LEMOORE, Calif. — Imagine a gymnastics floor routine competition in which athletes are scored on the difficulty, variety, and quality of execution of their maneuvers. Now imagine that the floor itself is in a constant state of change. It may be longer or shorter, harder or softer, weirdly curved, bumpy or smooth—and the athletes don’t see how it has changed until moments before attempting each individual maneuver. That would be insane, right?

That’s competitive surfing.

Even in the same spot in the ocean, even within the same minute, no two waves are alike. That means that it is extremely difficult to make competitive surfing fair. Sometimes the best surfer on the planet gets skunked and can’t buy a decent wave, while the jamoke next to them lucks into the wave of the month. Unpredictability is built into the very DNA of the sport.

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But what if that uncertainty could be eliminated? The first annual World Surf League Founders’ Cup, which took place 110 miles from the ocean, provided one answer last weekend, when a sold-out crowd witnessed the first serious surf competition held in a mechanical wave pool.

Kelly Slater finding some shade.
Photo: Brent Rose

Wave pools have existed in various forms for decades, but when the Surf Ranch was unveiled by Kelly Slater in central California two years ago, the whole surf world took notice. Wave pools had always been soft, mushy little waves without much push behind them, but Slater’s was an entirely different animal. Traditional wave pools have simply pumped (or really, dumped) large amounts of water, or essentially dropped a big block in the water, which made lighter waves to mimic a wind swell. This one drags a 100-ton hydrofoil the length of four football fields to displace a massive amount of water, which causes a perfectly-shaped, barreling, head-high wave to run screaming down the length of a 400-yard freshwater pool. The mechanics mimic a more powerful ground swell, which is typically generated by larger storms further out in the ocean. It’s a true high-performance wave that tests the skills of even the best surfers in the world, and—light winds notwithstanding—it’s exactly the same every time.

There’s your even playing field.

But for a sport that is intrinsically connected to the ocean, nature, and unpredictability, what place should wave pools occupy in competitive surfing? And with surfing making its debut in the upcoming 2020 Olympics, is it more important for each athlete to get the exact same opportunities, or to show surfing in its natural setting?

Gabriel Medina (BRA) on a left.
Photo: Brent Rose

The Pool

Every short-term qualm I had about wave-pool surfing was immediately wiped from my brain when I first saw the wave with my own eyes. I had watched a ton of video over the last two years, but none of it really capture the speed of the thing. It hauls so much ass. As a pretty mediocre surfer, I’d had fantasies about coming to the pool and getting my first barrel here. No. In all likelihood it would eat me for breakfast. I couldn’t believe how many of the pros got stuck behind a section and ended up getting steamrolled. Mistime your turn and it will race off without you, while you sit there watching a perfect wave go unridden.

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In a typical surf event, paddling strength and fitness can play a huge factor, as winning depends on chasing down the waves and paddling back out to get the next one. Not so here. Surfers averaged maybe four or five strokes before they popped up to their feet. Unlike the ocean, this wave favors those with the best leg strength, as rides generally last a quadricep-burning 45 seconds down the length of the pool. You’ve then got about 90 seconds to recover, before you surf it all the way back. This offers some predictability that is new to surfing.

“In the ocean, you never know what wave is going to come,” Italian surfer Leonardo Fioravanti told me. “You never know if you’re going to get barreled or do turns. Here you know you’re going to do three turns, then a long barrel, three more turns, a long barrel, then an air … It’s almost more like snowboarding or skating in a way that you can prep your run.”

Matt Wilkinson (AUS) carves hard.
Photo: Brent Rose

The pool has a left-breaking wave in one direction, and a right-breaking wave in the other. Both waves have different sections for turns, barrels, and airs. The right is easily the better of the two, though. The tubes are vastly longer, and generally the bigger/better/riskier moves were performed on it throughout the two-day competition. It seemed like more thought went into getting the right to be absolutely perfect (and it really is) when they were shaping the bottom contour of the pool, which I was surprised to see was only about waist-deep.

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It’s also fresh water, not salt water, so surfers are less buoyant than usual. This led some surfers to adjust their equipment. France’s Jeremy Flores, for example, rode an epoxy board instead of his typical polyurethane, because it’s lighter and would provide more float to compensate for the lack of salinity.

