Conner Coffin looked up toward land from California’s San Clemente Pier, pointing at the quaint Beachcomber Inn hotel rooms where he would stay as a youngster decades ago competing at amateur surfing events at nearby Lower Trestles.
Coffin, now 28, is back in the seaside town for yet another contest — this time, a world championship title on the line.
And if the Santa Barbara surfer is successful, he will become the first Californian surfer to earn the prestigious men’s World Surf League World Title in 30 years, a feat last conquered by Tom Curren back in 1990 before Coffin was even born.
“It’s extra motivation,” Coffin said of possibly following his idol’s legacy. “It would be insane … I’d be honored to carry the torch.”
In is his way are four other of the world’s best surfers, all after the same goal.
The first-ever Rip Curl WSL Finals are gearing up to hit Lower Trestles — one of the mainland’s best spots for waves — and will feature the top five men and top five women battling it out in an one-day showdown that will crown the champ.
A gathering Tuesday on the wooden San Clemente Pier brought those elite athletes together to talk about the upcoming finals — they’re being advertised as the “Super Bowl of Surfing” — which will happen sometime within the next week or so.
Organizers are carefully watching forecast models to determine the best day to hold the contest based on waves and weather.
A “yellow alert” will be announced, putting out a 24-hour notice for when the event might run, though the official call will happen the day of on the beach, WSL Head of Competition Jessi Miley-Dyer said. Looking at the forecasts, there’s two swells they are watching, one on Sept. 11 and 12, and another for Sept.13-15.
The gathering also unveiled a new installation, the Walk of Champions, that stretches down the pier and showcases past world champions.
Making the cut for the WSL mens finals are Brazilians Italo Ferreira, a world champion who just won gold at the first-ever Olympics surf contest, current world No. 1 Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo, who now calls San Clemente home. WSL rookie Morgan Cibilic, of Australia, also grabbed a finals spot, along with Coffin.
The line up for the top five women include France’s Johanne Defay, Australians Sally Fitzgibbons and seven-time champ Stephanie Gilmore, Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb, who lives on Kauai, and Hawaii Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Carissa Moore.
The event is bringing professional surfing back to San Clemente’s backyard for the first time in years — the Hurley Pro was taken off the World Tour back in 2017.
Gilmore, a seven-time world champion, said the surf break and nearby town is one of her favorites to visit.
“It’s like a skatepark,” she said, noting Lower Trestles has an ideal wave for everything from rights to lefts, to do big carves or airs. “It’s a great place for fans to come and watch because it’s so close. Down here in San Clemente, surfing is just a strong part of the community, everyone I’ve been talking to down in the surf is excited.”
Gilmore’s world titles — dating back to her first win in 2007 — are part of the new art installation, a chance for her to “relive those memories,” she said.
Coffin has spent his fair share of contests and free surfs at Lower Trestles.
“It’s really nice to be back down here in San Clemente and competing here on home soil,” he said. “There’s so much surf ingrained in San Clemente and California, it’s gnarly to not have an event here. It’s great, it’s now the biggest event of the year here and I’m stoked to be here.”
Toledo has also had his share of practice at the world-renown surf break, with the Brazilian and his family moving to San Clemente eight years ago.
And, with tight travel restrictions, his wife and two kids, 3 and 5, haven’t been able to watch him compete in person. But plenty of family will be showing up on the cobblestone beach to support him this week — a chance for them to see him at work doing what he loves and hopefully “be an example we can achieve whatever we want if we keep dreaming and fighting for it,” he said.
The new Rip Curl WSL Finals is a drastic change to professional surfing’s longtime format, crowning a champ in a one-day surf-off rather than based on points accumulated throughout the competitive year.
Toledo said he thinks the new format could take surfing to the next level of popularity — drawing more viewers, fans and sponsors to help fuel the sport.
Moore, fresh off her gold medal win for Team USA in Japan, talked about how special it would be to win a world title this season, which would be her fifth.
“It’s been an incredible season and year so far. I know I have the work cut out for me, there’s four other incredible women in the showdown,” she said. “I’m going to have to put my head down and work real hard for this one. If it does work out, it will be super special.”
WSL CEO Erik Logan gave a “heartfelt thank you” to the San Clemente community hosting the event. It’s a place where renowned board shapers work, a town that produces “global superstars” and a place where the surf industry has support, he said.
“Lower Trestles, as we all know, is globally known as one of the most high-performance waves and we could not think of a better venue to serve as the battleground for the undisputed world champion,” he said.
Bringing the contest to town has a trickle down effect, adding surf tourism business to local hotels and restaurants, Councilman Chris Duncan said.
“Coming out of the pandemic, the timing couldn’t be better for us,” he said. “The timing is just really good and we look forward to all those benefits to our local businesses who did struggle getting through the pandemic and are looking to bounce back and come back even better than ever.”
San Clemente surfer and artist Jeff Lukasik, hired to do all of the event’s artwork, said it’s exciting to see the world’s best in town and in the line up.
“I like seeing them in the water, it makes me want to surf harder, it kind of brings a little bit out of me,” he said.
Australia’s Fitzgibbons, who also competed at the Olympic games this year, said it’s been a year of firsts — including the women’s contest kicking off the year at Pipeline in Hawaii and the upcoming WSL finals, where the females get to surf the same waves, on the same day, as the men.
“To experience that, alongside these guys, is like we’ve had birthday parties all year,” she said.
And she hopes it’s a chance for surf fans to celebrate — especially with the pandemic challenges the past year.
“The world’s been in some tough situations, so just a huge thanks to all involved that we can show up, put these jerseys on and, hopefully, for all those watching back home in Australia supporting us or worldwide, maybe just a moment of joy and escapism that they can just cheer for their favorite surfer and be a part of something as pure as riding some waves,” she said.
Connelly writes for the Orange County Register