LEMOORE — It was a surf contest like no other before – a historic event that would give a glimpse of how surfing's best competitors would fare far from the ocean on waves created by a machine.
After two days of surfing action in the freshwater pool, it was a team made up of surfers from around the world that would win the Founders' Cup at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore.
Two of the victorious surfers on Team World live in Orange County, with Huntington Beach surfer Kanoa Igarashi and South African Jordy Smith, who lives in San Clemente, taking a victory lap on a watercraft Sunday with their other team members in the 700-yard pool, waving to the crowd after their win.
"To be honest, I kind of felt like we've been the underdogs the past two days," Smith said of the team that also included South Africa's Bianca Buitendag, New Zealand surfer Paige Hareb and Michel Bourez, from French Polynesia. "We wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for every one of them. Every one of them played a big role in our win."
The surf event brought 5,000 surf fans and newbies to the surf culture to Lemoore, more than 100 miles away from the closest ocean to watch the world's best in a stadium-style setting.
The two-day event was set up in a team format, different than traditional surf events where surfers compete as individuals. The five-member teams – USA, Europe, Brazil, Australia and World – battled to earn high scores that would be added up for a chance to make it in the finals.
Each competitor took one right-hand wave and one left-hander each round, their top scores from three rounds added to the team's total, with a 100-point scale (five surfers, two scores each) to earn a spot among the top three teams advancing to the final.
On the first day of the event, Team USA led the pack, with 11-time world champ and the wave pool's creator Kelly Slater taking the role as team captain in a group that also included world champion Hawaiians John John Florence and Carissa Moore and San Clemente's Kolohe Andino.
It wasn't until Saturday afternoon – when the Brazil team used its high-flying tactics to impress the audience lining the concrete pool – that the competition started heating up.
Brazilian Filipe Toledo, who lives in San Clemente, earned the contest's only perfect-10 score after boosting two big airs above the lip. Toledo's performance, and another high score by team captain Gabriel Medina, wasn't enough to put them in a safe spot heading into the second day.
But the team came out surfing hard Sunday morning for the Round 3, knowing they needed to improve their score to earn a spot in the finals where only three teams would compete.
Team USA, Brazil and World were the three teams to make it to the final. The scoreboard reset for the finals as the three teams battled for the first trophy earned at the Surf Ranch. The format switched up for the final, with the 15 surfers broken up into five heats, three surfers in each, with the best of two waves counting toward their ranking. The team with the most points at the end won the event.
Brazil continued its strong surfing into the finals. Medina came out swinging, on his first wave mastering massive turns, punctuating his performance with an aerial at the end, spinning his board above the wave's lip to draw a cheer from the crowd and earning a score of 9.07. He repeated the stellar performance – combining big turns, barrels and airs – on the 700-yard long wave during his second wave for an even better score of 9.67.
Hawaii surfer John John Florence botched his first wave, stumbling shortly after standing up on the wave. He started strong on his second wave, taking three turns until he tucked into the barrel, but the wave swallowed him and he never emerged.
Igarashi, who surfs for Japan on the World Tour, fell on his first wave, but made up for it on his second wave – pulling deep into a long barrel and ending the wave with two back-to-back airs, earning an 8.93.
Silvana Lima's performance further strengthened Brazil's dominance during the final, earning a 9.17.
Smith, team World's captain, wasn't going to make the final heat easy for his competition. He surfed his last wave strong, posting a 9.27 score. Brazilian Toledo tried to go big with an air, but stumbled on his final wave, eliminating his team's chance of taking the win.
Slater was the last surfer to hit the water, the crowd cheering before he began, the wave pool's creator throwing up two thumbs to the crowd. He had to go big to overtake Smith's score, but he couldn't land his two air attempts – and with a 9.0 score for his final wave, it was Team World that took home the first Founders' Cup title.
The surf event on the artificial wave showcased how an innovative contest could be held in a pool – giving organizers more control over a sport that relies heavily on nature, which can be unpredictable. The set schedule also helps market the event and secure television coverage to broadcast to the masses.
There's also a chance a man-made pool will be made in Japan for the 2020 Olympics. As of now, the plans are to hold surfing's debut at the beach, in natural waves, but there's a scramble to set up a pool in Japan case it can be held as a back-up venue.
Slater unveiled the Surf Ranch wave in late 2015, and until this weekend only surf insiders have been able to ride waves or see the wave.
The Surf Ranch technology was bought by the World Surf League, and a major contest for the World Tour is planned in September in Lemoore, with points from the wave pool counting toward the world title contention. That contest replaces the Hurley Pro that historically took place at Lower Trestles just south of San Clemente.
Surfing legend Fred Hemmings, who founded the Triple Crown of Surfing and served as the head of the pro surf tour when it started in 1982, called this one of three pivotal moments in surfing's history.
The first is when Duke Kahanamoku introduced the sport to Australia and the United States in the early 1900s, introducing the sport to the masses. The second was when surfing took the leap from being an amateur pastime to a professional sport. The third moment sat just feet away from him, where surfers were riding waves in man-made waves.
"I've seen a lot of the history of surfing. Every once in a while there's epic changes. This is a quantum leap in surfing," said Hemmings, who was honored as one of the sport's founders. "There will be surfing in Paris, and they'll be surfing in the corn fields of Central California. It's a special thing."
Surf fans who made the trek hours north from Southern California were impressed with the stadium surfing. Nick Yeager, of Costa Mesa, didn't know what to expect as he drove through farmland to watch the event at the wave pool.
"It's pretty unreal," he said while watching the action. "I wasn't sure how big the wave was going to be, or what it was going to look like ... I'm impressed. It's literally perfect."