A few months ago, the world of bodyboarding was rocked by one of the greatest competitions to ever have thrown down at Pipeline. All round hellman Seamus McGoldrick reports from a day that will change the face of bodyboarding forever.
Living Hawaiian surfing legend Mike Stewart has been running a professional bodyboarding event at Pipeline – the spiritual home of high performance bodyboarding – since 2000.
Mike has won a record nine world championships and eleven Pipeline championships. He has been crowned the Pipeline classic bodysurf champion a record 15 times as well as being the only non-stand up surfer to be given the title of Mr Pipeline. So, Mike knows a thing or two about competing at the Banzai.
Mike know a thing or two about competing at the Banzai. Mike won his first Pipeline event in 1983 and spent the next decade as the most celebrated bodyboarder on the planet. However, by the late nineties, Mike had reached a crossroads. He split from his long time sponsors, Morey, and took the bodyboard world by storm by creating his own brand, Science. Using his years of experience, talent and scientist-like mind, Mike began producing the greatest range of boards the world had ever seen
Mike also started the trend of professional bodyboarders setting up their own companies and essentially sponsoring themselves. This sent shock waves around the bodyboarding world and since then we have seen other seminal bodyboarding figures follow the same trajectory such as Jeff Hubbard, Ryan Hardy and Guillerme Tamega.
Back in 1999, Morey (owned by toy giant Mattel) dropped their sponsorship of the Pipe event three months before the contest was due to run in a shock move. They thought no one would be crazy enough to swoop in and rescue the event and steal their thunder but that is exactly what Mike did.
The permit holder for the Pipe event, Bob Thomas, asked Stewart to step in and help rescue the event. Needing a significant investment, Mike scrambled hard to get sponsors on board and pull it all together. Against the odds, the event went ahead, the waves turned on and South African Andre Botha became the first Pipe champion of the new millennium.
In 2020, as a new and uncertain decade was being born, bodyboarding was again in uncharted territory
The first Mike Stewart Pipeline Pro was run as part of the Global Organisation of Bodyboarding world tour which morphed into the International Bodyboard Association in 2003. Over the next ten years, the IBA developed the world tour into a fully fledged dream tour visiting high performance destinations around the world until it imploded due to a financial crash. In 2014, the Association of Professional Bodyboarders rose like a Phoenix from the flames and crowned six more Pipeline champions.
In 2020, as a new and uncertain decade was being born, bodyboarding was again in uncharted territory. The old guard had all but dropped of the tour which was awash with new blood. By 2019, the APB had reached the end of its tether, helmsman Alex Leon had retired and old sea captain Terry McKenna felt the end was near for him too. A fateful meeting at the APB's final event of year gave impetus to the formation of a new professional body for the sport, the International Bodyboard Corporation, which ran an event in Peru in January. The fans had enjoyed watching Peru but all eyes were on Pipeline. The Hawaiian event was the one fans really wanted to see.
South Africans leading the charge
When Iain Campbell (29) stepped off the plane back on to Hawaiian soil on 17 January many things must have been going through his mind. No doubt many worries, stresses and anxieties as well as bubbling excitements.
As an outside observer of the world bodyboard tour over the last several years, it is apparent that the South African commitment to the tour is huge. They do it for the love of the sport and the greater glory of Africa. The South Africans charged on the tour, hell or high water and bank balances be damned. They gave every other nation on tour a run for their money. Professional riders like Jared Houston, Mark Mc Carthy and Sasha Specker were all standouts on the world tour. Then super grom Tristan Roberts became world champion in 2019.
As a professional athlete, Iain came to Hawaii to get the job done. But, as a salt of the earth expert in the ancient Hawaiian art of wave sliding, the Islands represent a whole lot more. Stepping off a plane to Hawaii is a magical experience and to Iain ' it feels real comfortable, this is not my home, but I really feel connected to these islands in some spiritual way.'
Want to know when to go to Pipeline? Check our spot guide, HERE
“Coming back here it is not really like I am coming back for work. I love coming back here, the local are super cool. [Hawaii] is a special place. I did a trip a long time ago to Maui and it changed my life forever. So, every time I come back I reminisce on those times, it is was hugely positive time in my life.”
