Rob Machado

Rob Machado hits a forehand winner and in the process nearly beans his daughter Rose in the head. The restless two year old is shinning up and down Daddy’s arms and legs like they’re monkey bars, handicapping Rob’s alleged Ping-Pong skills. “Did you see that?” Rob exclaims, rubbing Rose’s forehead. “That was sooo close. Don’t tell Mom.”

Rob is on kid patrol while wife Patou is nurturing her new beauty-products boutique called Rougir, in Del Mar, California. Between Pong rallies, I’m here to find out why one of surfing’s best and most respected athletes went from a Pipe Masters hero and number three on the WCT in 2000, to dead last in 2001, to a virtual nonentity on the pro scene. The short version is simple and well-known: Machado surfed only two WCT events in 2001 due to his own injuries and complications with his wife’s pregnancy (there were only five WCT contests total because of 9/11), and failed to secure an injury wildcard for the 2002 season. The long version is way more complicated.

When the question is finally asked, he pauses for a long time, and you can almost see the entire weight of his career pressing down on his forehead. “It’s so long gone now, I almost don’t want to talk about it, you know? You move on … if you would have asked me right after it happened, I was probably more bitter and would have said some bad shit.” He pauses some more. “Now? Sure, I’ll tell you what happened with the whole tour thing, but just the facts.”

What happened is this: 2000 was a good year for Rob Machado. Basking in the glow of wins in France and Portugal, capped by a bravado performance at epic Pipe that propelled him to third in the world—Machado had the momentum necessary to make his most serious run at the world title in 2001. By virtue of his high seeding, Machado drew wildcard Kelly Slater in the first round of 2001’s first event at Bells, lost, and left with thirty-third place. Two days before the second contest at Teahupo‘o, Machado broke his hand surfing near his house—no Tahiti and six weeks in a cast. On the mend, he mustered an equal seventeenth in Brazil. Next contest: J-Bay. Three days before leaving, Rob went in with Patou for a routine pregnancy check. The doctors told them to have a specialist perform an amniocentesis, the surgical insertion of a hollow needle into the uterus to determine abnormalities. “It was a heavy time, since it was our first baby,” recalls Machado. “We couldn’t see the doctor ’til the next week. I was supposed to leave, but my wife was a wreck, and amnios have been known to cause miscarriages. It was way too heavy, so I decided not to go to the contest to make sure everything was cool.”

Everything turned out cool with Patou and Rose, but Machado’s chances for an elusive world title were effectively nil by that point. The lone highlight came with a win at the six-star U.S. Open at Huntington Beach. With 9/11, the European leg was canceled, and the ASP limped to Hawai‘i for the season-ending WCT at Sunset beginning on November 26. A healthy Rose was born on November 14, and Machado opted to stay home with his first daughter, thus missing Sunset. “Out of five events I surfed in two, so I didn’t even consider it a year on the tour,” says Machado. More importantly, he missed a pivotal meeting in Hale‘iwa that would, for the time being at least, end his WCT career.

Before Rose was born, Machado began researching how to apply for an injury wildcard for 2002. “There didn’t seem to be any set guidelines as to what you had to do, so I was kind of mixed up. At the same time, my head wasn’t there, either—my wife was ready to have a baby any minute. I typed up a letter to be read at a meeting, and it was super-straightforward, just laid out the facts: thirty-third at Bells, broke my hand, pregnancy difficulties, Brazil, and baby—there’s year.”

Machado e-mailed the letter to the ASP hierarchy, assuming his case would be represented in his absence. The year-end meeting in Hale‘iwa to determine the next season’s wildcard was a “surfer’s meeting,” similar to meetings Machado has been to in the past, attended by many of the WCT pros and hopefuls vying for coveted spot on the Top 46. “I was told somebody stood up and read my letter, I still don’t know who. From what I’ve heard, guys were asking questions, and who was there to answer for my case? People were asking why I wasn’t doing WQS events, basically bagging on my request. I wasn’t there to hold my ground, voice my opinion, or say what I did was right or wrong. But that’s all hearsay, I don’t know what really went down.”

Machado says he was never told the result of his wildcard request. Subsequent requests to the ASP went unanswered. “I wanted to see who was at the meeting, who voted, what were the results of the tally,” he says. “You would think I’d get that information. No way, no one had it.”

