How Gabriel Medina just ended America’s pro surfing experiment

When Gabriel Medina turns 21 on Tuesday he'll be eating ice cream out of his sparkly new world-title bowl, having just joined Kelly Slater as the only surfers to have clinched a world championship by their 21st birthday. But a quick glance at Medina's underlying growth indicators are even more impressive, especially his elite-world-tour victories. While 21-year-old Slater had just two wins on his big day back in 1993, Medina's already bagged five.

Medina wins and a surfing nation celebrates. Brazil gets its due. Photo: ASP

Medina wins and a surfing nation celebrates. Brazil gets its due. Photo courtesy ASP

What's more, he's bagged big ones like Tahiti and Fiji, where skeptics thought he'd have trouble. To rub their noses in it, he nearly bagged Pipe, too, illustrating again that he has no weaknesses.

As to the impact of Medina's world title, the raucous flag-waving Brazilians chanting and cheering at Pipeline says it all. On a global scale, this is the most significant title since Tom Curren's in 1985. Curren was the first American champ. He ended a decade-long reign of Aussie dominance, awakened a slumbering nation from hibernation, and set fire to a fledgling sport by ushering in its popularity on the other side of the world.

But Brazilians aren't in need of awakening, or introductions. The only thing they want is respect—the kind of respect that the elite and entitled in first-world surfing nations have been very slow to give.

Medina's brilliant surfing forced the issue this year. He earned everyone’s respect.

Medina burst onto the scene with a world-class aerial assault, but in 2014 he proved he's a got a lot more depth than anyone gave him credit for. A backdoor bomb. Photo: ASP

Medina burst onto the scene with a world-class aerial assault, but in 2014 he proved he’s a got a lot more depth than anyone gave him credit for. A backdoor bomb. Photo courtesy ASP

Back in California, meanwhile, Curren remains the only ASP world champion to emerge from the not-so-golden state in 30 years. The retrograde movement here is as old as Medina, and showing no signs of slowing (certainly not while it's selling well in Japan).

Medina doesn't speak Spicoli. He doesn't look like a lumberjack. He doesn't shape his own finless boards, and it's doubtful that he'll get drunk, piss in his world-title cup, hang up his jersey, and park it on the nearest barstool. And because he's not that guy, the impact of his title will be muted in the States, which poses a challenge for the ASP's new World Surfing League in 2015 and beyond.

You see, we Californians are a curious bunch. We tend to admire surfing talent more when it's being wasted. Only if it's accidental or incidental is it cool to be a successful competitor. Trying hard "to win" here is social kryptonite. Tom Curren made it look incidental, so he passed the cool test. Yet few knew he was swimming 15,000 yards a week when he won his first two world titles. Similarly, you never see video of Kelly Slater skipping rope, yet most of us would rocket puke if we had to eat what he does for breakfast. They kept their efforts well hidden.

This attitude is completely justified, of course, because deep down we know surfing isn't a sport. It's a lifestyle. Mind you, it's a laidback lifestyle that's been tirelessly marketed, packaged, and sold off to Wall Street, but it's a lifestyle all the same.

Some of you will recall that when Kelly Slater arrived on the scene, surf journalist Derek Hynd predicted he'd be a billion-dollar jolt to the surf industry. Ultimately, Hynd was right. But the empire built on Kelly’s back has been decimated in recent years. The surf industry's Monopoly board was tossed in the air a few years ago by good ol' American overleveraging, and today the pieces are landing in Europe. Slater's era is finally winding down. The American "surf shop" is in decline, and a future of Medina dominance could easily mark the end of America’s pro-surfing experiment.

Rest assured we'll throw a few pawns in Medina's path, and genuine threats like John John Florence will keep us clicking on the World Surf League's better days. But Florence is Hawaiian, a very proud and staunchly sovereign nation in the surf world. So the era of American pro-surfing rule is over for now, and given who we really are, that's probably as it should be.

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