I've always felt that everyone who surfs is a little bit Hawaiian. The early pioneers of surfing in Ireland in the late Sixties, for example, wore Aloha shirts, threw shakas and learned to play ukulele. It was the same in the UK, the same in France, the Canary Island or Spain and pretty much every country where surfing took root and flourished. Everyone took their inspiration from the Islands and let that spark of Hawaiian soul seed on the beaches of their nations.
Mike makes it look easy
There was tremendous amount of work that went on behind the scenes to run an event at Pipeline. First of all, you need to navigate the intricacies of the permit process so you have permission for the event.
“The permit process [in Hawaii] is one of the hardest in the world.” Mike Stewart told me. “There is a lot of applicants trying to get a permit at Pipe and only a few get it. There are a number of different permits, there is city and state and marine, you you have to go through it all. It is full on. It is not just one meeting, you have to go to a bunch of meetings.”
In the end, Mike had ten days to run the event and lucked out with back to back swells. So, after all the hard graft it was a special event for Mike in many ways.
“It had a really good soul to it. We had Tom Morey there and a bunch of cool guys. It was amazing having [Tom] there. He was a dignified person. People came up to chat with him and connect with him. Physically he is struggling a little but mentally he is all there.”
“We had a bunch of old skool guys come back into it too. Kai Santos, Chris Burkart, Hauoli Reeves Ben Severson. It was cool to have some of the original guys in there. Kainoa McGee you know, he was ripping.”
Mike was buzzing on the fact the 2020 event was full of soul, but as we chatted, I got the sense he wasn't too down on his own performance in the competition.
“I won my first heat and then got lipped in my second heat. My fin strap broke off so I was without a fin. Then I spent too much time trying to repair my fin, so that was kind of a mistake. You got to be on it. You can't make mistakes.
Mike's two decades of dedication to the event paid off when he could see everyone was stoked
“The problem was, the few weeks leading up to the event I was too busy to surf. I couldn't really focus on it. There were sessions I missed because I had to go to permit meetings. I was usually up in the middle of the night problem solving. It is super challenging sometimes.”
The 2020 Mike Stewart Invitational had a unique, fully integrated format, a throwback to the original format for bodyboarding competitions where there were no particular rules on how to ride. The DK riders were in the the prone. The women were in with the men. Ayaka Suzuki made it to round four and fellow Japanese rider Miya Inoue made it to the quarter finals.
“That was really impressive. That has never happened before. She almost beat me in the quarters when she got an eight for a big roll. If she had one more wave, she could even advance to the semis.” said Mike.
In the end, for Stewart, the super cool vibes from all the nearly 100 competitors with all the guys and girls coming together to make it happen meant it was another special event for the sport of bodyboarding. Mike's two decades of dedication to the event paid off when he could see everyone was stoked.
On the fifth day of his trip, Iain Campbell got injured surfing at Keiki shorebreak. He went over the falls on one wave and landed with one leg on the ground while his whole body followed over top. His right knee gave in and Iain faced some tough decisions.
“I couldn't walk for the first couple of days. I was hobbling around my room.” says Iain, “I almost left and went home. But my trainer, Philip Nel, told me, 'don't come home, sit it out. Even if it takes two or three weeks, so what? You are in Hawaii, so chill, recover, eat good food'.”
Hawaii is a healing place so that's just what Iain did. Phillip sent Iain a rehabilitation program which he practiced every day, or every second day, and his knee injury progressed quickly. Still, his injury messed up the start of his trip and it was difficult for him to sit around and do nothing. Iain walked to the beach just to stay active and help recovery. He sat on the sand and watched pumping Pipe all day and walked home.
“That was painful. It was super difficult for me to go down there and see really nice clean conditions and not being able to surf.”
Iain had other projects to keep him occupied but even when he returned to the water in the first week of February he struggled. He could do inverts and rolls but he couldn't do forward spins or backflips. Iain couldn't flex his knee enough to keep it close to his body or to bring down the landing gear for those big boosts.
I asked Iain was he worried about injuring his knee again when he was launching moves?
“For sure I was so nervous, at the same time I knew if I didn't try I wouldn't know. It was a hard compromise, but it was a compromise I needed to make.”