In hindsight, Machado says he would have flown to Hawai‘i for the day and back if that’s what it took to make his case. “It should be straight out in the rule book—if you want to apply for an injury wildcard, you have to be there at the meeting, unless you’re bedridden in the hospital.”

In early December, with Patou able to care for their newborn, Machado flew to Hawai‘i for the Pipe Masters, still unaware of his WCT status. “It was weird, like, everybody knew but you . I’d check the waves at Pipe and see guys and talk to them, and they wouldn’t look me in the eye. I vaguely remember bumping into Sarge on Ke Nui, just this little alley, and he’s the guy who tells me.” Introducing Rob Machado—leper.

Time has healed the initial burn, but the scars remain. “This was something I did for ten years. I spent a lot of time and effort to try and make professional surfing better, you know? I was trying to make it exciting and take it to another level. Then all of a sudden you’re dusted off, gone,” Rob remembers. “At first I felt totally betrayed. I was super bent, bitter … I didn’t even want to look at certain people. I thought about appealing the whole thing, ask for another vote, this and that. Then I started feeling like the crybaby, like, ‘It didn’t go my way, let’s do it again.’ I started going through all that. I wrote letters but never sent any of them, just hate mail. It was good therapy. I came back from Hawai‘i, it was January here, Rose was a month old, and I sat around and thought about it. That’s when I accepted it.”

Another surfer seeking an injury wildcard at the Hale‘iwa meeting was Dan Malloy, a WQS surfer on track to qualify for the WCT until dislocating his shoulder. Malloy attended the meeting despite knowing his chances were slim to none, compared to the two front-runners, Machado and Shane Dorian, who hurt his foot before the Sunset contest and showed up at the meeting wearing a leg brace. “Everyone got up and gave their reasons why they should make the tour,” recalls Malloy. “I can’t even remember exactly if Rob’s letter was read out loud, it was that insignificant. And that was the problem. I don’t think Rob was notified on how important that meeting was. If Rob were there, he would have gotten the wildcard, that’s my opinion. But presentation is everything. Shane was there with a leg brace, he was hurt. Someone may have read Rob’s letter in a subtle way … someone might have said, ‘I don’t know if Rob is even that psyched to do the tour. Is he really into it?’ Other guys were putting up a good argument for why they should get the wildcard, and Rob’s argument was basically someone else saying he’s not really into it.”

Another WCT mainstay, Ross Williams, also knows what went down at the Hale‘iwa meeting, although he chose to stay away. “Shane and Rob are two of my best friends, so I wanted to stay out of it. Shane asked me to be there, but I didn’t go. There were a handful of candidates, a couple Brazilians, a couple Aussies, people had some pretty heavy injuries. Personally, I thought it was bizarre that the wildcard was awarded to Shane, because he hurt his foot at the end of the year and didn’t miss any contests. There were others who missed half a year, like Rob, who broke his hand and then had a baby, a pretty damn good excuse, I thought. From what I heard, they thought Rob didn’t want it.” Williams continues, “He didn’t do any WQSs to back up his misses on the ’CT. He could have easily done some ’QSs to requalify, but he chose not to. That was the stand they took. Shane was committed to the tour, he even surfed Sunset with a hurt foot. It came down to who was more amped. They had a case. Rob might have been too relaxed about it, but he had very valid excuses. And if you compare it to Shane, it was a tough call, but I would have chosen Rob in that case.”

ASP President Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew has become weary of all the ASP bashing and conspiracy theories in the wake of the Machado wildcard incident. Rabbit says Rob was undone as much by 9/11 as he was by his own peers. “That day brought the European WCT leg to a grinding halt. Americans were not flying, and the rest of the surfers stuck by the Americans. There was no way the ASP was going to wipe the Americans off the front page of the ratings and probably out of the WCT by going ahead without them. One of the dilemmas was that for anyone relying on the European leg to make up ground, that opportunity evaporated. Rob was in that boat. Rob raged back by winning the U.S. Open, but I guess he made the decision to not surf the WQS in Europe and hinge his WCT qualification on a brilliant European campaign, and he needed one. He was in about forty-fifth place, but if anyone could pull out a purple patch in Europe, it’s Rob Machado.”

