Ever since the first time he launched himself off the lip of one of those powerful peaks at Silver Strand Beach near his home in Oxnard as a 13-year-old, Tim Curran has loved to fly his surfboard.
"I really enjoy doing aerials," he said. "After I did that first one and fell, I've been hooked on them."
Curran's skill in the air has helped him soar up the ranks of pro surfing. In only his second year on the World Championship Tour, which features the sport's top 44 surfers, he rose to the No. 6 spot in the Assn. of Surfing Professionals ratings after the 1999 season.
Curran, 22, is one of the leaders of surfing's new wave--an X-Games generation of athletes who have incorporated snowboarding and skateboarding tricks into their on-the-swell repertoire--but his ranking, highest among surfers from the U.S. mainland, isn't because of a few flamboyant moves.
Those strong, wedgy waves of Ventura County did more than lift him skyward, they allowed him to develop a solid base of powerful, carving turns and cutbacks that are still the foundation of pro surfing today.
"He's considered a new-school surfer with a lot of tricks and aerials, and he's very good in small waves," said former world champion Ian Cairns, director of the Panasonic ShockWave surfing tour. "But he also has a strong fundamental base and the talent to come good at places like [Banzai Pipeline]. He has to be considered a contender to become No. 1 because of his ability and the fact he's already proven he can win."
Curran flashed his brilliance across the world's best waves often last year, winning two of 13 WCT events, the Japan Pro and the French T&C Lacanau Pro. Not unlike his typical trip along a wave face, the season was an up-and-down ride. He also lost in the first round four times, but still managed to end up sixth thanks to the two victories and three other top-10 finishes.
Ups and Downs
If Curran was looking for a bit more consistency in 2000, he's still searching. After two WCT events this year, he has an eighth-place finish and has finished last, losing in the first round at the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach in Australia. "I kept falling off," he said, sheepishly. "I don't know what was going on."
He hopes to get back on board this week at one of his favorite spots, Lower Trestles in San Clemente. Curran begins defense of his 1999 title today at the MCD Defcon 4, a Panasonic ShockWave Tour world-qualifying series event that runs through Saturday.
The WCT format, which consists of mainly one-on-one, do-or-die competition, can make for some surprising results. Curran said he lost in the first round of an event in Tahiti last year while surfing the best heat of his life because "the other guy was on too and he got the better waves."
In his quest for the kind of consistency it will take to win a world title, Curran will also need to discover the perfect balance between old-school essence and new-age flash.
"Right now, surfing is in a weird and changing time," he said. "There are guys doing lots of aerials and huge moves and guys who aren't doing any at all. I'm trying to concentrate on my surfing as a whole, because the best guys of today are doing both.
"Personally, I think the older school of surfing, the big carves, the surfing on the rail, will always play a part because there's so much soul in surfing. That style will always be around because it's so pleasing to watch.
"We've all been trying to figure out a fair way to judge surfing as it changes. Is one huge maneuver worth more than a number of big, hard cutbacks? It's difficult, but the judges do a great job and in the end, the best surfer usually wins. Kelly Slater won six world titles in a row, didn't he?"
He's only 22, but Curran has carried the burden of being pegged as the next Kelly Slater--the surfing equivalent of being hyped as the next Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods--for a long time.
When he was 17, he entered a pro-am contest at Ventura's C Street and shocked everyone with a third-place finish and his ability to pull off huge moves. The next thing he knew, he was on a photo shoot for Surfer magazine in Fiji with veterans Pat O'Connell and Shane Dorian and subsequently featured in a two-page photo spread in the magazine. Then came a surf video and a flood of sponsors . . . and a lot of pressure.
"He was hyped as the next guy, which is a tough place to put yourself in," Slater told The Times in 1998. "And everyone knows he has a big-money contract."
By the time he had turned 18, Curran had arrived at an almost unimaginable decision. He was ready to quit the pro surfer gig. He was losing almost every heat and after suffering three first-round losses and a severe case of homesickness during a trip to Europe, he returned home with the intention of staying put and wowing the locals at Oxnard.