Pat O'Connell has overcome a fear of the ocean, especially kelp, which almost short-circuited his surfing career. After a fin gash almost took his sight as a boy, success as a teenager necessitated so many surf-related commitments he came close to flunking out of Dana Hills High, and years later he forfeited his spot in surfing's Camelot—the World Championship Tour—so he could make Endless Summer II.
But of all the things surfing has forced him to endure, the time O'Connell spent on the World Qualifying Series (WQS), what he likes to call the "knife fight," holds a special place. The WQS is the only way a person can qualify for the WCT, the "dream tour" that annually produces surfing's world champion. At the end of every season, the WCT's 16 lowest-scoring performers are dropped and the WQS's top 16 are elevated to one of the most exclusive addresses in sports, a world away from the WQS. If the WCT is a dream, the WQS is night terrors.
"Here's a good way of looking at it," said O'Connell, who lives in Laguna Beach. "The WCT plays by gentleman's rules: you take turns on waves, there's an unwritten code of conduct. The WQS is a knife fight. Anything goes. If you're not getting screwed, you're screwing someone else."
Surf City, here we come!
Yes, Huntington Beach once again plays host to the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, which is expected to draw more than 300,000 spectators this year. There will be plenty to see: volleyball tournament, motocross exhibition, skateboard contest and—make it stop—a poker tournament between the stars from the various action sports that will either determine which is the greatest sport or that Americans have truly run out of things to do. But surfing is the main draw here. The U.S. Open is part of the aforementioned WQS, and its prestige and standing mean that anyone doing well in it can not only expect a tremendous and immediate boost in points, but possibly a successful shove through a month-long stretch of top-rated WQS events in Japan and Europe that could bring a WCT spot within reach.
"[The U.S. Open] is such a big event," O'Connell said. "Not only is it one of the best point-rated events of the year, it also shoots you into the other big events as well. If you do well in all of those, you could leapfrog a lot of other guys. If someone were to get on a roll, by the end of the month, he could be on the WCT. This could be the most important month of his life."
O'Connell had been on the WCT before taking a break to make Endless Summer II. When he came back, he had to earn his way back onto the WCT. Though he did it lightning quick—qualifying that same year—it was anything but easy.
"These guys are desperate," he said. "They aren't fighting for the dream. They're fighting for a chance at the dream. I had moments [on tour] when someone would say something to me or grab me or take a wave and I'd want to go crazy on the guy, but I had to check myself and say, 'Hey, that's what this is.' You're going to be hassled, you're going to have to fight for everything. It's just the way it is. You can get mad about it, but that's not going to get you to where you want to go."
If you want to go to the Open, here's a few other things you might want know:
Local hero: Brett Simpson missed qualifying for the WCT last season by a mere 300 points, what amounted to making just one extra heat. Simpson says last season's outcome "killed me," but finds himself in a much better position today. Presently sitting at No. 18—he was well back in the back at the same time last year—he'll be surfing his home beach where, in March, he won the inaugural Vans Pro. In that event, he compiled a final score of 19.10 out of a possible 20 points thanks to several spectacular aerials and a semi-inverted 360, testament to his hard-charging style. Simpson, 21, who grew up in Garden Grove and didn't start surfing until he was 12, is a self-effacing kid who likes to tell people about the time he pooped his pants in a carpool. (He was a child.) Still, he does have a very competitive side to him, no doubt inherited from his father, Bill, who had an eight-year NFL career as a defensive back, five years of which he spent with the Los Angeles Rams. Now in his second year on the tour, Brett knows about the rules of the game. "I know most of the guys I'm surfing against," he said. "You say hello to them when you see them, but I've had the same guys I've said hello to get in a heat with me and it comes to words. It's a spur of the moment thing. There's so much riding on every ride. You get guys colliding with each other, guys interfering with each other. It's going to be the most aggressive one who probably wins." O'Connell's not only convinced that Simpson will do well at Huntington, he's telling people that Brett will be on the WCT next year. That's probably why he signed him to Hurley's surf team. In fact, the only thing that could sorta maybe stop Simpson would be a wily veteran, say, Pat O'Connell, who's entered in the Open also. "Yeah, who knows, we could end up in a heat against each other. . . . What would I do? I'd . . . I'd, yeah, that would be weird."
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If I'd known you were surfing, I'd have baked a wave: Australian Rebecca Woods returns to Huntington Beach where she did very well and not so great last year. Woods made the U.S. Open final in 2005 but then suffered through one of the worst finals defeats ever when she failed to catch a single wave. The news that Julia Christian won by grabbing a single wave when her opponent got zilch was an embarrassing development—or lack thereof—for Huntington Beach, then locked in a fight with stoner haven Santa Cruz for the right to call itself Surf City, USA. This year, local surf forecaster Rockin' Fig, who lives in Huntington Beach, says he expects some good surf for the Open—"This has been the best beginning of a summer I think I've ever seen"—but you can never be sure. "You have to be able to adapt to the changing conditions. You have to be flexible. Rebecca went out last year with a game plan. She was waiting for the two biggest waves. There's no doubt there was smaller waves inside, but she just held to her strategy and wasn't going to budge. Rebecca's a really good surfer, but you just have to be flexible."
Par-Tay! If you were thinking about going down to the U.S. Open to party wildly, forget it. The riot that happened more than 20 years ago that ended up bruising and burning some police equipment means that alcohol has since been banned at the event, as have the bikini contests that apparently moved young men to burn things. Today, the Open crowd is "is very well-behaved," said a county lifeguard spokesman. From a strictly personal standpoint, this is a welcome change from the old days when beer and unfettered male genitalia in OP short shorts flowed freely. The lifeguard spokesman said the only problems they've had during the more recent competitions is that every year a few "rebel surfers"—we love that, let's say it again—a few "rebel surfers" paddle into the area reserved for competition. They are politely asked to leave and, just like any good rebel, do without incident.
Strong Medicine: Last Sept. 22, we wrote: "Surfer Percy 'Neco' Padaratz Jr. is banned from competition on the World Championship Tour after he tests positive for steroids . . . Tour officials became alarmed when a random test of Padaratz revealed dangerously high levels of methyltestosterone, mestanolone and oxymetholone and dangerously low levels of pot and hash." Padaratz is scheduled to compete in the Open as he continues to try and earn his way back onto the tour. Currently second in points behind Australia's Dayyan Neve, Padaratz was the 2003 and 2004 WQS champion. He claimed he'd taken the steroids as part of a course of self-treatment for a chronic back injury that flared up during a WCT even at Trestles. In fact, Padaratz, who graduated from Huntington's Edison High, says he received the offending drugs in Huntington Beach, where he asked for something that would allow him to recover quickly and surf in the next event. See, you can go home again. And you can get performance-enhancing drugs there.
Bank of the West Beach Games featuring the U.S. Open of Surfing, 315 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach Pier, Huntington Beach, (310) 473-0411; www.bankofthewestbeachgames.com.