From a first-ever team format in a World Surf League (WSL) event to the first time the Surf Ranch opened its doors to fans, the inaugural Founders' Cup of Surfing last weekend was one big experiment. It was also the realization of a vision that Kelly Slater began dreaming up more than a decade ago. As crowds flanked the gigantic playing field of a wave in Lemoore, California, perhaps no one was more in awe of the results than Slater himself.
"It feels surreal," he said, eyes wide as he took in the scene around him in the Ranch's board room. As the live broadcast streamed on a big screen in front of him on the couch, surfers from six-time World Champ Stephanie Gilmore to Brazilian up-and-comer Taina Hinckel lounged, chatted and laughed. Coaches, photographers and family members milled in and out, refilling water bottles and catching the latest heat scores.
"I just can't believe this, after all this time. I remember sitting down with a couple of the pros on Tavarua in 2005 and showing them this idea for making the wave and a couple of the guys said, ‘That would change everything, that would be so cool.' And all these things are finally coming together, it's hard to believe it's real."
Indeed, it has been a long road for Slater, who built a clothing brand, an energy drink company, and won his 11th World Title along the way. The unfurling of the Surf Ranch event, complete with the throngs of attendees, legendary surfers and some of the top athletes in the sport all together in this unlikely place for surf contest, was something of a launch party for his dream.
When asked why he set out on this path, all those years ago, he paused. "I don't know," he said. "It was something I thought I could accomplish. I felt like maybe I was the right person to get all the right people together to make it happen. I see myself as an ideas guy, but also having the network with the right people.
"Once we got Jeff [Bizzak], who is the main boss, he took the ball and ran with it. He just knew how to put all the pieces together. For me, it was finding the right people who knew all these things. Jeff's the guy to credit for making it happen. Without Jeff, it would never have happened."
While Slater was the weekend's party host, he was also the competitive host, for the USA team in the contest. California Championship Tour surfer Lakey Peterson was one of his mentees, of sorts, on the team. As she nervously awaited scores Sunday from rival team Brasil, she opined on the experience so far.
"It's nothing surfing's ever seen," she said. "To have the public come view it as a teams event, and taking the best surfers in the world from each country is super special. It feels like it's just the beginning of such a pivotal moment in surfing, and it's the beginning of something truly incredible.
"I think there are going to be a lost more wave pools in my future."
And although Lakey's USA team did not ultimately win the event, the team captain's guidance wasn't lost on her. "He's so precise and dissects things so well," she said of Slater's guidance. "He understands whatever each person needs -- like, ‘don't over-surf it if you don't need to,' if you just need a 6.50 or something for your score. Then banking your score takes pressure off for the next score. He's broken down each heat and what we need to do, and from there he gives us all advice. It's been great to have him as a team captain."
Heading into the Founders' Cup, the USA Team as well as the Brasil team were thought to be frontrunners for the win, considering their stacked rosters of World Champs and progressive powerhouses. And while they didn't win the event, CT surfer Silvana Lima helped put the pressure on, with a whopping 9.17 in the Final.
"I still can't believe it over here," she said afterwards, still dripping wet on the launch ramp and crowds erupted into cheers behind her. "This wave is so special, everybody over here [in Lemoore], it's like other sports [this weekend]. Like football, like skateboarding. It's so different, everybody is so happy to be here. For me, it's amazing! Like, I can't believe I'm here with all the best surfers, ever.
By the end of the Founders' Cup competition, however, it was a dark horse assemblage -- team World -- that ultimately came out on top. Tahitian Michel Bourez was one of the five who surfed for the winning World team. "We were lucky to surf here, especially at this time in our careers," he said. "It's really important to be part of this competition, and I'm super glad I've had the chance to surf with one guy from South Africa, one guy from Japan, one girl from South Africa, and another from New Zealand. We're part of the world, and we were the underdog and ended up winning the comp. That's what's up!"
Bourez's team captain, South African Jordy Smith, not only surfed one of the team's winning waves in the Final, with a 9.27, but also offered guidance on everything from nuances of the wave to how the wind was affecting it. Most of all, though, he was team cheerleader. His goal? "Making them feel as relaxed as possible," he said. "It was a really intense environment, with people on the sidelines and everything. Just keep reminding them to go out and have fun, this is what they do, and you do this because you love it."
The crowd factor impacted each surfer differently, but in an unscientific surfer survey, it was was both extra excitement and an especially bright spotlight.
"We surf in front of this many people [in other places], but I get more nervous here," said Peterson, from the USA team. "I don't if it's why I feel more pressure. Maybe because it's new and uncharted territory. But it's really cool and having the teams dynamic -- having the guys behind us and having Carissa [Moore on my team]. You're actually cheering for each other. Obviously. At all our other events it's very [independent]. Instead of thinking, "Fall, fall fall!," it's "Make it! Make it! Make it!."
Smith, too, was keenly aware of what the weekend -- complete with the crowds, the intense media attention and the experimentation -- meant not just for his team, but also for the sport. "[Kelly's] got to be very proud," he said. "It's been years and years of investment and thought and everything that's gone into it. It's taking surfing to the next level, and he's let us all be part of it."
Paige Hareb, who surfed on Smith's team (and helped get them to the Final, with her 7.43 in the tie-breaker heat), was even more succinct. "After this weekend, it's only going to get better and bigger."