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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Riding the Crest

After a Slow Start, Tim Curran of Oxnard is Beginning to Reach His Potential and Win the Hearts of Fans on the Pro Surfing Tour

July 30, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The boys want his autograph. The girls want their picture taken with him. So it takes a while for Tim Curran to work his way through the crowd.

Twenty years old, fresh out of Oxnard, Curran looks like he just threw on jeans and a sweater, a thin chain around his neck. This is the newest idol on the professional surfing tour.

All the proper credentials are in place. His quick feet and big aerials make him one of the top 40 surfers on the planet. His dark curls and precise features make him a natural for the magazines.

But there is something else about the kid.

Something about the way he moves, unassuming, not so much like a star, through fans that have gathered at the Op Pro this week. Something about the way he manages a smile for everyone who approaches.

"How ya doin'?" he asks quietly. "What's your name?"

*

Go back, all the way back to when Curran was 6 years old and his father, Tim Sr., took him for an early morning session.

"We looked across the parking lot and there was another kid getting out of a car," Tim Sr. said. "He had a brand new surfboard with all these stickers on it."

Tim Jr. had been surfing only a year and still was timid in the water. Not surprising for someone quiet by nature. But that morning, he paddled away from his father, all the way outside where the set waves broke.

"He was out to show that kid up," Tim Sr. said.

*

His life changed in an instant. Not really. But it seemed that way.

Curran was 17 years old, just another local hotshot, when he entered a 1995 pro-am at Ventura's C Street and shocked everyone, mostly himself, by taking third.

He was small--still hasn't grown past 5 feet 9--but he could throw huge maneuvers. A real crowd-pleaser.

The next thing he knew, Surfer magazine sent him to Tavarua in Fiji with established pros Shane Dorian and Pat O'Connell. A two-page color photograph showed him, a stick-figure deep in the barrel, with the caption: "As the trip's rookie grom, Oxnard's Timmy Curran didn't catch as many waves as the big stars. He just got the best ones."

"It was like 'Go, Timmy,' " O'Connell recalled. "At the end of the day, we were impressed."

Soon after, Taylor Steele put him in a video. And not just a few waves, like most newcomers.

"I got a full segment to myself," Curran said.

That brought sponsorships, good money from companies that made surf trunks and sunglasses and sneakers. That meant more trips around the world for photo shoots.

His mother, Debbie, recalls a contest official coming up and saying: "You don't even know how popular your son is."

Curran was having the time of his life.

"I got sucked up into this whole surfing world," he said. "All within six months."

*

The other surfers were waiting, like sharks, hungry to sink their teeth in.

"He was hyped as the next guy, which is a tough place to put yourself in," said Kelly Slater, a five-time world champion. "And everyone knew he had a big-money contract."

All this without winning a single contest or proving himself on big waves. Curran was a marked man when, at 18, he left home to join the 1996 World Qualifying Series, the minor leagues of pro surfing.

"Oh yeah," said Ian Cairns, a contest director and former tour star. "A lot of people were jealous."

They got their revenge. Curran hit the tour and started losing. Losing big. Losing in the first round, contest after contest.

"I think the other guys were happy," he said. "They were like, 'Now we know what he's got. He's got nothing.' "

The problem was nerves. Curran got jittery before every heat. He fell on waves when he should have been ripping. He hated the travel, too, always feeling sick, always complaining to his parents back home.

"My sponsors wanted to see me do good, but I wasn't doing good and it was driving me crazy," he said. "I felt like I let them down."

Everything seemed a blur--the weeks flying past in increments of disappointment.

"At 18, I was too young to be dealing with that," he said. "At 18, you're supposed to be having fun."

The breaking point came after a trip to Europe. Three contests, three first-round losses. Curran returned home and announced he needed some time off. He was leaving the tour.

"No," his father said.

Tim Sr. knew about competition. He was a pole vaulter at UCLA and his brothers were scholarship athletes in their day. He did not care if Timmy ever won a contest. But he would not allow his son to give up, not so soon.

"People have seen you do bad," Tim Sr. said. "Now you have nothing to lose."

He made a simple request.

"Just go to the next contest," he said. "Just go out and have fun."

*

It was all about faith, really. Curran needed to regain faith in himself, to reach back to a time before all the money and pressure.

Somewhere along the line, he lost sight of his Christian upbringing.

"I lost my focus," he said. "I needed to put a lot more of my faith back into God instead of thinking I could do everything myself."

As his mother put it: "Either you believe your faith will help you through or you don't."

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