Usually, Iain's game plan involves surfing the contest site for a month or a month and a half before an event. This time, he only got to surf for two and a half weeks before the event. When he got back in the water, Iain focused solely on surfing Pipeline, he didn't even surf anywhere else for the remainder of his trip. Iain swam at Pipe to ease himself back in, paddling out the back doing laps of the beach. Still, the word was out among his rivals that Iain was injured, everyone knew what had happened. Maybe that worked in his favour, perhaps his rivals wrote him off and gave Iain a hidden advantage when he bounced back.
Overcoming enormous odds is something many of the champion bodyboarders I have spoke to have in common. Iain's good friend Jared Houston won the world title in 2018 after suffering a near-career ending shoulder dislocation in 2016 and then dealing with his home island of Puerto Rico being completely flattened by hurricane Maria in 2017. Pierre Louis Costes managed to surf his way to the finals at pumping eight to ten foot Fronton to win his second world title despite breaking a rib in the lead up to the event.
These guys are battle hardened warriors, let me tell you.
There were good waves in the lead up to the contest and the competitors began to get excited. Iain surfed firing Pipeline the night before the event started. The surf on the morning of the contest looked promising. Rain squalls moved in as they do in Hawaii but by 11 am it cleared up for what promised to be an amazing day of competition.
By the time the event started, Iain's injured knee felt a lot better.
“I knew it wasn't 100 per cent. It was probably 85 – 95%. But I knew if I focused less on the injury and more on the event and competing, busting moves and landing moves, that would be so much more beneficial on my mind.”
Iain would have certainly had plenty on his mind. There was a tough field of competitors particularly the Pipeline locals, who are dangerous because they know all the conditions.
“Pyper Lluellen, a local Kauai boy, had some pretty nuts one leading up to the event. Ian Mc Caulley was doing some pretty funny stuff, like a crazy double knee barrel. Guys were just having a good time out there which is really good to see.”
Iain faced three Hawaiians in his first heat so it was a confidence booster when he progressed to the next round. Yet, he felt he didn't surf as well as he could have and only progressed with average scores. Conditions were tricky with a combination of west swell and east wind which, according to Iain, meant 'you get this side chop with the east wind but at the same time you get the actual ground swell which is from the west.'
“[The] majority of the time you were sitting on Pipe reef but you were getting the good ones on the sandbar which is next to Pipe. At the beginning of the heat I couldn't get my mind around the fact we weren't sitting on the reef, we were sitting off it.”
During the heat, it began to rain heavily and Iain paddled for a heavy looking wave that ended up going super weird. He got smashed around underwater to the point where for a split second he felt he had tweaked his knee again. When he got to the surface he was relieve to realise his knee was okay and he was still in the game. Iain just scraped through his next heat where he was beaten by world tour veteran Dudu Pedra from Brazil. He was very nearly knocked from the event entirely by Hawaiian Travis Smith, Koa Smith's brother.
“When I stepped out of the water from the quarter finals, I said to myself I can't let that happen again, I got to step it up.”
There were no easy heats. Iain felt he was lucky to get through the first two heats, but then his luck started to turn. Iain was into the semi-finals where faced Dudu Pedra once again as well as Kauaiian ex world champion Jeff Hubbard and local Hawaiian favourite Kawika Kamai. Iain only caught two waves in the heat, but they were enough. Once was a deep throaty Pipeline keg that would have any mortal pumping their chest out for years.
The most dramatic Pipe final in history
It was game on, finals time. There he would meet the other in-form competitors in the event. Former Pipe champion, Jeff Hubbard, was always a threat in any competitive scenario.
2019 world dropknee champion Sammy Morrentino, also from Kauai, was ripping all event. He even beat his sponsor Mike Stewart in their heat together by taking a wave under priority, popping up DK, getting a little barrel with three signature snaps afterwards. Sammy is one of the most versatile riders in the world and judging by his performance at Pipe this year he is charging for more world titles, both prone and dropknee.
But without doubt, one of the most dangerous riders in the event was another Kauaian, Tanner Mc Daniel. According to Mike Stewart, “Tanner was pretty much the standout the whole event. He was surfing really good, really technical. Every heat he was just ripping. The final came around, he was in winning form, it was his 21st birthday. Everything was kinda going his way.”
