Kelly Slater competing during the qualifying round at the World Surf League Surf Ranch Pro on Sept. 6, 2018 in Lemoore, California.
Olympic implications and technological innovations are the name of the game at this weekend's Freshwater Pro.
Though the Freshwater Pro is one of 10 women’s and 11 men’s events on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour calendar, it's arguably the most unique. That's because it's not staged in the sport's traditional venue — the ocean — but instead, will take place about 100 miles inland at an artificial wave pool in the town of Lemoore, California.
For over a decade, surfing legend Kelly Slater had been in search of a way to create “the perfect wave.” In 2006, he joined forces with an engineering researcher from USC to help make that dream a reality, and the Kelly Slater Wave Company was born soon after. Following years and years of testing, Slater and his company were finally ready to start building what they hoped would become the world's preeminent wave pool for surfing, and their hunt for the perfect property led them to Lemoore.
The property, which already included two manmade lakes, was purchased in 2014, and the company's first fully functioning prototype was unveiled there a year later.
Since then, it's been an evolving process to get the machine dialed in.
“There's been a few issues here and there,” said Slater, an 11-time world champion, noting that parts of the machine had to be rebuilt at times. “The (lake) wasn't wide enough when we started, so we had a lot of issues with the (choppiness) and the water bouncing around.”
The current technology has been in place for about two years now, with only minor tweaks needed since then. During that time, a number of pro surfers have taken advantage of the facility for training purposes, though Slater says he's only been able to spend a handful of days there so far this year.
From a contest perspective, an artificial wave pool has the potential to level the playing field because it eliminates one of the most important elements of a traditional competition: wave selection. Whereas the ocean's waves can be quite inconsistent, a machine can produce waves that are very consistent.
The WSL, which now owns a majority stake in the Kelly Slater Wave Company, added a stop at Slater's Surf Ranch to its Championship Tour in 2018. Typically, the WSL must block out windows of about two weeks at each event, and competition only takes place on days when the swell period is good. But at the Surf Ranch, events can be scheduled for a fixed window. This year's contest will take place Sept. 19-21.
And this year, there's even more on the line. The 2019 CT rankings also serve as the first way that surfers can qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Ten of the top-ranked men and eight of the top-ranked women will go, and only per gender can qualify from each country.
With the U.S. fielding a number of the top surfers in the world, it's highly likely that all four of Team USA's possible quota spots will be determined by the end of the season.
Through seven of 11 stops on the men's tour, Kolohe Andino (No. 3), John John Florence (No. 5), Seth Moniz (No. 9) and Slater (No. 10) all sit inside the top 10 of the world rankings. Florence, who won back-to-back world titles in 2016 and 2017, is recovering from a torn ACL and could miss the rest of the season, but he has said that he hopes to return in time for the season's final event if his Olympic spot is in jeopardy.
At 47 years old, Slater is still one of the top challengers for that spot. If he closes out the season strong at his own venue and the three succeeding contests, he could find himself in Tokyo next summer. Like many surfers, Slater was initially skeptical about how the sport's culture would mesh with the Olympic Games, but a recent trip to the ISA World Surfing Games (which were held in Japan) helped allay some of those concerns.
“On one hand, I do think the best surfer competitively in the world every year is determined by the world tour,” Slater said. “But (events like the World Surfing Games and the Olympic Games) are something different.
“To experience that, with all the different countries, and the excitement people have around that, and the common bond of surfing bringing everyone coming together, it's a really special thing.”
On the women's side, Carissa Moore leads the world rankings after six of 10 stops, with Lakey Peterson (No. 4), 17-year-old Caroline Marks (No. 5), Courtney Conlogue (No. 6) and Malia Manuel (No. 7) all inside the top eight and battling for Olympic spots as well.
Florence, Moniz, Moore and Manuel compete for Hawaii, the birthplace of the sport, at WSL events but would be part of Team USA should they make the 2020 U.S. Olympic Surfing Team.