As for the wildcard, Rabbit says they’re issued by the surfers only: “They are in the best position, having toured all year and seen the effects of injuries on guys’ campaigns. Over the years, the surfers have approached this important task with integrity and scrutiny, and no injury wildcard choice has been challenged at board level.”

Rabbit admits the year 2001 was different. With only five contests, the re-qualification system was in shambles. A contingency plan was assembled, and three wildcards were available: two went to the number 28 and 29 surfers in the year-end rankings, and one for an injury.

“It must have been a very tough decision for the surfers,” Rabbit recounts. “At the end of the day the wildcard was granted to Shane Dorian. It must have been a line-ball decision between two great surfers, either of whose absence from the WCT would raise eyebrows. Shane had injured himself at Pipe days before the season-ending Rip Curl Cup at Sunset. He needed to advance through one heat to qualify, and although the surfers don’t provide written rationale for their decisions, I guess they deemed Shane’s case to be stronger, perhaps based on probability.”

On one hand the situation was a no-brainer. Whether he was into it or not, what surfer in his right mind would willingly vote to compete against Machado for a whole year?

“They should never have competitors vote for who they’re going to be competing against,” says perennial WCT Top Ten finisher Shane Beschen, who at the time of this writing leads the WQS rankings in his bid to re-qualify after falling off the elite tour in 2000. “You think they would want to vote me or Rob back on the tour? Hell no. It’s a flawed system.”

On the other hand, this was Machado, one of the two biggest surfing superstT mainstay, Ross Williams, also knows what went down at the Hale‘iwa meeting, although he chose to stay away. “Shane and Rob are two of my best friends, so I wanted to stay out of it. Shane asked me to be there, but I didn’t go. There were a handful of candidates, a couple Brazilians, a couple Aussies, people had some pretty heavy injuries. Personally, I thought it was bizarre that the wildcard was awarded to Shane, because he hurt his foot at the end of the year and didn’t miss any contests. There were others who missed half a year, like Rob, who broke his hand and then had a baby, a pretty damn good excuse, I thought. From what I heard, they thought Rob didn’t want it.” Williams continues, “He didn’t do any WQSs to back up his misses on the ’CT. He could have easily done some ’QSs to requalify, but he chose not to. That was the stand they took. Shane was committed to the tour, he even surfed Sunset with a hurt foot. It came down to who was more amped. They had a case. Rob might have been too relaxed about it, but he had very valid excuses. And if you compare it to Shane, it was a tough call, but I would have chosen Rob in that case.”

ASP President Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew has become weary of all the ASP bashing and conspiracy theories in the wake of the Machado wildcard incident. Rabbit says Rob was undone as much by 9/11 as he was by his own peers. “That day brought the European WCT leg to a grinding halt. Americans were not flying, and the rest of the surfers stuck by the Americans. There was no way the ASP was going to wipe the Americans off the front page of the ratings and probably out of the WCT by going ahead without them. One of the dilemmas was that for anyone relying on the European leg to make up ground, that opportunity evaporated. Rob was in that boat. Rob raged back by winning the U.S. Open, but I guess he made the decision to not surf the WQS in Europe and hinge his WCT qualification on a brilliant European campaign, and he needed one. He was in about forty-fifth place, but if anyone could pull out a purple patch in Europe, it’s Rob Machado.”

As for the wildcard, Rabbit says they’re issued by the surfers only: “They are in the best position, having toured all year and seen the effects of injuries on guys’ campaigns. Over the years, the surfers have approached this important task with integrity and scrutiny, and no injury wildcard choice has been challenged at board level.”

Rabbit admits the year 2001 was different. With only five contests, the re-qualification system was in shambles. A contingency plan was assembled, and three wildcards were available: two went to the number 28 and 29 surfers in the year-end rankings, and one for an injury.

“It must have been a very tough decision for the surfers,” Rabbit recounts. “At the end of the day the wildcard was granted to Shane Dorian. It must have been a line-ball decision between two great surfers, either of whose absence from the WCT would raise eyebrows. Shane had injured himself at Pipe days before the season-ending Rip Curl Cup at Sunset. He needed to advance through one heat to qualify, and although the surfers don’t provide written rationale for their decisions, I guess they deemed Shane’s case to be stronger, perhaps based on probability.”

