Brett Simpson has been up since the crack of dawn, surfing the waves just north of Huntington Beach’s famous pier in preparation for another run at the U.S. Open of Surfing, the biggest competition in the world for his sport.
It is the competition’s opening weekend, and Simpson’s practice session ends around 8:30 a.m. He can barely get off the beach without someone recognizing him and striking up a conversation. Some storefront windows display his image, the nickname “Simpo” large enough to be read from across the street. Based on the number of locals who perked up when they saw him, Simpson could run for mayor of Huntington Beach and win in a landslide.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin my city,” he says, laughing and shaking his head at the idea as he devours his breakfast—a short stack of pancakes with syrup layered on thick—at the famed Sugar Shack just off Main Street in downtown H.B.
His popularity doesn’t seem to bother him. He greets each of his fans with the same easygoing smile. Despite his quintessential surfer look—sun-bleached scruffy hair, sunglasses, flip-flops—people manage to pick him out of the crowd. He has a tall, lanky build, his skin tanned from countless hours spent on the ocean.
Simpson has definitely earned the attention. Last year, at just 24, he became a local legend by being the only native to win the U.S. Open, beating out 2009 ASP World Champion Mick Fanning in the finals. A year later, what Simpson has accomplished for the city he grew up in hasn’t been lost on him.
“I think it was just huge for Huntington. It had never been done before. I think that’s what means a lot to me, just to represent the city,” he says. “I guess, growing up here, you go to all of the contests when you’re young. You watch everything, but I never even really thought about winning it. . . .
“Yeah, it was pretty crazy,” he adds, almost as if he still doesn’t believe he did it.
During the men’s finals, Simpson posted blistering 7.83 and 9.10 scores on his second and third waves, respectively, burying Fanning and securing that trip to the first-place podium early. What’s more, he did it all on a bum foot. About a month before the contest, while surfing on his own, Simpson was trying to catch air off of a wave when his board sprung up from beneath him and struck his foot.
With so little time left before the competition, all Simpson could do was tape up the injured foot and hope for the best. But in a way, he says, the injury may have helped him win his first ASP title.
“I think that took a lot of the pressure off me,” Simpson says. “Even going into the Open, I wasn’t expecting a lot from myself. I could just go out and surf, relax.”
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One man who probably did have high expectations for Simpson’s showing at the 2009 was his father, Bill Simpson, who played nine years in the NFL as a defensive back, five of them for the Los Angeles Rams. All of Bill Simpson’s four kids—two boys, two girls—played sports in high school and beyond.
But surfing wasn’t really in the Simpson family’s game plan. Brett played football, basketball and baseball growing up, but once he turned 12 and experienced surfing for the first time, there was no going back. Although he played baseball at Pacifica High School for his first two years, he eventually transferred to Huntington Beach High for the surf team. Since then, Brett has won more than $284,000, not to mention sponsorships from Hurley, Etnies and Nixon, to name a few.
“That’s when my dad realized that surfing is a competitive sport,” Simpson explains. “[He] got a lot more detail about what the other competitors are all about. Guys like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning, they’re not just like slouchers. They’re hard workers and great athletes. I think everyone kind of realizes that now and respects that.
“Surfing’s got so much more class to it now,” he says, “whereas before, people might have thought, ‘Maybe this guy’s a stoner’—which, in all sports, there’s guys like that. . . . But that’s when [my dad] realized that if you took it seriously, you could go far. I had his backing, and it meant a lot.”
Winning a title at an event as big as the Open seemed far out of Simpson’s reach at one time.
“It took me about four years [to qualify for the ASP tour]. I came close one of my first years, then the year after that, I didn’t do very well,” he says. “I came four to six spots short in two years. So that was kind of frustrating. But it wasn’t like it was life or death. I was learning, even though I was learning a bit slower, but everything’s paid off. Hopefully, I’m here to stay. . . . [The Open] was definitely my breakthrough, come-to-party victory.”
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Buoyed by local fan support, Simpson won the 2009 Surfer of the Year award. And this year, he’ll be considered one of the Open’s contenders no matter which legendary surfers show up. The 2010 competition is stacked: Veterans such as Australian Rob Machado, a three-time winner at the Open, and Slater, considered the greatest ASP surfer of all time, will be competing alongside up-and-comers such as Fanning, Jordy Smith of South Africa and Andy Irons of Hawaii.
And local pressure is on Simpson to win it again. If he does, he’ll only increase his local-legend status, as no surfer has won the U.S. Open two years in a row. But, no matter what happens, Simpson knows why he keeps coming back to the Open, and it’s not just for the wins.
“Not everyone gets to surf at their home break. There’s only so many contests, and not everyone’s from that area, so that’s what’s so meaningful to all of the locals and to myself,” Simpson says. “[The support] gives you every little bit of energy you didn’t have. Even when you’re sitting back and feeling a little tired, you’re still pumped up.”
Even if all Simpson does at the Open is simply be “Simpo,” the Huntington Beach boy will still get the loudest cheers.