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Lopez's Latest Triumph Has Many Witnesses

A crowd of about 85,000 at Huntington Beach watches Floridian use a variety of aerial maneuvers to win the U.S. Open of Surfing.

August 04, 2003|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Cory Lopez of Florida passed the surfing world's all-time gut check four months ago, dropping in on one of the deadliest waves ever. Lopez proved himself to a whole new cross section of fans Sunday at the Honda Element U.S. Open of Surfing, winning the men's title in front of what was believed to be the largest crowd ever to watch a surf contest in Huntington Beach.

Energized by the standing-room only crowd estimated around 85,000, Lopez posted a best-two-wave heat score of 16.60 to defeat Australian Taj Burrow (15.17). Reigning Assn. of Surfing Professionals world champion Andy Irons of Kauai, Hawaii, was third (10.94) and Santa Barbara's Bobby Martinez finished fourth (7.83).

Lopez, 26, who previously split time between San Clemente and his hometown of Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., said the noise produced by the crowd, which overflowed the beach, the grandstands and the pier, was unlike anything he had ever experienced in competition.

"We surf all around the world, and I've never seen a crowd like this," said Lopez, who earned $15,000 for the victory. "It felt like I was at a professional basketball game or something."

As Lopez left the water after the victory, an advertising banner hung from the pier above him. The banner showed Lopez dropping in on a 25-foot wave last April at Teahupo'o in Tahiti. It was the first time Lopez had been towed into a wave on a watercraft. Even more impressive, he navigated the gigantic wall of water without straps anchoring his feet to the board.

Lopez had surfed another titanic wave at the Billabong Pro at Teahupo'o in 1999, and he won the event in 2001, but his stylish victory at the U.S. Open of Surfing should make him even more popular to surf fans. Lopez said his flashy style was meant as much for the judges as the spectators.

"If you want to win this event, you have to surf backward, forward and try to get speed out of nothing," Lopez said.

The conditions were ideal leading up the final. Waves averaged three to five feet, and a light wind allowed them to hold their form.

After Burrow scored a 7.17 out of a possible 10 on his first wave score of the final, Lopez opened with a score of 8.83, the ninth-best wave score of the week. Burrow slipped back in front with an 8.0, but Lopez followed up with scores of 7.23 and 7.77 to leave only Burrow in position to outscore him with about eight minutes left in the 30-minute final. With conditions deteriorating during the second half of the final, Burrow didn't have a chance.

"It was kind of junky conditions," Burrow said.

The waves set up well earlier in the day for an aerial display rarely seen at a Huntington Beach surf contest.

Lopez and Irons matched each other with several high-risk aerial maneuvers in the first semifinal. Martinez, 21, took to the air in the second semifinal, completing a spectacular, last-second maneuver to make it into the final. Martinez caught the right-hander near the pier with about 20 seconds left in the heat, nearly fell when his board slowed from catching a rail, then hit the last open section of the wave and lifted his board vertically out of the water. Judges awarded him an 8.17, advancing him into the last qualifying spot.

Rob Machado of Cardiff, who was forced to start competing on the event's opening day because of a late entry, made it through eight days of competition and 11 heats before he was eliminated in the first semifinal heat.

Kekoa Bacalso of Mililani, Hawaii, won the junior division for the second consecutive year.

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