Road To The Big Leagues

College football has the Heisman trophy, basketball has the less iconic “Player Of The Year” award. But for amateur surfers on the brink of going pro, the closest thing to a Heisman is winning the Open Men’s division at the NSSA Nationals. Winning at Lowers virtually guarantees you’ll soon be taking your first steps down the road to surf super stardom. Both Irons brothers, Taylor Knox, Kalani Robb, Fred Patacchia, and many others have claimed victory at Lowers as amateurs. In fact, when you look back at the list of who’s won the Open Men’s division, almost every single person has gone on to a big pro career, which is way better success rate than for Heisman winners.
“If you’re lucky enough to win Nationals,” says three-time World Champ and 1996 Open Men’s’ winner Andy Irons, “it gives you a big confidence boost going into the next stage of your surf career.”
“Winning Nationals was a huge part of my surfing career,” agrees 1999 Open Men’s Champ and now WCT star Fred Patacchia. “Afterwards I got this really big contract, and in a way, that’s when all the hype about me doing well really started.”
There’s no doubt whoever wins instantly gets showered with media attention like no other amateur, but what is it about winning the Nationals title that shines the spotlight on who’s going to excel in the pro ranks? It probably has something to do with the pressure of looking in at the beach only to see a few thousand people staring back at you, dissecting your every move from takeoff to kick out. It’s not your average Sunday beach crowd either, it’s every team manager in the industry, bigwig shapers, magazine editors and photographers, mainstream journalists, and of course, the stone-faced NSSA judges up in the tower who have watched and scored everyone from Bobby Martinez to Rob Machado and Kelly Slater surf this very wave as kids. If all that isn’t enough to buckle the legs of even the country’s top amateurs … well, as it turns out, it’s usually the kids who can handle the pressure that have a shot at taking home the title.
Whoever wins Open Men’s gets a big, red carpet rolled out in front of them on the way to the pro ranks. When you go down the list at who’s won it, it’s a star-studded club for sure. But you don’t necessarily have to win the Open Men’s title to become a surf star. Laird Hamilton didn’t, and neither did Kelly Slater or Bobby Martinez (although Bobby won just about every other division in the NSSA).
So to all the up-and-coming ams, don’t worry if you never win Nationals, there’s still plenty of hope for a future as a pro. But if you are one of the lucky ones, get ready for the big time.