“This year has been super fun,” said Vans US Open of Surfing Announcer Ryan Simmons, a reflective wistfulness deepening his ever-spritely tone. It was the final heat in the final showdown of the competition in Huntington Beach: Brazilian Yago Dora sought to claim victory over Cinderella-story Australian Liam O’Brien, who in an official press release by the World Surf League (WSL) was described as “one of the Vans US Open’s most insatiable dark horses to date.”
A win by O’Brien may have made for the more journalistically juicy narrative but Dora’s 8.60 score on an impressive air-reverse that bulleted the boarder to the North side of the Huntington Beach Pier proved fatal to the upstart Aussie. (Dora also claimed the day’s top-scoring wave with a 9.27 in an earlier heat.) In the end, the Brazilian earned his first-ever Qualifying Series (QS) 10,000 win.
“It feels so incredible right now and I just want to thank everyone who showed up today — it’s just amazing to surf in front of a huge crowd,” Dora said. “It gets me fired up to do my best and that’s what I did today. I gave everything I had and it worked out for me. I just want to congratulate all the finalists and especially Liam, he’s been surfing amazing.”
Less than an hour before Dora was lifted in his champion’s beach chair, a historic women’s finals wrapped up, pitting local Courtney Conlogue (USA) against Ojai, Calif. native Sage Erickson. The 2019 event marked the first-ever QS 10,000 for the women, which meant the female contestants would be paid exactly as much as the men. (During a small press conference on Wednesday, Conlogue noted how “incredible” it was to receive equal payment. “We’re one of the first sports to do that and to have surfing be the one paving the way and pioneering that is pretty amazing,” she said.)
As the tide waxed and waned, sets inconsistently rolling through the shore, and thousands of frothing fans watched from the crowded Huntington Beach pier and shoreline, the latter speckled with checkered umbrellas and rainbow towels, bikinis and unused boards, the smell of sunscreen and the brine of salty sea.
Ultimately, the Central California surfer reigned supreme over her Southern California counterpart, as Erickson beat Conlogue with one of the day’s best performances—a 15.43 out of a possible 20 total in the heat.
Despite her triumphant surfing, for Erickson the No. 1 spot was bittersweet. “I shed a lot of tears when I came in from the water and I just want to say this is dedicated to my grandma who passed two weeks ago,” she said. “It’s crazy how it takes someone to leave for everything they’re about to really set in. A lot of the lessons and things she believed in me, I have to speak over myself here for a second for her and it’s just about the people you value in your life. Whether it’s your friends or your family or even the people you can make a mark on and encourage.”
This year’s nine-day event proved a worthy celebration of the world’s best action sports talent in surfing, skateboarding and BMX. Additional surf victors for the weekend were Kade Matson (USA) and Caitlin Simmers (USA), winning the WSL Men’s and Women’s Pro Junior events, respectively, on Saturday afternoon. The Vans Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational also crowned its respective winners Justin Quintal (USA) and Kelis Kaleoppa (HAW), longboarded across a sometimes-swelling ocean with stunning finesse.
This year, the event also featured artisans of a different kind: Along with the impressive global enterprises onsite (like Vans, Swatch and the like) were local makers and shakers, selling handcrafted wares and well-honed services in the Van Doren Village street market.
Vendors this year included: Burger Records, Deadbeat Club, Vinyl Solutions, Leon Was Here, Eagle & Pig, Upton Home, Skateism and Seea Swimwear. Many street market sellers also led creative workshops on topics ranging from photography, publishing, surf cyanotype printing to button-making and more. Photo zine collective Deadbeat Club had seven free magazines for the taking, featuring visionary photographers whose work transcended the soft, off-white paper with every page flip. Haircuts Eagle & Pig offered gentlemen cuts and/or shaves between sets. The vibe was feel-good and unwaveringly upbeat.
Elsewhere, imagination abounded in neatly displayed form; artist Chris Johanson built a color-splashed shack to house the boards for the Duct Tape Festival; Skating icon Ed Templeton created sculptures from sand. Karina Rozunko of Golden State Glassing shaped boards in a checkered tee as onlookers watched. Even the logo this year was given a graffiti-esque treatment, drawn more doodly than defined.
The experience of creative expression on land and in water punctuated all nine days, and as the waves broke and champions were crowned, Huntington Beach rode out yet another successful competition on another summer day.