Sports

Brett Simpson has home-break advantage in U.S. Open at Huntington Beach

Brett Simpson looks forward to being a kid again on his home turf at U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach

Surfing, as he started out, was not the gig Brett Simpson thought it would be.

He started late — he was already 12! — and so many of the kids his age were polished performers. He, on the other hand, was still challenged by the basics of standing up and catching a wave.

Simpson's first competition didn't go well. Frustrated, he thew such a temper tantrum that his mother, Lynne, said she would never take him back to a surfing event.

He knew what he wanted surfing to look like, though, and it wasn't just riding out a wave for as long as possible like other people his age. He imagined flying high off the wave and attempting tricks he knew were going to be tough to land, because that's what was going to win competitions down the road.

He just wasn't good enough yet, no matter what visions he had in his head.

Years later, the local kid is competing on his hometown beach in the U.S. Open of Surfing, which starts Saturday and runs until Aug. 3 at Huntington Beach.

Simpson, 29, has won the event twice, in 2009 and 2010, but even now surfing doesn't always come easy. He has struggled this year, falling to 34th on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championships Tour.

Competing at home should help.

"It's all second nature at Huntington, just what I've done my whole upbringing," Brett said. "Kind of brings me back to being a kid again."

Many competitive surfers have some sort of bloodline to it, and they start young. Brett's dad, Bill, had never surfed. He was a defensive back in the NFL for nine seasons.

Brett was placed into more traditional sports — baseball, basketball and football — before getting a surfboard for Christmas. The gift was all it took. The family resided 15 minutes from the sand, so Lynne took him to the beach before school and Bill would take him after.

"I guess I was intrigued with the difficulty of surfing and just addicted to getting better," Simpson said. "Starting surfing has got to be one of the most difficult things to do. It's not like you can just hop on a skateboard … it's frustrating at times, and still is even when you become a professional."

Bill and Lynne are from the Midwest. They didn't really understand surfing and thought it was a sport for what Lynne called "lazy stoners."

Bill was dubious his son could make a career of surfing, and thought he wasn't maximizing his athletic talent. As long as Brett loved it, Bill supported him, but he was skeptical nonetheless.

"I come from a background of the traditional sports, so it was kind of hard for me because at the time surfing kind of had this reputation of not being the greatest sport in the world," Bill said. "No matter how much you put into it, are you going to be able to do something with it down the line?"

His son was determined to find out. By 15 he began beating guys he previously had lost to repeatedly. His first major sponsor came aboard at 17.

In the years since, Brett's career has oscillated. His ultimate goal was to qualify for the World Championship Tour, which meant earning enough points to wind up in the top 34 of the world rankings. It took until 2009, when his U.S. Open win at Huntington Beach locked in his spot. He was the first hometown winner of the event, something he calls "the pinnacle of my career."

Simpson enters the competition this year with his lowest ranking since he first qualified. He is in danger of dropping from the world tour to the qualification series, and hasn't finished higher than ninth in an event since 2011.

You can stay on the circuit by being consistent, which Brett has largely been able to do — save for this year.

"In a sense, surfing can be really frustrating," Simpson said. "But in the times it all comes together, there's probably not a better feeling in the world.

"I felt like when I played basketball or baseball, it was somewhat more in my hands. I feel like there are more variables in surfing, and that's why you see so many different winners and upsets and stuff like that happen quite often."

The waves at Huntington aren't large by tour standards, and have a tendency to be sporadic. They require someone with a plan, who can freestyle and strike fast.

Some of the best surfers in the world typically get knocked out early.

But Brett grew up here. There will be no surprises. He's been picturing this since he first got on a surfboard.

Follow Everett Cook on Twitter @everettcook

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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