Tanner seems to be a bodyboarder who has forgotten how to surf bad. “He was just absolutely tearing guys apart.” says Iain, “His lowest counting score throughout the heats was maybe like a seven. He was putting up sixteen point plus heat scores throughout the entire event.”
I'm sure Iain had nerves to deal with but after surfing good Pipe all morning with only three other guys out you start to buzz on just surfing and having fun. “In the finals” say Iain, “I was like, stuff it, I am going to go out there and just have a good time, the waves are pumping, I might as well just get barreled.”
When the hooter went, it was Sammy Morrentino who drew first blood. Sammy completed a really good backflip at the start of the heat but failed to capitalise on this with a second high scoring wave. Next, Jeff and Iain split a decent wave at Pipe. Iain pulled in on the left but was too deep while Jeff went Backdoor and got barreled and then launched a big air reverse. As he landed, the wave converged on top of him jostled him off his board and quickly swallowed him up. If Jeff had landed that move the judges would have been absolutely loving it and things could have worked out very different.
“That would have been a huge score.” admits Iain, “That would have thrown a spanner in the works.”
Then, Tanner Mc Daniels went on the attack and landed two backflips on his next wave. Iain knew he needed a decent score but it was thirty minute final so he knew he had time. Iain locked into a good Pipe wave that ran all the way down the reef. He was super deep in the tube from the start.
“That wave kept going, going. It was super throaty on the inside, super wide and really fun. I made it out and did a little chop hop reverse.”
Iain now had a good wave under his belt but then Tanner got another score and went into the lead. Tanner was pretty far ahead so Iain knew he need to back up his earlier score – time to shine. I'm sure it is tough to imagine it unless you were there. A tense Pipe final with the best in the business in the water and decent waves to boot. The world waiting on each wave exchange, hanging on the drama. I asked Iain what the energy was like in the water?
“Bro, it is so electric. You can hear everyone too. Hearing everyone on the beach is pretty fucking wild.”
Iain's crew on the beach cheered him on. On his next wave, Iain took off, bottom turned, went around the barrel and went straight into a big backflip. “Then it linked through on to the sand bar” Iain explained, “so I kept going and had a little barrel to backflip and did a roll off a little choppy section and then a little bash reverse at the end. Full combo to the beach.”
“I knew this was it, I am in this event.”
Jeff Hubbard did get a good score on his next wave but not enough to go into the lead. Tanner Mc Daniel was paddling back out after a failed barrel attempt when he spotted an inside wave that looked like it had potential. He got a great run into the wave, hit the ramp and completed a reverse air out of the bowl. The judges liked what they saw and he went into the lead with five minutes to go.
So now Iain needed an excellent score to win.
Eventually Iain took priority. He waited. And waited. He was in two minds. If the wave came it came. If it didn't, it didn't. He would have felt Tanner was a deserving winner. At least the Pipe event was won by a progressive technical manoeuvre. The sport of bodyboarding would win. Then, with one minute twenty seconds left on the clock, Iain could see something feathering outside in the distance. A big set was coming.
“I turned to Tanner and said, 'What do think the chances are these will get to us in time?'. He turns to me and he goes, 'I don't want to say they will and I definitely don't want to say they won't but whatever happens happens'.”
And with these words Tanner sealed his own fate.
“It was so funny. I turned and looked out and said, fuck, I don't think they are going to make it. A minute twenty isn't enough time. I sat there and watched and watched. I knew how much time is left. And the first wave of the set hit us and there was twenty second to go! The first one was terrible so I went under it. I could see there was another one behind. I knew that as soon I had momentum [the judges] were going to count the wave. So I scrambled out. I was so lucky because I was in such a good position for the next wave.”
“I knew where I was on the reef, I knew what line I was going to take. I knew it was coming so I just turned and said, 'if this works out it works out, if it doesn't, it doesn't. I am going to try and send this wave and get barrelled, heavily barrelled. Otherwise I am going to go for broke with a big air move'.”
“It was crazy man. As I took off, it was super steep. It started to barrel and it chandeliered a bit and when it chandeliered it slowed me down in the barrel a little bit more. After the chandelier it all went white and I could see Sammy on the shoulder just screaming. He was going nuts.”
