Scratching at the door

Cory Lopez helped define aerial surfing style 15 years ago, and he's still doing it today. TuPat

Cory Lopez Gallery

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A look at Cory Lopez's career (and it ain't over.) GalleryPhoto Gallery

Cory Lopez is a Gulf Coast surfer, but being from Florida has never been a hindrance to his career. He spent 10 years on the World Tour (1997 to 2007), during which time helped introduce airs to elite-level competition while simultaneously setting performance bars in waves of consequence that were introduced to the tour. His competition bonafides are tough to argue with: He won the Billabong Pro Tahiti in 2001, the U.S. Open in 2003, three X Games gold medals when surfing was an X Games event, and gold and silver at the ISA Worlds. When he wasn't wearing a singlet, Lopez passed the time by becoming a legend at Teahupoo and freesurfing well enough to earn 10 placings in the Surfer Poll Awards.

Lopez had a string of shockers in 2007 and fell off tour after a forgettable Pipe Masters. He was 30 and it had been a good run. That next year, he was reborn as a free surfer, sniffing out mysto points and chasing hurricanes. He never fully quit competition, and at times was within spitting distance of requalifying, but it never panned out.

Now, at age 34, Lopez is scratching on the same door he was at 19. He had alternate slots to the first three World Tour events of 2011, and garnered a few heat wins in the process. He also earned equal ninth place at both the Volcom Pipe Pro and the Coca Cola Oakley Prime Brazil. The first time around, there was a World Tour and you were either on it or off it. But these days, with the World Ranking feeding a World Tour shakeup at the mid-way point of the season, Lopez suddenly finds himself with a legitimate shot at getting back on tour. We caught up to get his perspective on everything.

ESPN: Last year at this time, most ASP surfers didn't even understand how the new system would work. Do you fully understand it at this point?
Cory Lopez: Yeah, I have a pretty good grasp on it now. 2010 was the transitional learning year for the new format. I definitely think a lot of guys last year were scratching their heads, not really knowing what was going on.

2008 was your first year off the tour and you were free surfing everywhere -- Skeleton Bay, Hatteras, Nicaragua, Trestles. This year, you've traveled in a marathon stretch of competitions. Talk about the dichotomy of the two.
Well I'll tell you what, 2008 was a lot more fun than 2011, so far. Free surf trips are where it's at for me. That's the best thing about surfing, just cruising with your friends and catching good waves. Contest surfing can be fun -- if you win. The problem with contests is that the waves are just not that good very often.

It seemed like you were having the time of your life that first year off. What's the motivation to get a permanent spot on tour again?
That's the age old question, why do you go to work? To make money. It also feels good to win some heats, here and there. And the feeling you get from competing is such a rush. When you're in your heat, you're so fired up, you're paddling hard, and you're basically fighting with all your strength to get that win. Free surfing does not replace that feeling.

In early 2010, we got a report that your good friend Andy Irons wanted you back on the tour. Was that a part of your motivation?
Yeah, you know at the time, I think that Andy was a big part of it for sure. He would always be calling me saying, "Come on, get back on tour. I need my travel partner back!" It's been really strange doing this without him. Every stop this year has brought back so many memories. Its hard, I miss him a lot.

How is the pressure at the Prime events compared to the World Tour contests?
They're the same now. The first Tour event back at Snapper was weird, maybe because I hadn't been around the boys in so long. I'm not really sure why, but at that contest the scene just seemed so intense, like, people looked different to me. I'm over it now -- all good to go. Just another contest.

You just finished a Brazilian leg that now includes one World Tour event and two Primes. What was that like?
Yeah, it's crazy. There are a lot of young, really good Brazilian surfers right now. What can I say? They surf really well and Brazil has been fun. I had fun waves at every stop, except Imbituba was pretty bad.

You were one of the first big-name pros to use shorter, beefier boards in smaller surf. Back then, it was viewed as a crutch -- it must be nice now it's acceptable at the highest levels.
It's funny you say that. Wardo [Chris Ward] and I were riding a lot of the same boards 15 years ago that we're riding today. They weren't acceptable to be ridden in a contest back then, but now they are. I guess that's the "Kelly Factor." Once he did it, it was all good ...Thanks Kelly.

The last time you were on the tour, it was basically nine events and then the Triple Crown. You've already done 10 events in five months this year.
Talk about that! I have done 10 events. That's a lot of time on the road. The old tour sounds a lot better to me. Bring it back. Maybe I should talk to our labor union.

How does having a wife and two children play into that?
That's a new twist for me, and the reason why it's so hard for me to be away so much now. I can't stand missing my kids grow up. Thank God for Skype.

You've been getting the alternate slot into the World Tour events so far this season. How important would an entry at Teahupoo be?
That's the one I really want into. I love Tahiti and have not been there in two or three years, so it would be really nice to go back and be in the event.

When you look at the rankings, you have Kelly Slater, who is sort of a citizen of the world at this point, and the Hobgoods, models of consistency, at the top. You and Gabe Kling are on the bubble. Eric Geiselman is No. 119. Does it concern you that there aren't many East Coasters knocking at the door?
I haven't really thought about it, but you have a point. Eric is only a year and a half into doing this thing, so I see a lot of upside for him. He just needs to stick with it and it will come around for him. Eric's little bro, Evan, the Golden boy, should be one for the East Coast to root for in the future. Other than that, the East Coast may be a little thin. That said, kids pop up out of nowhere all the time and I'm sure they will.