On one hand the situation was a no-brainer. Whether he was into it or not, what surfer in his right mind would willingly vote to compete against Machado for a whole year?

“They should never have competitors vote for who they’re going to be competing against,” says perennial WCT Top Ten finisher Shane Beschen, who at the time of this writing leads the WQS rankings in his bid to re-qualify after falling off the elite tour in 2000. “You think they would want to vote me or Rob back on the tour? Hell no. It’s a flawed system.”

On the other hand, this was Machado, one of the two biggest surfing superstars over the past decade. Liked and respected by his peers. Worshiped by the masses, and the perfect ambassador for pro surfing.

Machado’s clout, albeit in absentia, apparently was a nonissue in Hale‘iwa, according to ASP General Manager Al Hunt’s final word: “The WPS has a rule that if you apply for a wildcard slot as an injury, you must attend the meeting, state your facts, and then those at the meeting—open to all WPS surfers—vote for who gets the wildcards. Rob did not show at the meeting, had complete knowledge of it, so he was taken off the list.”

Why Rob Machado is not on the WCT today is pretty cut and dry—broken hand, pregnancy, baby, terrorists flying jumbo jets into buildings … So why should we care? If for nothing else, it offers a compelling view into the chasm separating competitive surfing and unadulterated surfing, and one of the rare surfers who walked the tightrope over the chasm effortlessly. Hell, Machado danced over it—but not always with a smile.

As his stature in pro surfing grew, so did his frustrations with a system he felt was not tapping into the sport’s true potential. “To me, you’d look at other sports, and surfing blows doors on them,” says Machado, opening up. “Surfing is the most incredible thing in the world. I personally held them responsible for surfing not being blown up. Why isn’t this a giant sport on TV? I felt like saying, ‘You guys are blowing it.’”

Machado was alone while standing up against flaws in the ASP system, such as venues, marketing, and prize money. He recalls making as much money winning his first contest as his last, ten years later. Whether Machado’s gripes were valid or not, he got little backup from his peers. He remembers one contest in France when the surf was so flat on the final day, the ASP got the surfers together to vote on whether to finish or call it a day. “The surfers had been sitting outside talking, and I’m lookin’ around, like, ‘You guys are trippin’. It’s not even rideable, why should we do this?’ Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, totally.’ And we go inside a room with all the ASP people, and they ask everyone what they thought. I said, ‘Look at the waves and tell me what’s exciting about us going out there? Who in their right mind would want to stand on the beach and watch us? Or watch it on TV?’ I said they were crazy to hold the contest. It was knee-high and blown out. And they went around the room and everybody voted to finish the contest except me. And then I’m the asshole because I stuck my neck out.”

Machado was rocking a pretty luxurious boat. Fame, fortune, venues were getting better, and boat trips on his time off. All the perks were laid at Machado’s feet, and he still wasn’t digging it. Perhaps because he saw something in surfing others didn’t. When I asked him whether he tried to make the pro system better, he says, “I never got to that, I didn’t think it was my place to do that. I just knew that it wasn’t right. Maybe I was looking for the bad things, like I only found the bad in things people were doing. I didn’t have some big plan—I just thought they were wrong.”

Digging deeper, Machado admits pro surfing is a hard sell. “Surfing is the hardest thing in the world to deal with. If you’re trying to package it or do whatever with it, you have one huge factor: the ocean. It can be brutal.”

Rabbit Bartholomew acknowledges Machado’s concerns, adding that his griping had more influence than he may realize: “In the mid to late 90s Rob was part of a ’core group within the WCT that were critical of many aspects of ASP, in particular the judging criteria, the prize-money levels, and event locations. The surfers had every reason to be over it. The prize money had been stagnant for about eight years, events were still being staged in the wrong seasons for the wrong reasons, and the judging criteria was an antiquated throwback to some primitive amateur criteria based on length of ride and quantity of maneuvers over quality. I called a meeting in France in August ’99 and canvassed the surfers on what they thought the Tour needed. Rob was quite vocal and contributed with some very constructive stuff, things that at the end of the day were taken onboard and acted upon.”

Regardless, Machado eventually found himself going through the motions on tour. “At that point I learned a lot about myself, about life, and it was a great thing,” he says. “At c