of Jackie Robinson bursting onto the baseball scene back in the late ‘40s. And I mean that in the best possible way. It’s lighting a fire under these American guys’ asses.”
I think about what he means. About Jackie Robinson. About how the comparison he’s making is in respect to the hunger and drive surfers like Adriano are using to springboard themselves to the top. When Jackie came into the MLB he inherently wanted it more than anyone who had ever preceded him, and when he started dominating the sport it made every other baseball player take a long, hard look in the mirror. Gabriel and Adriano’s world titles are having a similar effect: They’re forcing American surfers — and everyone, really — to work harder. Because as it relates to the CT, it’s time to be honest: America is no longer the alpha.
Of course, the current state of American surfing shouldn’t be judged strictly by wins and losses on the WSL, and that’s the point Leo Maxam makes in “America Is Surfing” on Pg. 26. In it, he writes: “[In America] we are the culture makers, the trailblazers, the benchmark for the rest of the surfing world. So pay no mind to the ‘make America great again’ doom and gloom noise from those who would hijack American surfing and sell us exactly what we don’t need: fear, xenophobia and self-doubt.” And he’s right: What America might lack in wave quality and world title contenders (at least right now), it makes up for tenfold in opportunity.
Kolohe takes off on a chest-high right, spins a full-rotation air reverse and rides it to shore. He sprints up the beach — giving Dino knuckles — never losing stride all the way to the parking lot. According to Dino he’s trained once already this morning and he’s off to work out again right now. “This is a big year for Brother,” Dino tells me. “And doing well on tour is all he cares about.”
I leave Dino and walk to the end of the pier. With the guys done surfing I clip the zip ties holding the massive flags and carefully fold each one into a 3-foot triangle. A pair of middle-aged women greet me. One of them is wearing a white hat with the emblem of an American flag.
“That was a beautiful display,” the one with the hat tells me. “We watched all morning and as US Navy vets we’re really happy to see you surfers representing our flag.”
“And isn’t this just the greatest country on earth?” The other one adds, with a warm smile.
It is, I think to myself, my arms filled with red, white and blue. —Zander Morton