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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO

Chasing a Dream

A Little Older, a Little Wiser, Ryan Simmons Maintains Dogged Pursuit of a WCT Berth

November 16, 2000|JOHN WEYLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ryan Simmons made a brief stop at home in Seal Beach last week before heading to the North Shore of Oahu for the final two World Qualifying Series surf contests of the year.

Kick back and enjoy a respite from the frenetic pace? Hardly.

His focus, as has been the case for much of the last six years, never wavered from The Chase.

"I asked him what he wanted for Christmas," said his mother, Mary, "and he said, 'I can't even think about that now, I have to focus on Hawaii.' "

Simmons, 26, began his career as a professional surfer shortly after his graduation from Los Alamitos High in 1992. Twice, he has come close to qualifying for the World Championship Tour--pro surfing's major leagues--and this year may be his best shot. A quarterfinal appearance or better in either the G-Shock Hawaiian Pro, currently under way at Haleiwa's Ali'i Beach Park, or the Rip Curl Cup, which begins Nov. 24 at Sunset Beach, would probably earn him a spot among the world's elite 44 on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' 2001 tour.

"For six years, I've been chasing those points," he said. "In '96, I came up five guys short of making it. And I was 17th last year before I had a couple of tough breaks at the end of the year. This year, I just see it happening."

He edged ever closer Wednesday, finishing second to advance out of his Round of 64 heat in seven- to nine-foot surf. A first- or second-place finish in the next round and he would be in the quarterfinals.

The top 28 surfers on the WCT automatically qualify for the tour next year. The top 16 on the WQS--discounting those who surfed on both tours and have already qualified through the WCT--move up. This year, it appears the final qualifier will be ranked either No. 19 or 20 on the WQS. Simmons is ranked 22nd going into the event at Haleiwa.

The next few weeks could mean the realization of a dream Simmons has clung to since he was 12, but it certainly won't be the end of that dream if he doesn't qualify.

"I plan to do this until I'm 33 or 34 because I'm just getting better every year," he said. "If I don't make it this year, I'll be back on the 'QS next year with all cylinders firing.

"I mean, I'm easily among the top 10 or so best surfers from the U.S. [mainland]. I've made it at least to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open four out of the last five years, but nobody has ever heard of me.

"A few years ago I had a problem with it. I really wanted fame and success, but I've learned a lot about myself since then. I've gained a lot of perspective over the years."

Work Comes in Waves

Living good is one thing--traveling the globe to ride the best waves on the planet often in lush, exotic settings beats most forms of labor--but making a good living is entirely another. Simmons says he will spend $18,000 to $20,000 on travel expenses this year. So far, he has won $15,000 in prize money. Add the modest salary he makes from his sponsors--firms such as fledgling Huntington Beach surf-wear manufacturer Mindless Reaction--and he's hoping to hit the $30,000 mark in earnings this year.

"The big surf companies in America seem to want one big name that they're willing to pay like $80,000 a year and then have some other team surfers they'll give like $200 a month," Simmons said. "It doesn't make sense to me that they wouldn't rather have three top guys at like $30,000, but that's the way it is right now."

So maybe Simmons, who has made $75,775 in six years on the WQS circuit, can keep his savings in a mayonnaise jar, but he would rather stay in The Chase than build a stock portfolio.

"I guess every parent would like their children to go to college and Ryan is such a bright kid," Mary Simmons said. "But as long as he's doing something that makes him happy and supporting himself, we're happy for him."

Surfers such as Oxnard's Tim Curran and Hawaii's Andy Irons exploded on the surf scene as teenagers and now have triple-figure sponsor salaries to rely on. Simmons has had to take another route, a trek a less-determined competitor might not believe is worth the time or effort.

Simmons was a superstar as a junior and in 1992 he just missed amateur surfing's Triple Crown. He was the National Scholastic Surfing Assn.'s Open Men's season champion, Explorer Men's national champion and Open Men's national runner-up.

Victories have been considerably harder to come by while progressing up the ranks of pro surfing, so Simmons has fallen back on what he does best: grind out the results.

"I worked with Ryan a few years ago when he was sponsored by a firm I was working for at the time," said Bill Sharp, publisher of Costa Mesa-based Surf News. "We'd go to the North Shore for a photo shoot and he took everything very seriously. He was the first guy in the water and the last one out.

"He was great to be around, no obnoxious surf superstar chip on his shoulder like so many of those guys, and he was willing to spend time in the water really concentrating on getting better."

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