The most intriguing tale in all of sport is that of the dark horse. A stealthy threat to those around him, he lingers in the shadows, unnoticed, but dangerous. He rarely deals with the spotlight’s glare because his accomplishments are unsung. But when the occasional ray of light does capture the dark horse, it’s always for something heroic, something that alters the course of sports history.

In surfing today, Cory Lopez, 25, is the perennial dark horse.

He emerged from the shadows of Indian Rocks, Florida. A tiny town on the outskirts of Tampa Bay, Indian Rocks rest on Florida’s hapless Gulf Coast. Yet somehow Lopez thrived, and his creative aerial approach eventually earned him a spot on the WCT tour alongside his older brother Shea. True to form, he was always a threat, and re-qualifying was never an issue.

Then in 1999, Cory Lopez, of all people, single handedly rocked the foundation of the surfing world with one fell swoop. It was during his heat at the Gotcha Pro at Teahupoo, Tahiti, and the world watched from the channel as he two-stroked into the nastiest blue cavern ever witnessed, eventually disappearing into the abyss. By the time he surfaced from that one historic ride, Pipeline was dethroned as the heaviest tube on earth. Afterward, Cory quietly slipped back into the shadows, and continued his steady climb up the WCT ratings ladder.

But he surfaced again last year, making a serious run for the World Title before falling just short. In the end, his 3rd place finish on the abbreviated 2001 tour went completely unnoticed. But emerging from Florida in the wake of Kelly Slater, let alone Shea’s, doesn’t phase Cory. Hanging in the shadows is nothing new for him, and as you’ll find out, he actually likes it that way. — Chris Mauro

SURFER: Growing up on the Gulf Coast you weren’t exactly into the surfing scene early on were you?
CORY LOPEZ: Yeah, that’s true. When I was a grom, like nine or 10, I was actually hitting the roller rink all the time because I wanted to be a speed skater. Coming from Tampa, it’s a whole different scene. Plus Shea and I didn’t get along much then and he was into surfing.

Was it ugly between you two, or was it just typical sibling rivalry?
Oh, it got ugly. We were big time haters of each other up until I was around 16 and he was 20. (Laughs) We had a lot of the same friends, and when you’re together that much there are always battles. We fought all the time.

According to your parents, you were much harder to handle than Shea.
Yeah, (laughs) You could say that. When I was 12, I ran away from home all the time. My dad had a rough time setting the boundaries after he and my mom divorced. I wasn’t really handling it when my step mom came in and tried to crack down either. I would jump on my bike and take off till 2 a.m. Most of the time, I was just hiding in a tree a couple houses down or sleeping in the bushes, but it freaked them out.

So was Shea more of the jock and you the rebel?
We both had our rebellious sides, dying the hair and partying. But Shea was really good at every sport. He could’ve had a baseball scholarship if he wanted it. But that’s right when he decided to move to the East Coast to go to Melbourne High so he could focus on surf contests. He was getting really into it.

Why did you stay back on the Gulf Coast once he left?
I liked it. It’s a nightlife town. So for a punk kid like me, it was perfect. I was way more interested in going to Ramones concerts than being in the surf scene back then. With Saint Petersburg and Tampa right next to each other there was never a shortage of gnarly little gigs to hit. All through high school I was pretty into that. Just having fun.

But you were winning contests too, weren’t you?
Yeah, but I was bored with them. Before the Hobgoods came along I was winning a lot. I won the East Coast Championships four years in a row. The ESA comps were coming pretty easy, so I pretty much quit for a year or so to go party. Contests didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere.

The Slater mystique was in full effect for you guys growing up. Didn’t that attract you to the surf movement going on?
Yeah, a little. Everyone knew he was pretty heavy. We knew he was going to make a statement someday, but I don’t think any of us realized how huge.

Did his surfing influence your approach at all?
Actually my favorite surfer growing up was Occy. I was totally into his whole thing. I didn’t even start doing airs until I was 16.

Really? You were a late bloomer in that department?
Yeah. Well, Kelly and Shea were on the same page then. It’s funny because I was just telling Occy this the other day. My brother was totally into airs then and that’s when I hated my brother. I mean, I liked him, but we were fighting all the time and I just decided I wanted to be totally different from him. Since he was into airs, I was like: “Airs are gay, they’re for kooks. You’re just a Christian Fletcher wannabe.” (Laughs) I’d just do big layback snaps and power turns as a kid. That was all I was into.