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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS : Crestfallen

Knox Trying to Regain His Footing Among Surfing Elite After Fortunes Took a Header

July 16, 1999|PETE THOMAS

He made surfing history by conquering one of the largest waves ever ridden, but Taylor Knox says it was a different kind of wave that had him really wrestling with nerves.

The kind formed by 50,000 raucous baseball fans on hand to watch him throw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game two months ago between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres at Qualcomm Stadium.

"Throwing out that first pitch was the most nerve-racking thing I've ever done in my life, way more so than that big wave," the pro surfer recalled this week from his hotel room in Durban, South Africa, where he's competing in the Gunston 500.

But Knox delivered a strike, sat back and relished the moment as the baseball fans, watching the big screen, cheered his wild ride on a real wave in February 1998 at Todos Santos Island off Ensenada.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 17, 1999 Home Edition Sports Part D Page 2 Sports Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Outdoors--A photo of Taylor Knox surfing a 52-foot wave at Todos Santos Island in Friday's editions was inadvertently flopped. Todos Santos is a right break.

He won $50,000 and a good deal of fame by successfully negotiating the sheer face of that thunderous breaker, estimated to peak at a mind-boggling 52 feet.

It earned him a victory in the highly publicized K2 Big Wave Contest, a one-time promotional gig awarding the hefty purse to the person riding the biggest wave during the now infamous El Nino winter of 1997-98.

Knox was on top of the world, a celebrity even beyond surfing circles. He got to fly with the vaunted Blue Angels. He got to throw out the first ball at the Padre game, to his good friend and fellow surfer Trevor Hoffman.

"I sometimes use him as a source of inspiration," Knox said of the Padre reliever. "After all, he is one of the best closers in the game. Besides, it's just cool to surf with him."

Strange, that someone with the wherewithal to ride 50-foot waves and live to tell about it should find himself in need of inspiration.

But since winning the K2 contest things have not gone swimmingly for the 28-year-old Carlsbad resident, a well-rounded surfer with superstar ability who instead finds himself in the sport's version of the minor leagues--the World Qualifying Series.

After six years on the elite World Championship Tour, Knox failed to qualify for this year's WCT and is scratching his way through the lineups at venues around the world trying to earn enough WQS points to qualify for the world tour.

He can take a giant step toward that end in next week's Shockwave U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach Pier, a six-star WQS event offering competitors the largest points allocation of any American venue.

Knox was ranked fifth in points going into this weekend's Gunston Open. The top 16 at season's end qualify for next year's WCT, which boasts the world's top 44 surfers. The top 28 on the world tour automatically qualify for next year.

That Knox isn't competing with the likes of such wave-shredding stars as Mark Occhilupo, Damien Hardman, Shane Dorian, Sunny Garcia and Rob Machado this year has many within the surfing industry scratching their heads.

The former U.S. champion is known for his hard-driving, fluid style and quick, solid moves. He was the world's fifth-ranked surfer in 1995 and it seemed only a matter of time before he won a world championship.

"I always thought Taylor was world championship material, and it's still a mystery to me how he could fall out of the top 28," said Ian Cairns, a former surfing great and current event director for the Panasonic Shockwave Beach Games, which features the U.S. Open Monday through July 26 and culminates with the Gotcha Pro, a WCT contest July 28 through Aug. 1.

"I think he puts too much pressure on himself to get that 10-point ride, instead of just going out and ripping the wave, just surfing it," Cairns said. "That should be automatic, and yet he thinks he has to force himself to rip a wave. That would be my analysis."

Knox said he merely lacked motivation last year, but rotten luck also was a factor in his dropping down in class.

He was suffering from severe food poisoning at last year's U.S. Open and failed to advance out of the early rounds.

At the season-ending Pipeline Masters, at the famed break on the North Shore of Oahu, a strong showing would have earned him enough points to remain on the world tour, but he went over the falls with his board during practice and his fin sliced a tendon in his arm, knocking him out of the contest.

This year he started strongly in his bid to get back on the WCT. He won a four-star event in Australia in March and was leading in WQS points most of the spring until a broken foot suffered in a non-competitive session in May at Oceanside sidelined him for seven weeks, causing him to miss a six-star event in Europe.

"I had my toes bend all the way back to the top of my foot," he painfully recalled.

But at fifth place, he's still in good shape and he's returning home to a break he has mastered over the years. Winning the U.S. Open would be huge.

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