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Bridging the gulf

Indian Rocks Beach is a long way from Hawaii, but Cory Lopez is close to becoming the first Gulf Coast surfer to win a world title.

By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 23, 2001


INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Pro surfer Cory Lopez has gotten used to the looks of disbelief.

"People trip out when I tell them where I am from," said Lopez, the No. 3 ranked surfer in the world. "They call this the Lake of Mexico."

But growing up on the Gulf Coast, Lopez, 24, and older brother Shea learned to make due.

"You learn to surf in any conditions," said the younger Lopez, who spends eight months a year traveling the globe on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour. "Growing up here, you take what you can get."

After five seasons on the pro circuit, Cory Lopez is within striking distance of a world championship. He would be the first Gulf Coast surfer to win a world title.

"It all depends on how I do in Hawaii," Lopez said before leaving for the Rip Curl Cup. "When you are surfing Sunset Beach, anything can happen."

The surf spot, located on the famous North Shore of Oahu, is one of the most challenging breaks in the world. Unlike the other famous North Shore surf spot, Pipeline, the waves at Sunset Beach break almost a half-mile out to sea. As a result, the waves can be 20-feet thick and 40-feet high. Wipe out on a big day at Sunset, and a surfer can be held underwater for what seems like a lifetime.

"It is a mental game," Lopez said of riding a big Sunset surf. "If you think you can, you know you can."

To win the world championship, Lopez will have to defeat the top-ranked surfer in the world, C.J. Hobgood, a fellow Floridian. Hobgood, 21, whose twin Damien also is ranked in the top 20, has a commanding lead heading into the Rip Curl Cup, which begins Monday and runs through Dec. 7.

"If I win and C.J. takes third, then I should have the points I need for the title," Lopez said. "But there are other people in the running too."

Lopez also will be looking over his shoulder for his 27-year-old brother, Shea, eighth in the rankings. Shea has finished in the top 16 three years in a row.

"Shea helped me a lot my first year on the tour," Cory said. "But now I am at the point where I am doing my own thing."

A victory at Sunset could be worth more than $160,000 in prize money and sponsor bonuses. Cory Lopez, with his high-flying aerial maneuvers, is a crowd favorite. The field also includes Hawaiian Sunny Garcia, the defending world champion, who knows the water at Sunset Beach better than anyone.

But Lopez said he feels at home at Sunset. He has had many opportunities to surf big, powerful waves in recent years, and the Cup will offer nothing he has not seen before.

"I have been really lucky," he said. "Over the years I have been able to travel all over the world, surf a lot of different waves, a lot of different places."

Take Tahiti for example.

"The reef rises up out of thousands of feet of water and then hits a little 4-foot deep reef," he said. "The coral is really sharp and there are places where it is dry in between waves, so if you fall, you can get cut up pretty badly."

Lopez has taken his share of spills, which have resulted in several career-threatening injuries. "I have dislocated my shoulder twice and gotten a few stitches," he said. "But the worse was a back injury, which put me out of action for nearly sixth months."

He was surfing in Australia and took off late on a wave.

"The whole lip of the wave came crashing down on my back," he said. "I just hung there underwater for a moment because I thought I had broken my back. After a few seconds, I could move my arms and legs. I thanked God that I wasn't paralyzed."

The tour has other dangers. It stops in South Africa each year, an area known for cold water and big sharks.

"When we go to Jeffrey's Bay, I only surf the spot where the contest is," he said. "They have a lot of other good surf spots, but I won't go there ... too much stuff going on.

"It is not like here, where if you get bit by a shark, you only get 20 or 30 stitches. In South Africa, if you get bit, you lose a limb or half your body and that is the end of your career."

Being a professional surfer has other pitfalls. At some venues, including a recent contest in Portugal, Lopez had to surf near a raw sewage outfall.

"I had some stitches in my head." he said. "So needless to say, I used a lot of (hydrogen) peroxide that night."

It also has benefits, such as being featured on the cover of a magazine or in a video game.

"That is the fun part," he said. "I love kids, I love what they are into, and I am always stoked to see what they come up with."

Lopez was one of the first professional surfers to incorporate aerial "skateboard" moves into his surfing repertoire.

"It is changing all the time," he said. "Who knows what they will be doing in 10 years."

Whatever it is, Lopez hopes to be in the thick of it.

"I figure I can surf for another 10 years," he said. "It is all I want to do, all I can do, so I'll keep at it as long as I can."

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