Joe Surf: Sport's popularity swells

The US Open is coming! The US Open is coming!

No, not that US Open. That one, the US Open of Surfing, is still a couple months away.

This weekend, running from Friday through Sunday, is the US Open of Bodyboarding — also known by its long version title, the 2011 Sports Chalet US Open presented by Morey Bodyboards. It's part of the Ocean Current USBA National Championship Tour presented by Dune's.

No, it's not surfing, but these guys and girls are growing their sport in their own right. And they like to make it clear — this is not surfing's little brother.

"A good analogy is the Kings and the Lakers," said Jason Bitzer, the operations manager and founder of the USBA Tour. "They play in the same arena, but it's not the same sport. They are separate entities with different aspects to competing and different dynamics.

"Over the years, the surfing industry has gotten so strong, and bodyboarding has gone through a phase where it was under the radar from the mainstream media. But thanks to our sponsors, we've been able to start new, start fresh, and we've progressively grown. And we're seeing some crazy stuff by these athletes. We're strong today."

An example of the growth of professional bodyboarding can be found this weekend. Bodyboarders will compete on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier, the same spot where the surfing competition takes place. Five years ago when the USBA Tour began, they ran their event at Goldenwest Street.

"We had humble beginnings," Bitzer said. "But now the city sees us as an asset. We draw a lot of people, and tourism is important here. They're providing access to a different board sport. And there's history here, going back to the US Open of Bodyboarding in the '90s."

The scoring system for bodyboarding is similar to surfing's scoring system, but Bitzer said it's more like the scoring system in snowboarding. Tricks and maneuvers go a long way to scoring high, with an emphasis on big gyrations and more acrobatics, like backflips, according to Bitzer.

The top bodyboarders in the world will be in town this weekend, including Jeff Hubbard, who is a six-time U.S. national champion and two-time world champion. Other top bodyboarders including Jeff's brother Dave Hubbard, Jacob Romero, six-time world champion Guilherme Tamega of Brazil and U.S. women's champion Claudia Ferrari.

One local pro bodyboarder who won't be in the water this weekend, however, is Jeremy Wright. Wright grew up in Long Beach and still lives there, but he suffered a back injury while bodyboarding at the Wedge in Newport Beach seven weeks ago and only got back into the water again this week after treatment.

Wright, 24, ranked No. 9 on the USBA Tour last year, but instead of participating this weekend, he'll be relegated to serving as a commentator on the event webcast at

"I slipped my L4 disc," Wright said. "It was no joke. I almost broke my back."

Wright, though, will be in good spirits this weekend. He's graduating from college Saturday with a degree in business management from the online college University of Phoenix.

Wright has made education a priority in his life, going back to getting a 4.0 GPA at Millikan High School. It's a common theme on the USBA Tour, as Jeff Hubbard has a master's degree in international business from Hawaii Pacific University.

"I don't know if there is anybody in the surfing association who even went to college," Wright said. "Jeff travels nine months a year and he got his master's. Dave has his BA, and I have my BA. For me, it's a benefit that you don't get everything handed to you in this sport. I've had two jobs ever since high school."

He still holds two jobs now outside of his bodyboarding efforts, by day as an assistant marketing director and by night as a valet.

Nothing against surfers, though. He's a surfer himself.

"I surf all the time," Wright said. "But I bodyboard when the waves are good. There are things that you can do that are insane. I'm really acrobatic, athletic and flexible, so I can do some crazy stuff.

"I had a lot of friends in high school who were bodyboarders, so that made it cool. We had a surf team and my first year we had five bodyboarders and I took first in the state, and I won five or six amateur titles. I've always been surrounded by bodyboarders. It's just a lot of fun."

It should be fun this weekend because a low-pressure system off South America has produced a nice south swell that should hit Huntington on Friday. Because of the expected good conditions, the men's and women's pro divisions will compete Friday and Saturday, with the championship heats starting about 2 p.m. Saturday.

Sunday, the amateurs will compete and there will also be a free bodyboarding clinic for anyone willing to get wet.

Competition will begin at 8 a.m. each day. Thursday, some of the top competitors will be at Sport Chalet on Beach Boulevard for a "meet and greet" from 6 to 7 p.m.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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