Crashing waves, got 'em. Churning surf, check. Piles of eager bodies, itching to toss themselves into the waves rolling down this vast southern California beach – absolutely. It's as perfect as any Hollywood movie. As this surfer's paradise readies for the onslaught this weekend of some 400,000 people expected for the Honda US Open of Surfing, excited voices mingle in the cool, Pacific air. This is one of the two top US surfing contests – the other is in Hawaii – and nearly 500 of the world's hottest competitors will vie for the sport's biggest prizes over the next 10 days.
But, it is also a perfect sport for the bench-warmer enthusiast, for one simple reason. "It's the only world-class sport on the planet that's completely free," says Mike Kingsbury, US Open spokesperson. It's not practical to fence in the nearly 12 acres of beachfront needed for the event, he explains. And, then of course, there's the fact that California beaches – at least up to the water line – belong to the public.
Surfing may not be the first sport on the minds of those hunting for high-class athletics. But Mr. Kingsbury says the sport's profile has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Ten years ago, only 100 athletes showed up to compete, and the current combined purse of $185,000 stood at half as much. He attributes the growth to a coming of age among the amateur ranks. The guys and girls who rode the endless summer waves back in the '70s and '80s are coming back to the sport with their families. As a result, while the pro sport has been consolidating among a few top competitions, the number of amateur events around the country has exploded.
"This is a great family sport," agrees Tim Wingard, who has been surfing for some 50 years. He teaches inner city kids as part of the outreach program for the Malibu Board Riders just up the coast. The tanned 60-something surfer says the sport has evolved from its early days.
"Back when I started out it, surfing had a bad name," he says with a laugh. "If you were a surfer, you were a bum." Now, he adds, it's all about families and good, clean fun in the sun. The club has its own Malibu event this weekend as well.
"We've got everybody competing now," says Wingard, "from ages 8 to 80."
Back at Huntington Beach, clean-cut young surfers such as Ely Santos crowd the beach, angling for the best waves. With a shrug of disdain, Mr. Santos says he is much more than a "weekend surfer." He explains the lure of the sport.
"The soul of surfing is freedom," says Santos, standing atop the historic Huntington Beach pier as the 1968 Steppenwolf anthem, "Born to be Wild" plays in the background. Hollywood couldn't have said it better.