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Rainbow Andy Irons Death Middles Puerto Rico

Before the final, the crowd participated in a minute of silence dedicated to the memory of Andy Irons. In that minute a rainbow appeared over the lineup at Middles. Photo: ASP


The Inertia

Friday started out iffy, but they made the call to run. The waves were marching and the pros were chomping at the bit for some semblance of “normal.” Even by the not-so-subtle standards of Puerto Rican-American branding, the competition site looked like it had been carpet bombed by corporate logos. Sponsor names assaulted the eye from every direction, and girls in too-small bikinis combed the vicinity handing out freebies.

I wandered to the top of the scaffolding and into the VIP area where I found myself in a rabid scrum of the trucker hat gentry who were swilling free booze and talking about shared acquaintances (of which there were many). They were mostly white males, American and Australian, who’s fashion sense and jargon were exactly the same regardless of age.

The few women in attendance were either young girls skipping some form of school, or their future incarnations, who (with the black magic of makeup and botox) looked strikingly similar to the ones skipping school. Some were press, some were company execs, some were wives and girlfriends, some were just hangers on.

Out in the sea, which seemed miles away, Taj Burrow smoked Dusty Payne, and Taylor Knox defeated CJ Hobgood. Beside me, a slightly drunken woman announced loudly, to anyone who would listen, everything she knew about each surfer, regardless of its relationship to actual fact.

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“That’s Damien Hobgood! He’s from Santa Cruz!”

I fled to the beach, because, the only appropriate location to watch the King take on local hero, Dylan Graves, was among the Boricuas chanting “Yo soy Boricua, pa’ que tu los sepa!” In English, that means something close to “I’m a Boricua, just so you know!” The fact that it made no more sense in Spanish than it did in English didn’t dampen the crazy notion that Graves might derail Slater’s title hopes. The Boricuas wanted blood, and given Slater’s kryptonic track record against wildcards, you had to believe that, back in his lair preparing for battle, the King could feel it.

The crowd on the beach looked similar to the one in the grandstand, except with darker skin and fewer caps. Also, the bikinis were smaller, and the beautiful girls younger. “Don’t these kids have school?” I asked a guy beside me.

“Who cares?” he replied.

At the water’s edge, Adriano De Souza stood alone staring out to sea. Most pros wait until the last minute to come out of the competitors’ lair, but De Souza didn’t mind showing his nerves to the beach. He squatted down, pressed his head to his board, and retreated into his own world. Finally, he stood, crossed himself and jumped in. I had never especially enjoyed his surfing, but in a world where almost everyone is too cool, the rebel is the guy who’s not afraid to show the world that he sweats.

There were other heats, but the next worth mentioning was Slater vs. Graves.  The matchup presented a conundrum for the Boricuas because they have something of a complex about being loved by the rest of the world. But they are also unapologetic patriots. If Kelly wins, Puerto Rico scores a footnote in surf history. If Graves wins, Puerto Rico proves that their surfers can hang with the best in the world.

In the end, chauvinism prevailed, as it should in all matters of sport and war. Graves was given a hero’s welcome on the beach, and Slater was relentlessly photographed. They both entered the water from the “North Peak” and spent thirty minutes going punch for punch.  The King surfed conservatively, which is probably the only true compliment he ever gives an opponent.

When the scores dropped and the King registered a 7.67 for one great turn, one good turn, and one throwaway carve, and the local boy received a 7.07 for one of the day’s only barrels and a strong off-the-lip, there was booing all around. It probably never reached the heights of the scaffolding where Kelly’s status hovered somewhere below God, but above country.

The Boricuas felt robbed. “If Kelly had ridden the same waves, he would have gotten eights and nines,” went the popular refrain. It was disingenuous, though. Even if Slater caught the same waves and did the same maneuvers, he would have done them as only Kelly can. A Slater gouge, in its ten to two o’clock fury, is worth more than a Graves gouge, regardless of how exceptional it might be. In fact, it’s worth more than almost 43 other gouges on the World Tour. Enough to win the heat? Questionable, but the judges thought so.

What we didn’t know at the time was that the title had just been decided. Slater was through being safe, and Saturday was to be one of surfing’s great final acts.

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