Flashback to the 2018 Vans US Open of Surfing

From the Vans US Open of Surfing press box, the shore at Huntington Beach is a labyrinth of bright umbrellas. To the right, the pier is lined with spectators hunched over the wooden barrier, fixed on the churning water below. Sometimes sheets of water are pitching fast toward the shore. Sometimes it’s flat. (“Lake Huntington” they call it when the big sets cease to roll.)

Inside our little press tent above the crowd, photographers adjust their tripods, change their lenses, banter like old friends. Reporters click their keyboards to write their stories for the legion of fans across the world who want to know.

When you sit at one of the stools facing the ocean, you can almost smell sunscreen and you can definitely smell sweat. Resident surfers come and go across your line of sight, their boards tucked under their arms. Others walk by, too, sometimes with a gleam in their eyes that speaks in unspoken desperation to the line-up of telephoto lenses.“He wants us to take a shot,” one photographer explained about a man with a shirt that read “k00k.” He had passed the press box four times now and with each go-around, the photographer made a show of capping his lens and ignoring the man’s eager glare.

We laughed and agreed he’s a “wanna-be Instagram star” then focused on the water, where the action was, for a moment, still at a lull. The press booth is a waiting game that has an ebb and flow like the tides; you wait for a set to roll in and between, fill your time listening to the announcers colorfully banter—“both surfers are itching to work on their portfolio of planes ”—or chat with whomever happens to sit by your side. Sometimes, you try one of the organic drinks from the large bins filled with ice. Sometimes, you eat a scone.

Then the competitors find their waves—“This set looks spicy” the announcer says—and the flurry of camera-snapping begins.

If the energy in the press box is set at an undulating buzz, it practically hums non-stop on finals day, when press pros strategize on how to get the perfect victory shot, the one that’ll run on magazine covers and websites as the iconic image depicting nine days of surf.

This year was no different, exacerbated by back-and-forth finals for the Women’s Championship Tour (CT) and Men’s Qualifying Series (QS).

As for the official results, the story played out in due theatrical form: San Clemente’s Courtney Conlogue pulled off a dramatic win against current Jeep Rankings Leader Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) and the paddle battle royale between newcomer Griffin Colapinto (USA) and the town’s own Kanoa Igarashi hurtled to a post-buzzer finish. Huntington Beach held its breath as scores came in: Would it be Griffin or Kanoa who would ride the tournament-nabbing wave? In the end, Kanoa pulled off the win with an 8.17 ride that put him over the top, also marking the first back-to-back US Open victory since Brett Simpson won the titles in 2008 and 2009.

Roaring and slapping the water, Kanoa took his sweet, sweet time leaving the ocean that gave him exactly what he wanted: the win. His friends joined him in the shallow surf, hugging him, shaking him and finally, to the beat of a roaring crowd, they hoisted Kanoa high in the air and sent him toward the main awards stage.

In a moment of pure joy, the earlier-spoken words of the announcers seemed truer than even before:

“It’s just happy people,” the announcer had remarked, hours earlier describing the idyllic scene at the beach. “There’s no fog, crystal clear water … I don’t think I’ve seen Huntington [Beach] as beautiful as it’s been today.”