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All In The Family

Don't sass Coco Ho. She will most definitely snap back.  Launch Coco Ho Gallery » Jason Kenworthy

Sunset Beach, Hawaii's Coco Ho has always been the center of attention. It's just way too hard to ignore her—she's adorable, hilarious and has more talent in her 5-foot-2-inch frame than average surfers could ever hope for. Her name says it all: She's as sweet and little as a coconut, but with Michael Ho for a dad, Mason Ho for a brother, Derek Ho for an uncle and a pit bull named Hurricane, she's got some of the gnarliest bodyguards around. Mess with her and you'll be counting the days 'til some awful misfortune befalls you.

Despite the nurturing of her protective clan, Ho can hold her own. At 17, she made her rookie appearance as the youngest member on the 2009 ASP Women's World Tour, and she sits at No. 3 on the World Tour's ratings ladder after her performance at the Roxy Pro, the first event of the season.

"It hasn't really sunk in," Ho says—a pretty calm reflection from a rookie who's drawing girls like Stephanie Gilmore, Silvana Lima and Melanie Bartels in her heats—girls who'd have your average high school competitor quivering in her jersey the moment they unleashed an opening bottom turn. But Ho finds comfort in her position. "I'm up against the best and I have nothing to lose," she says.

Thing is, Ho is just one soldier in an army of grom-freaks—male and female alike—who are about to stage a surfing coup. On the lady's side, Sally Fitzgibbons, Carissa Moore and Ho are closing the gender gap between themselves and the boys' talent pool. And they're surpassing their elders as well. Their turns have become tailslides. They have all the tricks, plus the polish. Free surfing is one thing, but they're seeing big scores in competitions, too.

This past summer, Ho found herself in the final of the U.S. Open at Huntington Beach. Four months later, seven-time World Champ Layne Beachley found herself surrounded by kids (Ho, Moore and Laura Enever) in the Reef Hawaiian Pro final at Haleiwa (the first stop on the Vans Triple Crown), where she got beat by 16-year-old Moore. "I competed through four generations and saw plenty come and go as fast as the hype did," Beachley says. "These kids are sassy, savvy, talented and hungry. Out of the water they're dependable and responsible role models and they'll become fantastic representatives for the sport."

Coco Ho "Statistically Speaking"

Beachley is singing praise now, but during the last 6 minutes of that final, she needed one more score to slip into first and win the event. She paddled into the next wave. Down the line, Ho paddled into the same wave, dropped in on Beachley and tried to bust an air over the world champ's head as Beachley was setting up for her second turn. The scene at the time was dramatic—no one would stop talking about it. In the competitor's area, half the girls were appalled and half were ecstatic. To some, the act was a slap in Beachley's face; to others, it represented a generational takeover. Rumors flew that Ho joked to Moore's dad that he owed her, but a distraught Ho went into hiding to escape the barrage of accusations, insisting that the incident was a last-ditch effort to get a decent score. After all, she needed it to up her chances at making the cut for the World Tour. The ASP cleared Ho and Beachley accepted her apology. Ho and Moore still feel the scenario was blown out of proportion.

"It's water under the bridge," Beachley said, adding that she'd watched a video interview of Moore's take on the incident. "I was alarmed when [Moore] said that anyone in a similar situation would've done exactly the same thing. The school of etiquette I grew up in never ever tolerated such deplorable actions, so I'm concerned about what these kids are being taught to do in pressure situations by their so-called coaches."

In the way that this new generation resembles a militia of fantastical kid-bots, there is an even bigger army of mentors and keepers behind them to wind them up and oil their hinges. The age of "mom-agers," "dad-agers," coaches, agents and team managers is in full force. Each kid has an entourage because every one of them has become a business. Luckily for Ho, her dad is a legend and world champ—he won the Pipe Masters with a broken arm and cast—and he travels everywhere with her. "He thrives on it just as much as we do," she says of her dad's help with both her and her brother Mason's careers. "He watches the lineup, he knows about every place we go."

Ho also has a mentor in Mason. "He has the progressive moves I try to copy," she says. Typical little sister, Ho shadowed Mason in all aspects of life, first on dirt bikes behind their house, then on boogie boards, then surfing. "I saw him getting a lot of attention," she says. "I jumped on the bandwagon. I wanted to take all the daddy-time."

The young ladies of surf are now seeing support from mainstream sponsors as well. Nike 6.0 signed Moore this past year and Ho joined its roster in late March. Bigger sponsors have made modern competitive life quite different from the old days. "When I was Coco's age, I was earning $300 a week and living off tips from working in a bar while I saved enough money to do the Tour," Beachley says. "Even when I was No. 2 in the world, I was earning $8,000 a year from my sponsor at the time. Now, teenagers are paid five- to six-figure salaries, and all they have to do is go surfing."

Still, for a girl barely out of high school, Ho is pretty grown up. Being raised in a mostly male, Hawaiian household has made her independent. But one of her real concerns with facing Tour life was losing her childhood. She even considered leaving the convenience of home school so she could graduate from public school with her friends.

"She wants to go to prom," Moore said of her friend.

It was true. Ho didn't want to miss out on that stuff. "I still have that feeling," Ho admitted recently. "But I'm more serious now. I have to be a proper athlete. I have to achieve something and show the world what I have—it's not so childish anymore." She knows that it's only a matter of time before the rest of her peers catch up and even younger girls arrive on the scene, salivating at the thought of replacing her.

So Ho won't have anyone to sign her yearbook. And she won't ever talk about the time she got busted skipping school. "I'm getting over it," she said. "My experiences are different than your average teenage kid, so I'm actually pretty happy." After all, she is one of the only kids who'll ever have to worry about beating Stephanie Gilmore in a heat at Bells or whether she'll ever get to surf a two-man heat at Cloudbreak, which, honestly, sounds much better than trying on prom dresses.