Shakeup in U.S. Surfing

Amateur competitive surfing in the U.S. has been ailing for years. Without adequate industry support and the kind of large-scale domestic competitions needed to groom aspiring pros, a wealth of surfing talent has gone undeveloped. But a group of some of the most influential people in American competitive surfing hopes to change this.

During the ISA World Surfing Games and Forum, to be held in Salinas, Ecuador from March 19-28, an organization called Surfing America will make a bid to replace the USSF as the national governing body of U.S. surfing. Surfing America is a six-year old volunteer organization that 1976 world champion Peter Townend and his cohorts modeled after the one credited with fostering Australia’s competitive dominance. Their plan for surfing in America has the approval of not only the ASP and SIMA, but also the ESA, NSSA and HASA.

Kathy Phillips, Director of the ESA, says that USSF mismanagement has caused the U.S. to slide precipitously from its place as one of the great surfing nations. Since claiming its last victory in the ISA World Games in 1996, the team has consistently finished at or below tenth place, and has even lost to surfing, ahem, powerhouses like Argentina and Ireland. No doubt, there is abundant talent on U.S. shores; watching a couple of heats at the NSSA Nationals will make that apparent. But this skill is not being converted into national team wins. Surfing America and its backers have a plan that they say will restore the squad to its rightful place by making it easier for the top U.S. WQS and WCT pros to become part of the team. They claim that with the surf industry, the domestic pro tour and amateur surfing all unified in this cause, amateur surfing in America is bound to benefit.

The supporters of the move also think that Surfing America will help the nation’s best amateurs make the transition to life as a professional more easily by offering guidance and greater opportunities for serious competition. Currently, the WQS in America is not functioning well as a springboard for aspiring pros because of the lack of meaningful events, a problem that Surfing America plans to address. But, more importantly, the path from Am to ‘QS pro is not a clear one. NSSA Executive Director Janice Aragon explains: “The NSSA got involved with Surfing America for a number of reasons, the main one being to build a bridge between the NSSA and the WQS.” By offering WQS wildcard spots and seeds to top amateurs, Surfing America hopes to help propel more U.S. stars into the pro ranks.

Yet not everyone thinks the move will be good for U.S. surfing. Carolyn Krammer, Director of Competitions for the USSF Western Region, contends that the mechanisms for creating a strong U.S. team are already in place under her organization, but the ASP and industry have chosen not to support youth surfing in recent years. “Where do you think Kelly and the Lopez brothers came from? The USSF,” says Krammer. She thinks that the industry simply wants greater control of competitive surfing in the U.S., and that youth surfing will suffer for the change because there will be fewer pure amateur venues.

The change is far from definite. It still must be approved by a majority vote of the ISA member nations. Regardless of what happens in Ecuador, whichever group comes out on top has a lot of work ahead of them. — Scott Basham