A crowd of 5,000+ braved the 90-degree heat and long drives, selling out the contest for both days.
Photo: Brent Rose

The setup is excellent for making surfing more of a spectator sport. Competition waves often break a good distance out to sea, leaving viewers squinting on the beach attempting to see their heroes. At the Surf Ranch, the crowd can gather on three sides of the wave pool, each affording a unique and pretty solid view. There are also jumbotrons everywhere, so once a surfer has passed your viewing area you just look up to see the rest of their ride. The contest had a maximum capacity of 5,000, and fans braved the long drives and 90-degree heat to fill it to capacity for both days.

The Contest

While the Founders’ Cup was a World Surf League (WSL) event, it wassn’t part of the World Tour, in which surfers collect points over the course of a season of events to determine an overall world champion—Surf Ranch will host its first of those in September, but this event was more of an experiment.

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Surfing is typically an individual sport, but this event utilized a team format, with five teams composed of five surfers each (three men and two women). It was teams USA, Australia, Europe, Brazil, and World (composed of two South Africans, a Tahitian, a New Zealander, and a Japanese surfer). Teams took turns, with each surfer getting two waves (a left then a right). There were a total of three rounds, and the team’s best right and best left counted toward their total score. The top three teams at the end of the three rounds advanced to the final.

Kelly Slater is 46 and still doing insane stuff.
Photo: Brent Rose

The final was significantly more confusing. There were five heats, each with one surfer from each country going against the other. The higher scores were generally achieved on the right because the wave’s shape afforded more scoring opportunity and allowed surfers to go bigger and deeper, though the judges adjusted the scale for the left to keep it balanced. The surfer who scored the best for their turn would get two points for their country, with one point going to second place and zero for third. Except for the last two heats, which were worth double for some reason. It was pretty convoluted, really, but the crowd didn’t really seem to care as long as the surf was good, which it always was.

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What surprised me most was that even though the waves were predictable, it never got boring. The athletes continued to push themselves, trying to get deeper into the barrel, pushing their carves harder, and attempting increasingly improbable airs (though there weren’t nearly as many airs attempted as I’d expected). The wave was even powerful enough to snap the occasional surfboard clean in two. Despite this being an exhibition event, the athletes appeared more nervous than usual.

Bianca Buitendag tearing into a left.
Photo: Brent Rose

“There’s more pressure, I would say,” South African Bianca Buitendag told me. “Especially in competition, because you only have on shot at a wave and you have nothing to blame except your own technical abilities. But it eliminates all of the uneven play, or the unfair advantage or disadvantage you may have in the ocean, which is ideal for competition.”

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There were highlights aplenty. Brazil’s Filipe Toledo scored the event’s only perfect 10 on his round two right-hander, which featured radical fins-free top turns, deep barrels, a big air, and some extremely committed gouges. The women ripped every bit as hard as the men, with surfers like former world champs Stephanie Gilmore (AUS), Carissa Moore (USA), and Silvana Lima (BRA) logging as much tube time as anybody. And Kelly Slater, who is 46 years old, still surfs like he was 20. He led Team USA to the finals and earned himself a 9.0 on his final wave before falling on an big, rotating air attempt. Team World ended up carrying the day, led by an incredible performance from South Africa’s Jordy Smith.

Jeremy Flores (FRA) at the beginning of one of his 12-second barrel rides.
Photo: Brent Rose

The team format allowed spectators to see surfers who are normally bitter rivals cheering their heads off for each other. The best pros in the world were sharing tips and secrets with to help get their team to victory. This was competitive wave-pool surfing’s coming-out party, and it managed to prove that it has a place even in the most elite echelons of the sport, even if it changes some of the fundamentals of it.

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One of the things that makes a truly great surfer is their ability to read the ocean. To see a bump on the horizon and know where and how it will break, and how best to ride it. There’s also gamesmanship involved, with waiting patiently for what one hopes will be the best wave of their 30-minute heat. And of course, waves generally arrive in sets of two, three, or four, so picking the best of the cluster for yourself, or at least baiting your opponent into the wrong one, is all part of the strategy. None of that exists in a wave pool. Somebody says, “30 seconds!” and you know that your wave will be arriving in 30 seconds. You just paddle into it and try to execute your game plan. It’s all about how difficult your plan is, and how cleanly you execute it.

Wave pool training isn’t really a thing yet, largely because there hasn’t been a wave pool that’s good enough until now. Several surfers I spoke to expressed excitement about using this wave as a training ground. When you know exactly what a wave is going to do and when it’s going to do it, you can drill a maneuver over and over again until you nail it. Once you can execute consistently in a pool and have built the muscle memory, then you’d take it back to the ocean. I’d expect to see more and more of that happen in the near future, especially with crazier airs. No surfer has ever successfully landed a 720. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the first one done in a wave pool.

