It's a long road to the top at the Vans US Open of Surfing - Men's, and on an otherwise quiet Monday morning in Huntington Beach the journey began in earnest.
With the top seeds hitting the water right about the time a light northwest sea breeze started to break through, today was all about grinding out heat wins -- and the homegrown talent couldn't wait to get cracking.
Kicking things off in Round 2 was a stacked heat of veteran talent, including World No. 7 Willian Cardoso and former CT surfer Ryan Callinan. The smart money may have been on the big names, but it was pint-sized Kei Kobayashi from San Clemente, California, that proved to be in rhythm with the challenging conditions.
Kobayashi grew up surfing Lowers, splitting peaks with the likes of Kolohe Andino, Griffin Colapinto and the Gudauskas brothers. He's been right there in the lineup as they've ascended to the most elite level of the sport, and while other up-and-comers from San Clemente have been able to garner more press in recent months, Kobayashi's a QS-tested warrior and has been steadily building his resume. As the final minutes of the heat ticked down he circled Cardoso like a shark. He wasn't about to let the single biggest heat win of his young career slip away.
"I was fired up and I just wanted to put together a good heat with two good waves," Kobayashi said afterwards. "Last year was my first full year on the QS and I learned it's nothing like the juniors. I've put all my focus into this year like I did last season, watching all the events, and today I felt like I was on the right waves to give myself the best opportunity."
Hawaii's Keanu Asing, who currently lives and trains in San Clemente, got right down to work in the next heat. Controlling the scoreboard pretty much from the onset," he advanced alongside Heitor Alves, they left Stu Kennedy and Marc Lacomare where they went wrong.
"I'm trying to focus on staying more in the moment and controlling the things I can while not worrying about the things I can't," Asing said when the heat was over. "You can't get distracted by the stuff you can't control. You have to be mindful of what you can do."
U.S. Open Trials winner Reef Heazlewood kept the dream run going, advancing over Yago Dora, Mikey Wright and Marco Giorgi. Then it was Moroccan-born Ramzi Boukhiam's turn to shine, as he overcame a savvy pack of Brazilians, including former world champ Adriano De Souza.
"I had a really bad start, but then I just switched it around and went to my backup strategy, which you have to have," Boukhaim said. "But, even then I took the wrong wave and the other guys had six-point rides so I waited for priority before that bomb came. I just surfed it the best I could and was able to breathe knowing my game plan paid off. I've been doing this for a few years now and I know I can do it, otherwise I would've quit a long time ago, but I know qualifying needs to happen soon -- I just need to figure out the finer details to really get there."
Kolohe Andino was the next San Clemente all-star to make his presence known at the U.S. Open. Attacking the inside reforms like it was a playful day at T Street, he vaulted onto of the scoreboard in the opening minutes and didn't let up until the heat was done and dusted.
"This is what I grew up in, summertime California surf, so that's what I've been surfing a bunch," Andino said after making his way up the beach. "I just showed up when Kei was winning his heat and he looked like he was ripping, and a couple of the boys are coming up later, so I'll stick around and check them out. We've all been surfing a bunch together lately. We've been getting each other all psyched trying to ride the worst waves possible."
"I felt like I was kind of catching a lot of waves, but I was in a pretty good rhythm and if I took my foot off the gas I would have started thinking about things too much," Gudauskas said afterwards.
By the time the contest wrapped for the day a number of the top seeds, including Cardoso, Kennedy, Matty Wilkinson, Josh Kerr and Wiggolly Dantas, had all been handed their walking papers. Meanwhile, the San Clemente crew and a handful of other international upstarts made the most of the only QS 10,000 on the American mainland.
The journey continues tomorrow with the next call at 8:00am. Stay tuned, things are starting to get interesting here in Huntington.