It took somebody special to knock Huntington Beach native Brett Simpson out of his hometown competition.
Brazil's Filipe Toledo, one of the best aerial surfers in the world, made that clear by dominating the final for his first U.S. Open of Surfing title after he had eliminated Simpson in the semifinal.
Toledo knocked off countryman Willian Cardoso, 17.56-12.80, to win the $100,000 grand prize.
"He's a small-wave wizard, so I knew it was going to be really hard," Simpson said of the semifinal. "I just knew what type of wave I was looking for, and I wasn't going to try and surf to his style. I knew he was going to put up big scores on mediocre waves. A lot of guys can do that, but he can do that above and beyond."
In a week of flighty waves, there was a significant increase in swells for the closing events Sunday. There were plenty of opportunities for rides, but only for surfers who could capitalize on smaller crests. In Saturday's Round 5, 16 surfers accounted for 81 rides. In Sunday's quarterfinals, eight surfers combined for 62 rides.
The conditions were perfect for the smaller Toledo. The only thing he had in common with the 200-pound Cardoso was his country. Toledo is 5 feet 9 and generously listed at 140 pounds. Not only was he dwarfed by Cardoso, but also by his competitor's surfboard, which at 5 feet 11, was a full two inches taller than Toledo.
Despite an injured right ankle that was heavily taped throughout the week, Toledo was able to fly through and over waves. He got significant air, completed tail reverses and pulled off moves that his competitors could only finish with much larger crests.
"In the beginning of the week, my ankle was like 40%," Toledo said. "But I knew these waves were going to be good for me."
For Simpson, who has won the Open in both 2009 and 2010, it's been a rough year on tour. He has finished higher than 25th in a competition just once. Before the event started, he said he hoped that competing on his hometown beach, where he learned to surf, would alleviate a mental block that's been following him around this season.
A week later, Simpson is in a much better place for the rest of the tour. Sunday's third-place finish was by far his best result of the year.
Even with a large Brazilian contingent in attendance, Simpson got the loudest cheers of the day Sunday. There were hopes from the local crowd that he would be able to re-create his previous wins, but even after being eliminated, he was smiling and receiving congratulations from his peers.
"I don't feel like I did a lot wrong, which kind of sucks, but I walked away feeling fine," Simpson said. "I'm stoked with an equal third. He's definitely the big favorite to win, so it was going to be tough either way. I would have liked a couple more quality set waves, but that's the way it goes."
On the women's side, 20-year-old Tyler Wright also notched her first win at Huntington Beach. Wright fought her way through a loaded women's bracket to win the final against Stephanie Gilmore, a five-time ASP world champion who won the Open in 2007.
"She's always been one of the most naturally talented surfers on the planet that I've seen," Gilmore said of Wright. "She has always just been pushing all of us girls to really not just be in that safety zone, forcing us to be innovative and put everything on the line, in a way. So I know she was going to be the hardest event of the heat for myself."