Rockpile. Photo: Ellis
Rockpile. Photo: Ellis

Editor’s Note: The Underdogs Issue

On long shots and beating the odds, from SURFER 58.7

I felt like the odd man out sitting on the boil at Rockpile, flanked on either side by a half dozen pros known for rushing the heaviest Hawaiian surf. Seeing as how I'm known for writing things like this magazine intro from the safety of my San Diego office, and not for throwing myself over mutant ledges in front of a literal pile of rocks, I thought maybe I'd crashed the wrong party.

There was one surfer, however, who seemed even more out of place among the logo-clad surfing elite. An anonymous, middle-aged man had paddled through the gauntlet of pros earlier in the session, wearing a helmet and a bulky life vest, on an oversized board that had "garage-sale find" written all over it. He had moved well past the pack on the boil, lining up some 20 yards outside where not a single wave had broken all morning.

He sat there for about an hour, occasionally looking back to check his lineup, otherwise simply staring out to sea. Then, suddenly, an enormous, shifty peak formed out the back and began lurching straight toward him. As the surfers sitting inside scrambled to get out of the way, this unknown, helmet-and-jacketclad, seemingly kooky surfer pointed his nose toward shore, took a few hard strokes and confidently backdoored the biggest, longest barrel that anyone — sponsored or otherwise — had ridden at Rockpile that day.

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That just might be the very best part about surfing. It doesn't matter what brand of boardshorts you're wearing, what dusty garage you dug your board out of or whether or not there's a sticker on its nose. If you're in the right spot and know what you're doing, you'll always have a shot at getting the wave of the day, whether you're a multiple world-title holder with millions of social media followers or a nine-to-fiver with a flip phone. The ocean doesn't play favorites.

For this issue, we took aim at stories of surfing's underdogs: people who weren't necessarily sponsored from a young age, or touted as "the next big thing" by pro-surf pundits, but have managed to carve fascinating paths in surfing nonetheless. Take the Chinese National Surf Team, for example, which is filled with novice surfers cherry-picked by the Chinese government with the long-shot goal of getting a Chinese surfer on an Olympic podium in 2020. Or the rapid ascent of Connor O'Leary, a surfer who most of us had never even heard of until he broke into the World Tour ranks and tore straight into the top 10.

Of all the underdogs we spotlight in this issue, perhaps none have done more impressive surfing while remaining in relative obscurity than a group of unhinged, blue-collar slab surfers from Australia. Surfers like Justen "Jughead" Allport, Mick Corbett and James Holmer-Cross don't have big-ticket sponsors, but rather work day in and day out as a firefighter, electrician and house painter, respectively. They aren't getting rich or famous for putting their lives on the line when hideous purple blobs pop up on the swell charts, but when they come flying out of some godforsaken cave in a euphoric cloud of spit, something tells me the last thing on their minds is the size of their Instagram following.

Which brings us back to Rockpile and the random charger standing in a carport-sized barrel. It was such a phenomenal wave that it electrified the lineup, with a few surfers hooting even as they ditched their boards and prepared to get throttled by the steamrolling whitewater. I took the wave on the head, got washed inside and probably looked like a half-drowned dog by the time I got back outside. But something changed in the lineup after that wave. The conditions were the same, and there were just as many pros on the boil, but it all seemed much less intimidating — like this whole surfing thing is anyone's game.

TODD PRODANOVICH, Editor