ISA Ecuador: Sunday Notes From The Field.

The Equatorial heat is wilting–even the locals hide beneath umbrellas or behind the large inflatable beer bottles deployed down the beach. Ninety degrees with equal humidity makes shade a most valuable commodity in the South American town of Salinas, Ecuador.

But there at water’s edge USSF President Paul West stands holding a large American flag. His shoulders have been blackened by the sun and sweat beads his bald head. He rests his chin on his arm and stares out to sea. It’s a strangely forlorn picture on a beach that’s packed with thousands of spectators, music, and brightly colored banners.

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Out on the point, overhead South Pacific swells bend in, mushily break and then reform strongly across the inside reef. It’s smaller than yesterday, when conditions were called “challenging by even veteran competitors and a spectator tragically drowned down the beach. But it’s still thumping.

As expected, the U.S. team is struggling. There will be no repeat of the 1996 World Games victory this year. This year’s performance is likely to be the U.S. team’s worst performance — even eclipsing the dismal thirteenth place of the 2002 World Games. Falls this far usually leave a corpse. Perhaps West has reason to look a little introspective.

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After all, it’s been an interesting day. At around 11:20 a.m. SIMA and Op President Dick Baker walked up through the crowd to the shade of the U.S. tent to talk to West. They started talking and soon moved behind the tent where they talked some more. From a distance it was pure theater. West would stand stock still, hands clasped behind his back, dark sunglasses covering his eyes as Baker gesticulated wildly. Then Baker would stand, arms folded across his chest, as West made many open palm and pointing gestures.

And so it went for ten, twenty, thirty minutes under the hot sun. After an hour both of them looked to be running out of steam, but it seemed neither side had swayed the other to his view. Baker playfully swats West in the chest, they give each other a hurried handshake, and the moment is over.

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West is back from water’s edge now, sitting under the umbrellas near the beverage stands, sneaking a smoke.

Tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. the Biennial General Meeting of the ISA will occur, and depending on the outcome, West may never stand on water’s edge holding the flag again. For many, that would be just fine. At that meeting Surfing America will present its plan for unifying U.S. amateur surfing. Then the other National Governing bodies could vote to replace West’s USSF with Surfing America as the NGB for the U.S.

“I hope the global community of surfing remains as united as it is right now here on the beach, says West when asked how he hopes things will go during the meeting. “I would hope that the internal affairs and politics of United States surfing don’t have a negative impact on all the hard work the athletes and staff have put into the ISA.

He looks around the crowded beach for a moment: “I would hope common sense prevails.

“God works in mysterious ways, he continues, sliding his chair back under the umbrella and into the shade. “I think things happen for a reason. I think we’ll hold on to our NGB, but regardless I would hope the attention this has brought to all those people sitting in boardrooms in Orange County who have never been to a Pan American or World Games will ultimately help the ISA. I hope that you can take some words home or share some thoughts that shows people that this {contest} is what’s really going on, and maybe how it’s important. Maybe this is something that goes beyond selling another pair of trunks or a wetsuit.

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West talks at length about how he feels the U.S. National Team has been undermined by the larger surf brands. “I can say that it’s been disheartening over the years to see agendas and politics get involved, he says. He takes off his sunglasses and levels a steady gaze. “It’s heartbreaaking to see kids who are excited to be on the National Team go home and have a sponsor not only not care about the National Team, but actually discourage them from competing.

Others counter that the current U.S. system is so out of whack that it’s no wonder many are running for the hills. Why put energy into something that appears flawed, some muse, and into an organization that’s not keeping up with the rest of the world?

“Obviously the ISA needs, for its own development, to have the participation of the strongest organization in each of its member countries,” says Alan Atkins, head of Surfing Australia, and an absolute veteran on these affairs. “It’s generally acknowledged that there has been a significant decline in the U.S. program over the past years. However, the question is whether some of these countries benefit by having the U.S. in a weakened condition. That might be the wildcard in the deck that destroys reason.”

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Clearly West is fed up with the surf industry and the feeling is generally mutual. But although he’s been quiet over the past few months, he says he’s never been busier. “I’m proud to say that the USSF has put together a major nonendemic sponsorship deal that will literally rock the world, he says. “Surfing — either professional or in any country — has never had anything like this. Hopefully everyone would like to play ball, but NGB or no NGB, we’ll go forward.

After Surfing America presents its plan at the annual meeting, West will have a chance to rebut Surfing America’s proposal. He indicates that he wants to stay positive and professional, and that details of this sponsorship program will be the main thrust of his argument that the ISA should stick with the USSF.

“As far as going around and polling other countries, you know we have relationships with a lot of countries, but I haven’t gone to them and said ‘Hey, I’m counting on your vote’ or ‘I helped you, now you help me.’ I don’t think that’s proper. I would rather them make their own decision, look at the facts, and do what they feel in their hearts is best. Regardless, we’ll always have a special bond that was forged here on the beach.

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We’re interrupted briefly by Surfing America Executive Director Michael Gerard, who’s passing out invitations to a cocktail reception Surfing America is hosting at the hotel that night. The two exchange pleasantries — perhaps with a little more fervor than would otherwise be necessary — before Gerard walks off down the sweltering beach. West looks at the invitation in silence for a moment and then looks put off by some of its wording.

“I have to say that I am disappointed with how Surfing America has gone about this process, he fumes. “I feel this entire thing is an internal U.S. matter and it should have been handled that way.

But for whatever reason, that’s not how it all turned out. Tomorrow night, among his peers, West will be fighting for the USSF’s life. “Too little, too late, some intone — even other NGBs. Those organizations know better than any how the U.S. team has struggled.

But we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if that increasingly loud undercurrent of dissatisfaction, and the strong proposal of Surfing America, will be enough to drum West out of this closely knit fraternity of surfers.

At this point at least, West still looks like he has some fight left in him.

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