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Women have the X factor in surfing debut

July 05, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

For opposing coaches, it was a familiar story. All Lisa Andersen had to do was show up to beat Layne Beachley.

But a resumption of that once-fierce rivalry among surfing's greatest female champions was far overshadowed by the performances of today's brightest stars in treacherous surf at Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

On a steamy Wednesday morning at Zicatela Beach, the United States, buoyed by the tube-riding expertise of Hawaii's Melanie Bartels, posted a 55-52 victory over a stacked "World" squad. It was a fitting triumph for Red, White and Blue on the Fourth of July.

Bartels and her fellow Hawaiians, along with 14-year-old Courtney Conlogue of Santa Ana, kicked off the 2007 X Games with a bang and afterward waved towels patterned after Old Glory.

But the real victor, perhaps, was the sport itself, as viewers will see when the surfing airs on ESPN during live programming of the rest of the action sports festival Aug. 2-5 in Los Angeles. (The men compete today.)

Aside from the close finish, there were wipeouts and barrel rides that reveal just how far women's surfing has progressed.

Such widespread skill and bravado did not exist when Andersen was winning consecutive world titles from 1994 to '98, before passing the torch to Beachley, who won the next six and last year won a seventh.

"What a complete rush," said an exuberant Andersen, who missed a connecting flight and did not arrive in Puerto Escondido until Tuesday evening. "I haven't felt this feeling since I won a contest back in 2001."

Indeed, trepidation among X Games brass regarding bringing women into the surfing fold at such a dangerous break proved for naught.

Moments after the event began, Hawaii's Rochelle Ballard took off late, grabbed her rail, then stood erect inside a tube as if to issue a statement.

"It was like, 'What, you didn't think we could?' " said Brad Gerlach, sport organizer and designer of the format. "It was a moment for women's surfing that was just brilliant."

The format features teams of four -- plus two subs -- taking turns in the lineup during three periods of play. Each team counts its athletes' highest individual score in each period toward the final score.

Coaches bark commands. There are referees, timeouts and trash-talking, generating an electric atmosphere nonexistent on the pro tour.

"If it wasn't for my teammates and the coaching staff cheering me on or directing me, I probably wouldn't have found those insane barrels," said Bartels, a world tour competitor who had a game-high overall score of 18.5.

Ballard scored a 7.0 on her opening ride, and Bartels disappeared long inside a right-handed barrel, then emerged still standing for an 8.5.

The U.S. led after the first period, 25.5-20, and a team led by former world champions Chelsea Hedges and Sofia Mulanovich had to play catch-up.

The Aussie-laden squad entered the bottom half of the third trailing, 55-35.5, and in the final minute required only three points to upend the U.S.

Stephanie Gilmore, needing a 7.1 to replace her 4.0 and give her team the gold, had the best chance on a towering left-hander but failed to get covered up and the effort fell short.

But based on the overall effort, there is bound to be a rematch next summer.

Thomas reported from Los Angeles.

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