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Split Peak: Where are all the freesurfers in the SURFER Poll?

SURFER editor Todd Prodanovich and managing editor Ashtyn Douglas discuss a conspicuous absence

Every year, we ask surf fans the world over to cast a vote for their favorite male and female surfers (click here to cast yours for 2017). We’ve called this the SURFER Poll since it first began in 1963, and now the poll is part of the larger SURFER Awards show. All the greats have ranked in the top 10 at some point, from Phil Edwards and Joyce Hoffman to John Florence and Carissa Moore. And with each passing year, a pattern of winners becomes more and more clear: voters give the nod to the competitive elite and mostly snub the top freesurfers (Dane Reynolds may be the exception, but even he was on the Tour when he peaked at No. 2 in 2011). Do surfers prefer watching the jersey-clad class over style icons and aerial hucksters? Do we crave the immediacy and human drama of live competition? Or does the WSL simply have the brightest spotlight around? Our editors discuss.

TP: OK, so I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty damn weird that year after year, the top 10 men and women of the SURFER Poll are almost never freesurfers. Sure, in the last few years we’ve seen Dane Reynolds, Mason Ho, Alana Blanchard and Bethany Hamilton in the mix, but three out of four of them still compete occasionally, and the other 16 of last year’s 20 SURFER Poll-ers were all World Tour surfers. Considering the fact that most surfers experience surfing as a lifestyle and not a sport, it’s bizarre to me that freesurfing punters, big-wave chargers, groovy loggers, and alternative board riders almost never crack the top 10. What do you think this says about our culture? Shouldn’t someone who surfs as smooth as Craig Anderson, or someone as well traveled as Kepa Acero carry more water with surf fans than Kolohe Andino? No offense to Andino, but I’m just surprised guys like Ando and Kepa don’t resonate more with the voters.

AD: Guys like Kolohe consistently outrank freesurf dudes like Ando in the poll because surf fans are just exposed to 'CT surfers way more often so they’re more front of mind. Not because ‘CT athletes surf better than freesurfers—though we can debate that another day. Freesurfers might put out, what, one or two edits a year? ‘CT guys get to showcase their chops constantly over a dozen or so events. And lots of them put out banger edits between comps as well. If you asked me who my favorite surfer was, my mind automatically scans the ‘CT roster first.

TP: Really? I find freesurfing is just so much more relatable. If I had to get all “Freaky Friday” and life swap with a pro, I’d go with the freesurfer every day of the week. Chasing reeling swells to the far corners at the drop of a hat sounds about a million times better than trying to claw your way up a leaderboard, especially when the waves are just barely the right side of contestable. I’d take a lifetime of swell chases with friends over a world title anyday…but maybe I lack ambition.

AD: If anything, competitive surfing is more relatable and engaging to the average 9-to-5er because it creates human drama. It creates theatre. There are winners and losers and storylines we internalize as paralleling some part of our own lives. Whether you're reading a book or watching the WSL broadcast, people are searching for those parallels. The WSL—and competitive sports in general—does a good job at shaping storylines around dramatic moments. Think about it: Mick Fanning coming back from a shark attack to win J-Bay, or Owen Wright returning to competition after his horrible brain injury, or a workhorse like Adriano with less raw talent than his peers clinching a title. Who doesn't empathize with those stories on some level?

TP: The freesurfing elite generate plenty of drama. I mean, look at Albee Layer: the guy risks life and limb every macking swell at Jaws, shifting the perception of how big waves can be ridden (not to mention the 720s and McTwists and other crazy shit he’s pioneering in aerial surfing). He’s paddling out with purpose and trying to change our idea of what’s possible, and risking a lot to do so. That’s way more compelling and full of human drama than two dudes hustling for the best 3-footer in Rio, their fates decided by whether or not they fit in that last tag on the end section (and claim the hell out of it for the extra 0.2). I mean, what do you think it would take for a freesurfer to snag the number one spot in the poll? Maybe Albee should pull a “Gladiator,” just look at the camera and shout “are you not entertained?” the next time he comes flying out of a 20-foot tube.

WATCH ALBEE LAYER IN “BLACK WAVE”:

AD: That might work…if he was in a jersey (just kidding). There's so much white noise online and in social media that—amazing as feats like Albee's are—it's hard for someone with a day job, bills, family responsibilities, AND an active surf life to stay on top of what's happening in the non-competitive realm. Unless an edit goes viral—or has a brand powerhouse like the WSL promoting it—a lot of people will miss it. It would take a really disruptive freesurfer to shake up the SURFER poll rankings. And that’s an even bigger ask now with someone like John Florence in the mix.

TP: Yeah, he’s a special case. When the current world title holder also surfs as well as John does outside a jersey, a pure freesurfer would probably need to be pulling 1080s after monster Teahupoo barrels for voters to even entertain the notion. Ando should probably get on that.

[Top image: Craig Anderson, as high as he is stylish in Australia. Photo by Frank]