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Photo by Frieden/Surfing MagazineShane Beschen has arguably had a greater effect on competitive surfing than any surfer—any surfer—of the past generation. The announcer said as much April 26 when Beschen emerged from the water at Trestles. Beschen changed the sport, the announcer said, because Beschen changed the way it's scored. He changed what competitive surfing valued. Still, hearing his career summed up and amplified over a beach was, Beschen says, "a little weird. Everything I've been through just said out loud, all at once."
Because of Beschen, surfers are now rewarded for aerials, 360s and riding above the lip—a move reminiscent of skateboarders riding a rail. Maneuvers once scorned by judges now earn winner's checks on the World Championship Tour (WCT). This was the announcer's point. Of course, he was saying it as Beschen accepted his trophy at what amounted to a minor-league contest.
Isn't that always the way? The guy who leads the charge and takes the hits is the guy sent packing just when the goal is reached? It happened to Moses and Pete Best and that guy John Wayne played in Sands of Iwo Jima. And it happened to Shane Beschen. He fought for years to change competitive surfing's aesthetic criteria, and when he finally succeeded, he was gone.
"I'm not angry about anything," he says. "I have no bitterness. It's like I'm starting a brand-new career. I feel the same motivation now that I felt when I first got on the [WCT] when I was 19."
That was 12 years ago. Beschen played the game very well, winning the Bud Tour title in 1991, taking four WCT events and setting the world record for highest heat score with three perfect 10s. Surfing, like figure skating, is a subjective sport. You win by playing to the judges. The son of a New Jersey surfer who moved to San Clemente and taught his kids to revere the sport, Beschen knew his dad's dreams of turning pro ended when he couldn't bring himself to bend to the judges tastes and quit his pet move —a switch foot—though it was consistently ignored in scoring.
But Beschen was intense and creative. Many thought he was the only man capable of challenging ubiquitous champion Kelly Slater. Beschen knew you impressed judges with long, technically sound rides. Consistency won out over the risky-but-radical aerobatics that made up so-called progressive surfing.
"[Radical] maneuvers were looked at as flukes," says Matt Walker, senior editor at Surfing magazine. "Judges didn't want to reward someone for one lucky move over someone who plugged away with great technical surfing."
Improvements in equipment, technique and in the athletes themselves had allowed surfing to sell itself—and its many ancillary products—through photos and videos of progressive moves, but that wasn't reflected in the sport's scoring, which remained virtually unchanged for decades.
"[The judging] ignored the way people had been surfing for 20 years," Walker says. "These [maneuvers] weren't flukes. Competitions ended up being pretty tame compared to what people were actually doing."
At some point—and even he isn't sure when or why—Beschen decided it was time for a change.
"All I can think is that it was my love for surfing that made me do it," he says. "I felt obligated to talk about it because there was some really great surfing going on at a really high level, yet you weren't seeing that in the heats. Things were far less radical in competition."
He began incorporating progressive surfing into his heats, challenging judges to ignore the brilliance of his maneuvers. When they did, he ripped into them in person or through the surfing press. He boycotted competitions.
"There were other guys who felt the way Shane did," Walker says. "But he was the only one who stuck his neck out. And he paid the price."
His scores dropped—and so did his world ranking. Then his clothing sponsor, O'Neill, dropped him, too.
"I really admire Shane for sticking this out," says Mike Beschen, Shane's father. "He saw that surfing had been surpassed by skating and snowboarding because those sports were allowing their athletes to express themselves, to be creative. Surfers continued to be restricted. It was like not allowing a basketball player to dunk. Surfers were athletes who weren't allowed to be their best."
By 2001, Beschen found himself far from the best. He had fallen to one of the 16 lowest-rated on the WCT. Competition rules required him to leave the tour.
"By that point, I didn't care," Beschen says. "I guess I just believed the criteria should be changed so deeply that I was almost unable to perform. I'd lost my motivation. I was more motivated to change criteria than to advance out of the heat."
It was also about that time that observers began noting surfers performing in Beschen's style seemed to be rewarded for their radical maneuvers. Though there had never been any official acknowledgement that the criteria changed, it clearly had. And everyone knows it's because of Beschen, the current World Qualifying Series points leader. In four contests this year, Beschen has reached three finals and won twice.