An Artful Rider Snaps Back

Times Staff Writer

Rob Machado will remember 2001 as the year his dream of becoming a world champion crumbled like a sand castle drying under the summer sun.

But it's also the year he discovered that a surfer with his ability doesn't need to wear a crown to earn the respect of a champion, and that fate sometimes smiles upon those with shattered hopes.

He broke his hand and missed the second World Championship Tour contest in 2001. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks cut the season short, resulting in fewer wild-card allocations for 2002. Complications with his wife's pregnancy and the birth of his first daughter caused him to miss two more contests and a meeting at which surfers could plead for reinstatement.

He was, in his words, "voted off of the island" and he was bitter. Machado had been rated as high as No. 2 in the world. Fans loved him. Greatness was within his grasp. Yet he didn't have enough points for an automatic berth on the WCT and his peers didn't give him a free pass.

To get back onto the world tour he had to start over on the travel-intensive World Qualifying Series.

"I felt like I got slapped in the face," he says during an interview at his home in the Encinitas community of Cardiff-by-the-Sea. "I had devoted 10 years of my life to the tour, and to just have it taken away like that...."

The surfer is ushered back to the present by his young daughters, Rose and Macy, who scramble to his side and compete for his attention. Their toys are strewn across a grassy yard overlooking famous Cardiff Reef.

Machado smiles. In hindsight, he acknowledges that things have not gone so badly.

Hurley, a clothing and apparel company, signed him to a lucrative contract and he now embodies the new-age superstar surfer, flipping pancakes for his kids one minute and shredding waves the next.

"With a lot of the younger pros on tour, it's all about surfing, sex, eating and more surfing -- that's their brain. It's where they're at," says Pat O'Connell, 34, a 12-year WCT veteran who is a marketing manager for Hurley. "With Rob, he wakes up, takes care of his family first and then goes surfing. Rob's focus is not so much on the competitive side, but on the fun aspects."

Free from depending on the tour, Machado, 32, sells the lifestyle largely through photo trips for magazine ads, by making public appearances and participating in charity functions.

But he still competes sporadically and is among the favorites at the Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, a six-star World Qualifying Series event that continues through July 30 at Huntington Beach Pier.

Last year he advanced to the final before being edged by three-time world champion Andy Irons.

"They didn't care about contests, but it's still in my blood, you know?" Machado says, referring to Hurley and a secondary sponsor. "The greatest thing about the tour was being around that level of surfing all the time. When some guy blows by you and pulls off a huge air or giant snap right in front of you, it makes you want to elevate your surfing beyond that."

In 1993, Machado embarked on the world tour and finished ranked No. 8 out of 44 surfers. In 1994 he was No. 5.

His timing was unfortunate in that Kelly Slater, who won his first world crown in 1992, was establishing himself as the sport's most dominant athlete. Slater claimed the 1994 title and four more in succession before announcing what would become a temporary retirement.

But the younger Machado was a rising star, fast and agile, yet with a soulful poise reminiscent of Gerry Lopez, legendary for his artful mastery at Hawaii's Banzai Pipeline in the early 1970s.

In 1995, Machado defeated Slater in the U.S. Open final before 75,000 fans. The two carried the world title race to the season finale at Pipeline, and their semifinal bout, in perfect eight-foot surf, remains one of the most memorable heats in Assn. of Surfing Professionals history. They traded tube rides before Slater ultimately prevailed.

Machado was living a dream, out of a suitcase on an around-the-world airline ticket. He met Patricia Locame, his future wife, at French-owned Reunion Island, located off the coast of Madagascar, and she began traveling with him.

It was fun at first, but the tour became a grind and issues surfaced regarding so many contests, an old-school scoring system and the way prize money was distributed. Machado's vociferous protests probably alienated him from other surfers.

He experienced a slide in 1998 and 1999, falling out of the top 10, but surged back in 2000, finishing at No. 3 after closing with a resounding triumph at the Pipeline Masters.

But his title run in 2001 wasn't meant to be. He suffered a broken hand between contests while surfing near his home. The terrorist strikes in the U.S. prompted the ASP to reduce its WCT schedule by more than half, to only five contests. Machado recovered for the third contest but was not in top form and finished 17th. Complications with his wife's pregnancy caused him to miss the fourth contest, and the healthy birth of Rose came right before the final event at Sunset Beach in Hawaii.

His season was a washout, but he was confident he would be awarded an injury wild card for 2002, based on the nature of his problems and his high ranking the previous season. However, the ASP, taking the shortened season into consideration, changed the requalification criteria and doled out only two wild cards, instead of four, to fill the 44-surfer roster.

One went to Slater, who was emerging from retirement. The other was up for a vote at a season-ending surfers' meeting in Hawaii. Machado stayed home with his wife and newborn child, but sent a letter pleading his case. The other top candidate was Shane Dorian, who had injured his foot before the Sunset Beach event and would have needed only to get through one heat to requalify.

Dorian appeared at the meeting wearing a leg brace and won over his fellow competitors. Another surfer, Shane Beschen, suggested in a magazine story that Machado was bypassed because he was the better surfer.

O'Connell recalls that the perception among Machado's peers was that Dorian was more committed to the tour. "Rob's letter said one thing and his behavior said another," O'Connell says, adding that his absence at the meeting might have been a crucial miscalculation.

Though some bitterness remains, Machado and his wife look back on what happened as a liberating turn. Machado recently took a photo trip to Indonesia's Mentawai Islands with Lopez, his childhood idol.

"I was impressed because he can still surf and he must be in his 50s," Machado said. "He was pulling deep into some really heavy waves."

Lopez came away referring to Machado, in a story he wrote about the excursion, as "a throwback to my generation of surfers, who were all about trying to raise their performance level with innovative and radical maneuvers, but only beneath a cover of being smooth and stylish."

When Machado, an accomplished guitar player, entertained with an array of expressive blues riffs, his stature grew more lofty in the eyes of Lopez, who labeled his new friend "the coolest surfer of modern times."

With that kind of praise, who needs a world title?

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Open of Surfing

* What: The $185,000 Honda U.S. Open of Surfing, centerpiece of the Bank of the West Beach Games.

* When: Through July 30.

* Where: Huntington Beach Pier.

* Who: The six-star World Qualifying Series event has a men's field of 288 and a women's field of 60. There are also junior and longboard divisions.

* At stake: Points toward qualifying or requalifying for the elite World Championship Tour.

* Defending champions: Andy Irons and Julia Christian.

* Other attractions: Live music, surfing, freestyle motocross, bicycle motocross and beach volleyball exhibitions.

* Admission: Free.

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