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Luke Egan: Australian for Victory

Surfing: He overcomes Slater and fellow Aussie Campbell for his first tour title in two years.

September 11, 2002|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a Fosters beer in one hand and an Australian flag draped over his shoulder, a beaming Luke Egan, still carrying his surfboard, scampered up the rocks and into the interview area, where he made sure to thank those who really deserved it.

"I want to thank all the locals for letting us come in and rip up their spot for the past several days," he said, receiving a loud round of applause.

Egan then was escorted to the awards ceremony, where he was given $30,000 for beating fellow Aussie Michael Campbell in the final of the $285,000 Boost Mobile Pro at Lower Trestles near San Clemente.

Ripping up Lower Trestles has been the order of the day since it began last Thursday, as swells from Mexico and New Zealand kept sets of large and perfectly shaped right-breaking waves pulsating in daily.

Tuesday was no exception, the faces of many waves measuring 10 feet or higher. Still, Egan, 32, one of the more gregarious surfers on the Assn. of Professionals' World Championship Tour, had to negotiate through a field of surfing's biggest stars to win his first WCT event in two years.

Among those obstacles was the sport's most decorated athlete, Kelly Slater, a six-time world champion trying to surf his way back into competitive form after taking a three-year break from the tour.

Egan, who had defeated Slater in the first round, met him again in Tuesday's semifinal round and won, largely on a strategy that involved paddling into any waves that came his way. Slater, meanwhile, waited for the larger waves and was the victim of one of the longest lulls of the contest. Egan posted modest scores on the smaller waves and Slater fell on the only large wave that came his way.

"I didn't want to go out there and surf three-foot waves," Slater said, visibly disappointed. "I wanted to catch the five-footers that were rolling in before my heat. I waited and watched for an hour before my heat and there were plenty of big sets. Then, I'm out there for 12 minutes waiting and I figured the ocean would start coming alive at any time but ... "

But it didn't. Slater settled for a third-place tie with Guilherme Herdy of Brazil. It was his best finish through six WCT events this year, but he was anything but happy.

After pounding, with his fist, a large dent into an aluminum garbage can under the contest tent, he proceeded to the surfers' tent, where he took out his anger on other inanimate objects.

Then, before the finals, Slater paddled back out to join in an "expression session" with the other pros and was the clear winner after pulling off a series of unbelievably difficult moves--among them two aerial rail-grabs and a carving 360-degree turn--on one of the larger waves.

Many of the other pros were visibly pleased by Slater's behavior, in and out of the water, because it reminded them of the fierce competitor they once knew and respected.

"I woke up all excited today because after [Monday's quarterfinals] I knew we had the real Kelly back," said Pat O'Connell, a Laguna Beach pro who had lost in the third round. "He even said last night that he felt it all over again--and that's what we all want to see."

What the crowd at Lower Trestles saw over the last six days was not only the best surf to have swept over the cobblestone-lined point break in decades, but the highest level of competition ever in California, contest director Mike Parsons said.

What the crowd did not see was an American get past the semifinals. One by one, the 13 U.S. surfers--two from Southern California; five from Hawaii--on the 46-man World Championship Tour roster fell, leaving Slater as their lone representative on Tuesday.

Slater, 30, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., was also among a small group of pro surfers taking part in a touching paddle-out ceremony to honor the victims of last Sept. 11.

During a 12-minute observance in which the ocean remained eerily calm, the surfers joined in a circle on their boards, cast leis and sprinkled some World Trade Center rubble into the Pacific.

Then, immediately after the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner," a large set of waves rolled in and the surfers proceeded to rip Lower Trestles anew before giving the break back to the finalists and, ultimately, the locals.

Who looked pretty good out there too.

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