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Rejuvenated Aussie Still Surfing at 36

The big waves everyone had been hoping for arrived Wednesday under the light of a big yellow moon. They boomed over the North Shore reefs long before sunup.

It was an exciting and perhaps restless night for dozens of young pros competing in the first jewel of the $750,000 Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the $100,000 Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa’s Ali’i Beach Park on Oahu.

But not so for Australian surfer Mark Occhilupo. The sound of the crashing surf was simply music to the ears.

Occy, as he has been called for as long as he can remember, burst onto the pro surfing tour at 16, with bushy blond hair and a grin that seemed to span beyond his cheeks.

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That was 20 years ago. At 36, he’s the tour’s ranking relic, four years older than his closest competitor and at least 10 years older than most.

Gone are the days when he carried a cocky exuberance unmatched by any of his older rivals. He is the oldest rival now. He still has bushy blond hair but his exuberance is far less cocky -- and not quite as exuberant.

But that’s not to say that a much mellower Occy is washed up. On the contrary. In a fiercely competitive sport with a grueling tour schedule that typically burns its participants to a crisp by the time they reach their mid- to late 20s, he has settled into a situation that suits him well and remains a contender in any heat against any surfer.

He proved that in 1999, after recovering from his own case of burnout, when he became the oldest surfer to win the Assn. of Surfing Professionals’ prestigious world title. After slipping to 20th in 2000, he rebounded last year to finish second to C.J. Hobgood of Satellite Beach, Fla.

And he’s proving himself again this year. Occhilupo came into the Triple Crown ranked 13th. On Wednesday at the Hawaiian Pro, he advanced to the round of 32 and on Thursday, again carving hard, backside turns on Haleiwa’s towering right-breaking waves, methodically surfed his way into the quarterfinals. He failed to advance, however, largely because of a long flat spell -- during which he needed only to score a 5.84 out of a possible 10 -- to end his heat.

“Nobody takes him for granted, that’s for sure,” says Pat O’Connell of San Clemente. At 31, O’Connell, who failed to advance past the round of 64, is one of only a few surfers on the tour to have lasted past 30. “It’s really inspirational for us older guys to see a guy like that.”

Occy’s story is one any aging surfer can appreciate.

He started surfing when he was 9, won his first amateur contest at 13 and followed that up with a couple of state titles. After the 10th grade he left home to compete on a trial basis on the ASP tour. Powerful, fast and aggressive, he surfed his way into the top 16 by season’s end.

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He blossomed throughout most of the 1980s, when pro surfing was enjoying a renaissance and when Occy’s battles against big-name pros such as Tom Curren and Tom Carroll were legendary.

Less legendary was his performance in the 1987 movie “North Shore,” which portrayed life on this part of Oahu during the big-wave season and pegged pro surfers at the time as little more than reckless party animals.

But that was nothing compared with the fall Occy took a year later, when he began to succumb to the tour and, perhaps, the lifestyle.

“I was still surfing well and highly ranked, but something deep inside of me was telling me to go home,” he says, with a drawn-out Aussie drawl. “I just wasn’t into it anymore.”

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But it was more complex than that. Occy went home for more than five years. He basically stopped surfing, “and anyone who stops surfing scares me,” he says, “because it’s so much fun, especially if you’re a good surfer.”

He all but slipped out of sight. Most of his surfing was from the couch with a channel changer. He ate constantly and ballooned to 245 pounds.

He doesn’t remember exactly what inspired him to snap out of it, but his primary sponsor, Billabong, had something to do with it.

“They told me they couldn’t justify paying my high salary -- because they had been paying it all along -- if all I was going to do was sit on a couch and eat,” Occy recalls, “so that was a big factor.”

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So was the gentle prodding of renowned filmmaker Jack McCoy, who had developed a close relationship with the surfer and considered him one of his favorite subjects. McCoy put Occy on a training schedule that included a strict diet, lots of running and even more surfing.

The result was an astonishing run that culminated with Occy being crowned world champion for the first time.

“It is just one of those amazing stories where he dug deep inside himself and brought himself back,” says Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, former world champion and current president of the ASP. “And in doing so he proved that it’s possible if you really have that much self-belief, an unfaltering belief in your destiny, that you can bring yourself back.”

So what’s next for Occy? More surfing. He recently signed a 10-year contract with Billabong that will keep him employed as a professional surfer until the not-so-tender age of 46.

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“It’s really funny,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve achieved pretty much everything I wanted to in surfing now, but I don’t have that feeling to go home. I don’t feel like I want to go home, so I go with my gut feelings and I’m still going.”

A Sunny Day

Former world champion Sunny Garcia, thanks largely to a breathtakingly long tube ride in the four-man final, emerged the winner of the Hawaiian Pro.

It was a victory to make Occy proud. At 32, Garcia, of Honolulu, is the second-oldest competitor on the tour and came into Thursday’s action showing his age -- and then some.

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His right knee, with two torn ligaments, was bandaged in duct tape. His back was stiff and he sported a large gash over his right eye, suffered in an earlier heat.

“It just goes to show that duct tape can fix anything,” he joked afterward. “It’s good for dings on your board and, obviously, it’s good for other things.”

The five-time Triple Crown champion’s victory was worth $10,000. Australians Jake Paterson and Tom Whitaker finished second and third, respectively.

The next two legs of North Shore competition are at Sunset Beach and Pipeline.

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East Versus West

Neither of the Southland’s most notable surfers in the Triple Crown lineup made it past the round of 32. O’Connell (ranked No. 32 entering the Triple Crown) was the first to bow out, in the round of 64. Taylor Knox (No. 26) of Carlsbad and Shane Beschen (unranked) of San Clemente were next.

By contrast, Florida, which boasted five surfers in the top 15 going into the Triple Crown, had two of them -- six-time world champion Kelly Slater of Cocoa Beach and Damien Hobgood of Satellite Beach -- make it to the semifinals.

Asked why Florida seems to be outshining California as a pro surfer factory, C.J. Hobgood, Damien’s twin brother and a loser in the round of 64, theorized that the biggest factor was the poor quality of waves back home.

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“I think the biggest thing is that the waves are so bad and you can’t really mold your surfing to any certain way or style in Florida,” he said. “So a lot of these kids start traveling at a young age and they’re able to mold their surfing not to one thing but adapting and learning these new waves.”

O’Connell called that “an interesting theory.”

Sibling Rivalry

C.J. and Damien Hobgood, ranked No. 13 and 14, respectively, are one of three brother combinations on the tour, but they are the only identical twins.

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The only bickering they did while growing up was minor -- except when it involved cool stuff sponsors sent their way.

“Yeah, we used to fight all the time over that,” said C.J., the elder brother by a minute. “We used to get a box of clothes and lay it out: all the shirts, the whole thing. We’d say, all right, you get one shirt and I get one shirt. You get one pants, I get one pants. That’s the way our whole life was. There’s cool stuff and there’s lame stuff. We had to fight over the cool stuff. And you think it’s great being a twin, huh?”

The Hobgoods are 23.

Winding Up

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Some of the North Shore’s breaks have become overrun by women, a recent phenomenon some say was fueled by the success of the movie “Blue Crush,” which introduced women’s surfing and the North Shore lifestyle to the mainstream.

After a surf session this week at Pupukea just north of Pipeline, Strider Wasilewski, captain of the Quiksilver team of surfers camped here for the season, said the situation was getting out of control.

“I got all-out Blue Crushed,” he said. “There were 30 girls out in the water and they were calling me off of waves. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do?’ But it’s all right. Most of them are really cute girls.”

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FISH REPORT, D14


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