Joe Surf: H.B. local is underdog at U.S. Open of Surfing

Kelly Slater hasn't done it.

Neither has Rob Machado, Sunny Garcia nor Tom Curren.

Not when it was called the OP Pro, or more recently, the U.S. Open of Surfing.

In fact, nobody on the men's side has ever won the U.S. Open of Surfing three consecutive times. But that streak — which dates back to the event's beginning as the OP Pro in 1982 — will be in jeopardy starting this weekend on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier.

The U.S. Open of Surfing gets underway Saturday and runs through Aug. 7, and a lot of attention will be paid to the performance of Huntington Beach local Brett Simpson, who has taken advantage of surfing his home wave by turning it into back-to-back U.S. Open victories.

He became only the third surfer ever to capture two U.S. Open men's victories in a row, joining Curren (1983-84) and Mark Occhilupo (1985-86) when he won his second straight last year and taking home a cool $100,000.

"I'm sure there's not many three-peats in the history of surfing in any event," Simpson said last weekend from Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, where he was surfing in the fourth of 11 Assn. of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour events for 2011. "There's so many great surfers, and you have to have great skill and some luck through a week-long event in conditions that will be completely different on any given day.

"A lot just goes into being comfortable, sleeping in my own bed and on waves I surf very often. Those three things give anyone an advantage in competition, and I think that's been a huge part of my success in the last few years."

Despite his success at the U.S. Open, Simpson is an underdog going into the competition. He currently is ranked No. 18 in the world and ranks 25th in the ASP World Title points standings.

Slater, Jordy Smith and Mick Fanning, currently ranked Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the world, respectively, will provide plenty of competition for Simpson, as will all the others who compete.

Smith is coming off a victory at Jeffreys Bay, and Fanning took second. Both are surfing well and are among the leaders in the World Title points standings. Slater did not compete at Jeffreys Bay, but no doubt will be ready to give the kids a run for the money.

The U.S. Open is not part of the ASP World Tour for the men (it is a part of the women's World Tour), so it doesn't figure into the points race for the title of world champion. But the prize money and exposure are unmatched by any event, which attracts the world's best surfers year in, year out.

"It's one of those events we need in our sport," Simpson said. "We get to go to all the great wave destinations, so it's nice to get that stadium atmosphere where there's thousands of people there. That gets me pretty fired up."

Simpson enters the contest trying to regain top form. After placing fifth in the ASP's first event of the year in early March at Gold Coast, Australia, he dropped to 25th place at Bells Beach, Australia. He did not compete in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, because of an injury, and then placed 25th at Jeffreys Bay.

"This season has been a bit slow for me so far," he said. "Starting off with a fifth was a great start on the Goldy. I had some solid heats and was feeling good, and I was feeling even better at Bells and then the wheels fell off in my round-two heat. That's sometimes how surfing heats go, though, and I moved on."

Before the Rio contest, Simpson had some sponsor obligations to take care of, and he wound up with a grade-two MCL tear in his knee that forced him out of the water.

"I went to Mexico to get some photos and some good waves and ended up hurting my knee," he said. "That set me back for a month in a time where there were a lot of events going on, and missed opportunities for me to even better my position.

"Since coming back to competition, I still haven't had any good results, and I'm trying to find my feet and confidence again. I'm better physically, definitely not 100%, but well enough to compete at a high level. I just need to find the rhythm I had at the start and head in the right direction."

Regardless of how he does at the Open, Simpson, 26, is having a ball being a part of an elite group of professional surfers. He is one of only 34 men's surfers on the ASP World Tour — a remarkable accomplishment in itself.

He has made more than $470,000 in prize money on the tour (that doesn't count his sponsorship income), including more than $31,000 this year. Sure, there's some travel involved in the 11 ASP World Tour events — Australia (twice), Brazil, South Africa, French Polynesia, France, Portugal, Hawaii and even a couple of mainland America stops at Trestles, Long Island and somewhere in the Bay Area (not yet determined).

"It's been an awesome ride," Simpson said. "To me, flying in planes a lot sucks, but when you get to your destination and settle in, it's great. So many different types of personalities, things to experience and do. But sometimes you find yourself so caught up in the event, you don't have enough time to do the tourist stuff.

"I have made some great friends on tour, hanging with the Hobgood brothers — C.J. and Damien — as well as Adrian Buchan. They are all veterans and have great knowledge to pass around. It's been a huge help."

When not on tour, Simpson still lives and surfs in Huntington and has no plans to leave. After all, it's where it all began for Simpson, the son of former NFL defensive back Bill Simpson, who played for the Rams and Bills.

"I was born the year he retired, so I never got to see him play live, but I have seen some films," Simpson said. "He is an intense human, and I'm sure that's where I have gotten my competitive drive."

Surfing doesn't quite beat the body down like football, but staying healthy — as Simpson learned recently with his knee injury — is still a major factor in being successful. When not in the water, he's in the gym.

"I work with a group called DSC and it's a lot of plyometric stuff, balance, core strengthening and stuff that will help benefit my surfing and try to keep me free of injury," Simpson said.

Starting this weekend, though, Simpson will be at home doing what he's done his whole life, and what he'll continue to do even when there are not thousands of pairs of eyes on him.

"When I'm home, I'm out there on a daily basis," Simpson said. "There's always something to ride and usually has the best sandbar on our stretch of beach. It's always for fun, and it's still a great training ground. It helps for some of the destinations around the world, and that's where I surf and see all my friends."

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at jhaak922@aol.com.

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