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U.S. Open of Surfing action kicks off in Huntington Beach

You won’t find the skate park on the beach or the mega festival that the U.S. Open of Surfing is known for, but there’s plenty of sand space to check out the contest’s surf action.

The U.S. Open of Surfing kicked off Monday, Sept. 20, on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier and fans showed up throughout the day to watch surfers from around the globe, with plenty of local competitors in the mix.

Candy Swanson, of Stanton, and friend Jenny Snowbarger, of Huntington Beach, found a front-row seat for the action, lounging on beach chairs with a bag of sunscreen ready to keep them covered through the day. They were there to support family friend Eli Hanneman, who came in from Maui for the event.

“The crowds were always too much,” said Snowbarger, adding she prefers this year’s scaled-down event – done in response to the continuing coronavirus pandemic. “It’s more about the surfing.”

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In the area where the festival is typically held, only a few sponsor booths line the sand, including a Jeep pop-up showing its latest models, a Hydroflask art instillation and water refill station and a Frontier cable and internet provider display where passersby can balance on surfboards and do a mock wave riding on a video screen.

An art instillation showing the names and years for all the World Surf League champions since 1976 lines a walkway along the sand.

With Vans pulling out of this year’s sponsorship, there’s no big retail center, but local surf shops have U.S. Open gear for sale in booths in front of the stores and at the event’s entrance.

Waves were as mellow on Monday as the crowds, but surfers made the best of the 2-to-4-footers that showed up through the day.

San Clemente’s Pat Gudauskas was one of the early locals to take to the water, winning his four-man heat. He was greeted at the shoreline by 2-year-old son Canyon and wife Hanalei Reponty-Gudauskas.

“To be able to put on a show for him is so fun,” Gudauskas said of his son, who was more interested in the tractors on the sand than the surf action.

The World Surf League’s new Challenger Series format – with fewer contests needed for a shot at the World Tour – will allow him the chance to again join the world’s best on tour.

Gudauskas has been competing in the US Open of Surfing for more than 20 years.

“It’s a different scene,” he said of this year’s event. “Traditionally, you have the crowd, which is my favorite part.”

Two-time U.S. Open of Surfing winner Brett Simpson was among the fans who showed up – he’s not competing this year. Simpson is just back from Tokyo, where the USA Surfing coach helped Hawaii’s Carissa Moore earn her gold.

“I’m still a huge fan,” Simpson said of the event. “It’s kind of cool. I think it’s more a local, core vibe.”

Simpson, who grew up surfing this break, watched the waves roll in the early morning, calling them fun but a bit on the slow side. It’s going to be the most comfortable and most prepared surfers who can earn the scores, he said.

“If you live in OC, you’re surfing contests here your whole life. They should have a big advantage,” he said.

One important strategy will be getting an early start in the heat, he noted.

“I don’t think you can be shy and wait for your wave to come, you have to go and get it,” he said. “You gotta just make it happen. The waves are what they are; you have to be aggressive.”

That’s just what San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino – Simpson’s pick for the win and also a USA Surfing team member who competed at its recent Olympic debut – was able to do, posting a 7.50 just as the buzzer sounded.

“I think he’s one of the best in this kind of surf,” Simpson said of Andino, who has made it to a second-place finish in the U.S. Open of Surfing, but has yet to nab a title.

But also in Andino’s heat was Nolan Rapoza, of Long Beach who grew up surfing the Huntington Pier. He was able to nab a 7.43, and then a second high score of a 6.07, to overtake Andino.

The Olympic surfer was bumped down to the second spot, but will still advance to the next round. Fans stopped for photo ops with the surfer, who missed several events earlier this year because of an ankle injury and may need valuable points to re-qualify for the World Tour.

Hawaiian surfer Ezekiel Lau, one of the competitors left on the new “Ultimate Surfer” reality show that has its finale on Sept. 21, had a different strategy, waiting for just the right wave as the clock ticked down, still needing a score by the 10-minute mark.

Lau had a 5.27 and was able to pull off a 5.77 with a buzzer-beating wave that put him in the second spot to move to the next round.

“I think I played the heat wrong in the beginning,” he said, noting that the previous heat had a lot more waves. “It changed. What are you going to do?”

Santa Barbara’s Conner Coffin, who competed last week at the WSL Finals at Lower Trestles, won his heat, as did San Clemente’s Griffin Colapinto.

The women’s surf event starts on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Caroline Marks, a Florida surfer who calls San Clemente home, is among the world’s top women to compete in the event. Marks is coming off a win at the Super Girl Surf Pro in Oceanside last weekend.

Santa Ana surfer Courtney Conlogue, a two-time U.S. Open of Surfing champ, showed up to check out the first-day action and is expected to surf on Wednesday.

“I feel good,” she said. “Just gonna have fun.”

It’s been a “turbulent” year for Conlogue, who grappled with head injuries last year and is still nursing an ankle injury from a few months ago, not to mention the uncertainty the coronavirus pandemic brought to competitive surfing.

For Conlogue, who has been surfing the event since she was 11, the U.S. Open of Surfing is home, she said.

“It’s my grassroots, it’s my hometown,” the now 29-year-old said. “I just like competing here, I love having my hometown fans. I love being here and coming back to where it first started.”

Colorado couple Daniel Zaiger and Marsena Martinez were in Southern California for a tattoo convention in Pasadena over the weekend and decided to come check out the surf event.

“This is a nice surprise for us. I tried surfing a couple times when I came to California a couple years back and it was hard,” Zaiger said. “So to be able to see these guys pull it off super well, this is awesome.”


Source: Orange County Register

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