The glow of the spotlight bathed two local favorites in a warm embrace a year ago.
Whose turn will it be to shine center stage this time?
The answer begins to reveal itself Saturday, the day the U.S. Open of Surfing gets underway at the Huntington Beach Pier.
The world’s largest professional surfing competition, featuring the Men’s and Women’s Pro and the Men’s and Women’s Junior Pro, launches nine days of high-powered events through Aug. 8. This year’s event comes on the heels of a 2009 extravaganza that drew 500,000 fans and offered record prize money and a competition that played out in incredible surf.
Oh, and it concluded with a double-whammy on its final weekend when Courtney Conlogue, of Santa Ana and Huntington Beach High School grad (Class of 2003) Brett Simpson emerged with the coveted Women’s and Men’s Pro titles before an enthusiastic crowd that wildly cheered on the local winners.
It marked the first time the two U.S. Open competitions had been won by local athletes.
“It’s hard to believe it was a year ago,” Simpson said Monday, a year ago to the date that he had won the Men’s Pro and the record $100,000 prize that went with it.
Simpson is back in town for the U.S. Open. Last week, he competed at the Billabong Pro at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, where he placed ninth.
“I’m excited and feel confident heading into the U.S. Open,” the 25-year-old said. “I really enjoy competing in front of my family and friends and the people here in Huntington. There’s no feeling like it. I can’t wait.”
Neither can Conlogue, who was just 16 when she won the Women’s Pro and a then-record $10,000 first-place purse last July.
This year, the stakes are higher.
“I’m ready and really, really excited to go out and compete in my own backyard again,” she said. “It was such a thrill to win it last year, such a rush, and I’m giving it my all again this year.”
Simpson and Conlogue will have to contend with a star-studded lineup of international surfing stars in their quests to repeat as champion.
For the first time, the U.S. Open of Surfing, presented by Hurley, Nike 6.0 and Converse, has been upgraded to “Prime” status by the Assn. of Surfing Professionals, said James Leitz, senior vice president of IMG Action Sports, which owns and operates the event.
Leitz said that “Prime” status was awarded based on several factors, including an increased prize purse ($250,000) for the men and ($20,000) for the women, the history and prestige of the event, marketing of the event, media and web coverage and the structure of the event site itself.
""The U.S. Open is worthy of such status,” Leitz said. “You can’t deny the power of the U.S. Open. Our objective has always been to bring in the world’s best surfers and really put on a great showcase for the city of Huntington Beach, and the world.”
The U.S. Open was founded in 1994, but the competition’s history dates to 1959, when it was called the West Coast Surfing Championships. The U.S .Open is North America’s only combined six-star World Qualifying Series event on the ASP World Tour.
Although surfing is the crown jewel of the nine-day event, BMX and skate competitions, music, fashion and vendor booths in the Festival Village, all set within 14 acres at the pier, are also an integral part of the yearly success of the U.S. Open.
Construction for the massive event began July 13. Tear-down begins Aug. 9, the day after the men’s final.
“It’s a monster of a setup,” said Leitz, noting that when the U.S. Open ends its nine-day run, it will leave the beach “pristine … like we weren’t even here.”
He said that the tear-down will be completed by Aug. 14.
“It’s 40% bigger and 100% more intricate than last year, although we haven’t expanded past our 14-acre blueprint,” he said of the venue.
With five days of free music with top national acts, a larger BMX course, two skate bowls, more grandstands, four TV production compounds, a 6,000-square-foot press room, a 7,000-square-foot retail store, 13,000-square-foot retail areas for Nike 6.0, Hurley and Converse, seven JumboTrons, 72 hours of live webcasting from four live sets and a whole lot more, Leitz said, the U.S. Open of Surfing has become “one of the largest sports, music and youth cultural events on the planet.”
The interactive Festival Village features more than 100 exhibits and includes autograph signings, prize giveaways, DJs and guest emcees. Among the top national acts performing at the U.S. Open Music Stage from Tuesday through Aug. 7 are Cobra Starship, Cold War Kids, Bedouin Soundclash, Switchfoot and Weezer.
During the U.S. Open, a pair of induction ceremonies will take place at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, beginning with the Surfing Walk of Fame in front of Jack’s Surfboards at 10 a.m. Aug. 5. The Surfers’ Hall of Fame takes place at 10 a.m. Aug. 6, in front of Huntington Surf & Sport.
That’s a lot squeezed into a nine-day period along Huntington’s famed break.
“The U.S. Open of Surfing generates massive international exposure for the city that further punctuates and promotes Surf City USA as the gateway to the Southern California experience,” Leitz said. “On a local level, we are filling just about every hotel room in town for the week, stimulating spending at the local restaurants and bars, impacting the service sector and working very closely with the city to run a first-class, safe and clean environment. We pay our bills and play by the rules and value our long-standing relationship with the community.
“We are custodians of a tradition of surfing and a heritage event in the city of Huntington Beach and appreciate the opportunity to keep it alive and well.”
The $350,000 U.S. Open includes a $250,000 Men’s Prime division that awards a $100,000 first-place prize and 6,500 points to the winner. Simpson will compete in a Men’s Prime division that includes, among others, Huntington Beach athletes Tim Reyes, Brad Ettinger, Shaun Ward and Jason Harris, Rob Machado (Cardiff), three-time world champion Andy Irons (Hawaii), Mick Fanning (Australia), Taj Burrow (Australia), C.J. Hobgood (Florida), Dane Reynolds (Ventura), Patrick Gudauskas (San Clemente) and Jordy Smith (South Africa), who is ranked No. 1 in the world.
Smith won the Billabong Pro Men’s title in South Africa last week.
Machado (2006, 2001, 1995), Irons (2006, 1998), Hobgood (2007) and Burrows (2004) have all won the U.S. Open Men’s title.
The $60,000 Women’s six-star division has a $20,000 first-place prize — a record high — and 12 of the top 16 women on the ASP World Tour are entered in the competition. Conlogue will go up against the likes of world champions Stephanie Gilmore (Australia) and Sofia Mulanovich (Peru), Jessi Miley-Dyer (Australia), Jacqueline Silva (Brazil), ratings leader Sally Fitzgibbons (Australia), Coco Ho (Hawaii), Sage Erickson (Hawaii) and Karina Petroni (Florida).
Gilmore (2007) and Mulanovich (2006) are previous winners of the U.S. Open Women’s title.
Leitz said with the Women’s prize purse raised to $60,000, and with $20,000 going to the winner, the U.S. Open Women’s Pro purse is “one of, if not the” highest first-place prizes in women’s surfing.
The U.S. Open Women’s Pro and the $10,000 U.S. Open Women’s Junior Pro (ASP grade-four event) finals are Aug. 7. The U.S. Open Men’s Pro and $10,000 U.S. Open U.S. Open Men’s Junior Pro (ASP grade-two event) finals are Aug. 8.
The U.S. Open of Surfing is open and free to the public.