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X Games surfing goes for a new format

International challenge won't draw all the world's best to Mexico, but many will be there, including women for the first time.

July 03, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

PUERTO ESCONDIDO, MEXICO — U.S.A. versus the world.

That's how the ESPN X Games is billing its surfing competitions, which will be taped here this week and then broadcast from Aug. 2-5.

The international concept is compelling, but rosters reveal world teams laden with Australians and a U.S. women's squad that's almost exclusively Hawaiian.

And if it's the X Games' mission to showcase only the best action sports athletes, then where is eight-time world champion Kelly Slater; where are the Hobgood twins and Irons brothers, or Australians Mick Fanning and Taj Burrow?

Answer: high in the Foster's ASP World Tour standings and too busy traveling between contests to squeeze in a comparatively meaningless side trip to this far-flung mainland fishing village.

But trivialities aside, some of the world's best surfers are here and this may become the most entertaining X Games surfing production yet.

The new format, after four years of East Coast versus West Coast, has broadened the event's scope and allowed for more intriguing story lines.

And the inaugural women's competition brings its own allure, especially if Zicatela Beach, a.k.a. the Mexican Pipeline, lives up to its reputation as a wickedly hollow, punishing beach break.

"I want it to be the size where it is the most fun to surf -- big," says Santa Ana's Courtney Conlogue, the Southland's lone female representative and one of two 14-year-olds on the U.S. women's team.

Small town, big barrels

The X Games introduced surfing in 2003 as a live competition at Huntington Beach Pier, utilizing a game format designed by pro surfer Brad Gerlach.

Teams of six -- four starters and two subs -- take turns in the lineup during a three-period game. Individuals keep their highest wave score, and the team with the highest total wins.

In 2003 and 2004, the waves were small and wind-blown, so the competition moved to Puerto Escondido, in the state of Oaxaca, where in July cavernous barrels are almost as predicable as sweltering heat.

In 2005, in four- to eight-foot surf, the East walloped the West as hundreds of locals cheered. The West won last year, and it was decided that only the concept required tweaking.

"This is a great opportunity for X Games viewers to see that surfing doesn't begin and end with WCT surfers," X Games General Manager Chris Stiepock says, abbreviating what was formerly the World Championship Tour.

"Sure, we'd love to have Slater, the Ironses and the Hobgoods, but surfing in Puerto with the men and women we have will not suffer at all -- it will be electric."

The U.S. squad is headed by premier non-touring surfers Rob Machado of Cardiff, and Jamie O'Brien, who lives near the original Pipeline on Oahu's North Shore.

One ASP World Tour athlete, Chris Ward, will compete for the U.S. along with fellow San Clemente aerial specialist Shane Beschen; Clay Marzo of Hawaii; and Peter Mendia of Florida.

The world team is anchored by ASP World Tour surfers Mick Campbell and Raoni Monteiro, from Australia and Brazil, and 2006 world junior champion Julian Wilson, from Australia.

Also listed: Rizal Tanjung (Indonesia), Mar Ohno (Japan) and Jay Quinn (New Zealand).

Ladies day

The inclusion of a women's game has generated the following subplots:

* Legendary personalities Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley as opposing coaches. The former is a four-time world champion and the inspiration behind the Roxy brand. The latter is a seven-time champion from Australia who, until Andersen retired, seemed always to be surfing in her rival's shadow.

"Our rivalry has moved out of the water, more or less," Andersen says. "But it'll be fun for the sport; something new."

* The women's rosters are loaded with touring pros. Anchoring the world team are Chelsea Hedges and Sofia Mulanovich, world champions in 2005 and 2004, respectively, and rookie sensation Stephanie Gilmore.

Hedges and Gilmore, from Australia, are ranked Nos. 1 and 2. Mulanovich, from Peru, is No. 3.

* The U.S. women's team has five surfers from Hawaii and Conlogue. Four are ASP World Tour veterans whose best days are behind them, but they have considerable big-wave experience.

Keala Kennelly, who was in "Blue Crush" and is now a regular in the HBO series "John From Cincinnati," is best-known in surfing circles for tucking into perilous tubes.

However, it can be argued that the best surfers on the U.S. squad are Carissa Moore and Conlogue, separated in age by only two days, amateur sensations who may someday rule the sport as Andersen and Beachley once did.

But this week there is no talk of rivalry, as there is the more pressing matter of conquering the world.

"It's the first time women have been in the event, so it's cool I get to be there," Conlogue says, humbly. "And I'm very excited to have someone my age on my team. I'll enjoy hanging out and surfing with her."

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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