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I asked Tahitian surfer Michel Bourez how many stops on a tour he would choose to move to wave pools. “One is enough,” he told me. “Just because surfing was born in the ocean, and this is a man-made wave. And I love it, no doubt. It’s one of the best places to surf for sure. But I just feel like surfing deserves to be in the ocean.” All of the athletes I spoke seemed excited to have a wave pool as one of the stops on the world tour, but most hedged and basically said, “Let’s wait and see how the event in September goes before we commit to giving a pool wave a permanent spot…”

Stephanie Gilmore, abusing the lip.
Photo: Brent Rose

The Olympics

While nobody from the WSL would flat-out say it, this contest very much seemed to be an audition for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It will be the first time surfing is an Olympic sport, and everybody from the surf industry really, really wants it to go well. The problem is that Tokyo isn’t a surf town. The closest wave is in the Chiba prefecture a couple hours away, which is where the competition will be held. But the real problem is that, despite the stereotypes, summer is generally the worst time for waves. The waves in Chiba are likely to be small and inconsistent. At best, it will be unpredictable.

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In a perfect world, the event would be held at Pipeline in Hawaii, where thundering 8-foot barrels explode on a shallow reef in front of a picturesque beach scene full of surf fans. But as Oahu is not in in Japan, that’s not going to happen. So, what is most important to what is arguably surfing’s biggest moment in the global spotlight since it was invented: an ocean or a good competition?

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That’s the question I posed to six surfers at Surf Ranch. I thought for sure the answers would be a mixed bag, but in fact every one of them favored building a wave pool in Japan for the Olympics. “Japan is a beautiful country, but the waves are very inconsistent, similar to Italy,” Fioravanti said. “And it’s often very small. You don’t want an Olympic champion in one-foot waves. You want it in fair waves for everyone.”

I shot a handful of slow-motion videos at the Surf Ranch and was really happy with how they turned out.

“I would definitely rather have it in a wave pool, honestly,” Buitendag told me. “I think it’s a much clearer and more open platform to showcase technical ability and to make it fair. The ocean can produce beautiful waves but it can rob you of opportunity as well, and especially that time of year in Japan, it could be quite tricky.”

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Even Bourez, who believes most contests should be held in the ocean, reversed his stance when it came to the 2020 games. “I feel that the Olympics should be held in a wave pool,” he said. “Because the Olympics is different. It’s a special event … It makes it easier for everyone. Especially for TV, because they can have it fully programmed and they know exactly when it’s going to happen.”

“I’ve been to Chiba two times, and to be honest, the waves were really bad,” Portugal’s Frederico Morias said. “I’m sure they have really good waves there, but those two times I was unlucky for the comp. So yes, I would say we only have one shot at the Olympics, so it would be really nice to make sure that surfing gets a nice image and I think the wave pool would be pretty cool to show off our surfing and to give a show to the fans.”

Jeremy Flores on his backhand.
Photo: Brent Rose

Of the surfers I talked to, only Jeremy Flores expressed any hesitation, but he ultimately favored having a wave pool at least as a backup plan. “It’s the first time surfing will be in the Olympics, so we can’t risk to get flat waves. It would kill the image of our sport,” he said. “In saying that, I believe the Olympics in the ocean is what we all want. We just can’t control the ocean, if it’s flat it’s flat. With the wave pool you can just push a button and we will have decent wave, enough for people to watch and enjoy the best surfers on the planet to do their thing. So wave pool should be a back-up plan in the Olympic in case there is no swell.”

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The Founders’ Cup seems to have functioned as a proof of concept. Could a wave pool host a surf contest exciting enough for a crowd? Yes. Could its operators run a whole event without the machine breaking? Almost! Between Australian Joel Parkinson’s first and second waves in round two, an announcer said organizers needed 15 minutes for a “routine calibration.” One hour later, the contest was finally on again. While that sounds less than ideal, consider that not only do heats occasionally need to be restarted because of lack of waves in the wild, the occasional surf contest remains unfinished because the waves never show up. (Oh, and the last eventscheduled for the World Tour was supposed to take place at Margaret River in Western Australia, but the contest was canceled halfway through because of nearby shark attacks.)

Wave pools capable of providing an elite-level surf are in their infancy. They will never replace the open ocean, but I’d expect they will become a part of the competitive surfing world. Pros will be able to hone their skills, practice new moves, and truly compete head-to-head on an even playing field for the first time. Or the pros can just leave the wave pools to guys like me who would like to suck less. Either way.