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Occhilupo Rides the Final Wave to Surfing Title

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A few years back, yet another absurd surfing term came into vogue, but this one emphasized the dramatic turn the sport had taken from the innocence and fun of its youthful past.

“Localism” referred to the macho practice of staunchly defending the rights to your own beach, and as a result, your own waves. It meant slashing an intruder’s tires if need be, and knocking him over the head with a crowbar if he continued to show you no respect.

It was about this time that Tom Curren began drawing raves around Rincon, just south of Santa Barbara, for his ability to carve recklessly through the surf on his board.

And it was about the same time that a hot young Australian named Mark Occhilupo began gaining notice for his powerful, no-holds-barred style, and even more so for a similar brashness he displayed out of the water. He would call American surfers “wankers,” a derogatory term Down Under, and charged that they were overrated.

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Occhilupo, now 19 and more humble despite the fact that his surfing is better than ever, did not have to eat his words as he shattered the current Southern California version of localism on Sunday at the Huntington Beach Pier. He caught the last crucial wave of the afternoon to defeat Curren, the hero from Carpinteria, in their third and deciding heat, and won the men’s title of the Ocean Pacific Pro Surfing Championships.

A new truck and a check for $6,500 went to Occhilupo, who moved from fifth to second place in the world rankings. Last year, his first on the pro tour, he finished third. Curren, fourth in the world last year, won $3,200 as he moved from 14th to 10th in the rankings.

In the women’s final, Jodie Cooper of Australia rallied to take the last two heats to beat Jorja Smith of San Clemente to win $4,000 and a new car. Smith won $2,000.

After the drama of his comeback victory (Curren had won the first heat) had subsided, the new Occhilupo maintained his calm. In the past, “Cocky” would have been a better nickname than “Occy,” as he is known on the tour. But he responded to ending Curren’s two-year winning streak in the contest with uncharacteristic diplomacy.

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“It’s a disappointment for him,” Occhilupo said with his distinctive accent. “A hat trick is something that is so good. It was very close. I didn’t know ‘til they called out the results.”

The results had him winning the final heat, 4-1 (five judges determine each surfer’s scores). Curren had won the first heat, 4-1, but Occhilupo came back in the next round, very nearly defying the laws of physics as he completed one radical maneuver after another to score a 5-0 decision.

But the contest was far closer than those scores, as the surfers were separated by just tenths of points (rides are scored on a 10-point scale) for most of the way.

In the end, it came down to Occhilupo’s final wave. Curren was too far outside (south of the Pier) to catch it. The Australian was in the right spot, and he sliced a dangerous path toward the beach, earning a 9.5, 9.4, 9.3 and 8.5, and the win in the process.

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“It could’ve gone either way,” Curren said. “And he got it.”

Most of the crowd, estimated at 110,000, left disappointed. All day long, they made it no secret they were for Curren.

“Your Californian” was the way the overzealous announcer described Curren.

“Your Californian” was the way Mark Occhilupo might have described Curren several years ago. This time, he just proved his point, accepted his check with a brief “Thank you,” and left the beach.

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