[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
When surfing makes its debut in the 2020 Olympic Games, there will be a great deal of flag waving, much basking in national pride, and the low simmer of friendly patriotic rivalries. Brazilian fans will scream for every air reverse Filipe Toledo throws. European fans will put down their cigarettes and espressos long enough to cheer on the likes of Joan Duru or Frederico Morais. American fans may cheer on Kolohe Andino and a then-48-year-old Kelly Slater (and John Florence, if the Olympic committee, unlike the WSL, counts Hawaii as part of the U.S.). But to be honest, it's difficult to imagine American surf fans working up much patriotic fervor for an international surf contest.
In the highest echelons of pro surfing, mainland American competitors haven't given us much to be excited about in recent years. Sure, Slater has won a zillion world championships, and yes, he's very much an American, but his freakish, two-decade run as a title threat is probably over. And beyond Slater, there isn't much good news for American competitive surfing on the horizon. There are only four mainland American competitors on the 2017 roster. Compare that with 14 Australians, which is a pretty incredible number considering the Lucky Country has 10 million fewer people than California. Brazil has 11 surfers on Tour this year. Europe has the same number of surfers on Tour as the mainland USA. Hell, Italy—a country smack-dab in the middle of the mostly wave-starved Mediterranean—has the same amount of surfers on Tour as Florida, the bastion of East Coast surfing.
People love pointing to nationalistic, sociological, or ethnic reasons for why some countries and not others go gaga for certain sporting events, giving their countrymen a leg up in those sports; surfing is no exception. This is especially true when it comes to explaining the recent success of the "Brazilian Storm." Surfing magazine held a roundtable discussion on the state of American surfing last year, featuring Slater, Brett Simpson, C.J. Hobgood, Nat Young, and Andino. Slater talked about Brazilian surfers having more national pride than Americans. Hobgood agreed and wondered aloud how many Americans would make the Brazilian SURFER Poll, if there were such a thing—the presumed answer being "zero." On the flip side, two Brazilians—Toledo and Gabe Medina—made the 2016 SURFER Poll held by an American publication, voted on mainly by American surfers. The roundtable group pointed out that Brazilian fans will spill into the water at Trestles by the dozens to celebrate a Medina victory, which isn't a scene you're likely to see replicated by American surf fans if Andino wins an event in Rio (or even at Trestles, for that matter). The common refrain was that "Brazilians want it more" than American surfers, with "it" meaning competitive success, and that has created a nationalistic bonding that American surfers don't enjoy.
Is there some truth to all that? Maybe. I won't pretend to understand the specific socioeconomic pressures that might drive a kid from Rio to surf his ass off every day for decades in hopes of getting a sponsorship contract— pressures that might not exist in, say, Orange County, California. And sports-mad Australia's well-developed junior surf-contest programs seem to pump out tenacious surfers who have contest chops well beyond their years. The U.S. has the NSSA, and admittedly a very competitive lineup at Lowers, but not much else.
Perhaps the most telling cultural difference between surf fandom in America and the rest of the world is that despite the fact that there are only a handful of Americans in the elite competitive ranks, most American surfers don't seem the least bit concerned. Maybe you're the exception, and you're currently shaking your fist at this page with an American flag wrapped around your shoulders, but—and sure, this is anecdotal—I've yet to meet a fellow American who follows pro surfing and cares which country their favorite surfer on Tour hails from. In all honesty, do you?
In America, the loyalties and identities of surfers seem to be tethered to specific spots rather than region, let alone country. For example, I'm far more likely to feel a bond with somebody who surfs maddening-as-hell Ocean Beach, San Francisco, every damn day, regardless of which country they're originally from, than I am with a red-white-and-blue-bleeding American surfer from New York. Even more so if they surf the two sandbars I typically frequent. Maybe that identification can be geographically widened to encompass Northern California in general, but even that's a stretch. Expand that geographic range to all of America and my sense of identifying with a fellow surfer dissipates almost immediately. In fact, my favorite surfers are really chosen based on how they surf rather than where they surf. If you've got a gorgeous, swooping cutback that I want to copy, I'll be rooting for you in a contest way before I'll support a less-polished surfer who happens to have an American flag next to their name on the heat sheet.
But maybe the lack of patriotism in American surfing isn't because we don't care about American pros; maybe it's because we don't care about competitive surfing itself. After all, America's most influential surfer of the past decade is Dane Reynolds, a guy who competed only because he felt he had to, and who was seemingly more relieved quitting the Tour than I was quitting the greasy, painful job I worked changing oil to get through college. Tom Curren, who was basically Dane before there was Dane, just without the hyper-inflated self-awareness, arguably became more iconic in American surfing for walking away from competition and tripping the planet as a freesurfer than for his three world titles.
Maybe the fact that American surfers don't need competition to find career success and adoration is why countries like Australia and Brazil so radically outpace the USA when it comes to Tour representation. California still sets the pace when it comes to American surf culture, and despite a robust NSSA participation level in Southern California, the Golden State has long celebrated the local surf hero, or the unknown guy quietly ripping down the beach away from the crowds, more than we have the jersey-wearing trophy collector.
Give me a choice between the jockish surf life of Slater and the mythic, soul-surfing existence of a post-competition Curren, and, well, I'd make the same choice you would. And you know which one that is. (It's Curren, right? Good.)