According to Sammy, Iain's was the barrel of the contest – 'The gods gave it to him in the last five seconds.'
“It gassed” Iain continues, “and I still didn't come out after the blow out. And then I rode out on the foamball. I was screaming. I was so pumped up from that experience.”
Iain told me he could hear the horn for the end of the heat blow when he was locking into the barrel, which is the best thing I have ever heard.
“I could hear them counting down as I was paddling in [to the wave]. 5- 4- and as I hit the bottom I could hear the siren go and I was like holy shit this wave is going to count! I came out of the barrel, I was screaming and as I came off the back I was like, holy shit, that might actually do it. That might give me the nine that I needed. But they just didn't call the score out.”
“It was painful. You are sitting out there, you want to know what is going on but they are just not saying anything. Eventually I caught a wave in to the beach and as I looked up Tanner was running over towards me. And I was like, okay, this is kind of weird. He turned to me and said, 'Bro you f#@king did it'.”
“I was like, what? And Tanner goes, 'Bro, you got a ten!'. And I was like, nah I didn't. And he was like, bro, you are the f#@king Pipe champ bro. I was like holy shit!”
The realisation hit him on the beach. He threw his hands in the air. It was wild, surf or bodyboard, it was one of the most dramatic endings to a Pipe event, ever. As Iain said before, Hawaii is a special place. In surfing terms, the best type of sportsmanship comes out from the Hawaiians, the element of competitiveness and progression is there but so too is fair play and respect that ties in with the special connection with the ocean that surfers have.
Iain was surrounded on the beach, close friends land fellow competitors, people he had spent a lot of time in the water with in Hawaii. Close friend Davin Alexander hoisted him up on his up on his shoulders and carried him up the beach.
“Every one was so stoked. That makes it so worth it. It was such a feel good moment. Such a good story for me. It is a crazy thing to go through [a knee injury] and come out the other side with a Pipe title, it is pretty messed up.”
A group of waves travel across several thousands of kilometers of ocean and how they break in the final seconds of their journey will have profound effect on individuals lives. Competitive surfing is not like a sport such as weightlifting, for example, because there are so many factors outside the athletes control that effect the outcome. Plus, in the sports of bodyboarding or surfing, the athletes are competing in a uniquely dynamic and alive environment where they are moving, their equipment is moving and the wave is moving. None of the three elements you are dealing with are static, everything is in flux. What other sport are like that?
When he got to the beach, Iain was hearing things like, 'that was the most epic final ever'. People watching from the beach or on the web were buzzing on the level of riding.
“That makes me even more stoked we got to portray that out at Pipe. Everyone was surfing really well.” says Iain, “That makes it even more special. I didn't win it in shitty Pipe conditions. It was really good Pipe conditions.”
In the immediate aftermath of getting a perfect ten in the last five seconds of the Pipeline final, Iain told me it still felt surreal.
“I woke up the next morning and looked at the trophy to make sure it is still there. It honestly felt like a dream. I still right now can't believe it. My bags are packed, I am ready to leave Hawaii and I have got the first place Pipeline trophy in my bag. It is so surreal.”
“I've been dreaming about this for years on end and struggling to get over here at the end of some years and just managing to scrape by and make it out here. It just makes all the travel and all the trouble, coming out here for month on end, so worth it. This is something I have been wanting to achieve since I was a kid.”
With surfing, it is a big ocean, and many of these male and female champions make it happen for themselves using visualisation. They visualise it all happening in their heads a million times before it actually happens in real life.
“For me, it is more the end goal than the actual process that I visualise. Me holding that trophy was one of the things I really went over a lot in my head. It was a crazy situation how it all ended up working out.”
For event organiser Mike Stewart, the highlights were 'every one interacting with Tom [Morey] and just the good vibes every one had.'
“It seemed like every one was appreciative and in good spirits. It didn't get too intense or negative.”
With a lot of changes happening on the 2020 world tour, in 2021 Pipeline will become a champion of champions event.
“Next year the event is going to be called the Mike Stewart Pipeline World Championships.” Mike explains, “I am going to follow the format of bringing in something like the original one. We are going to invite the top place finishers from each region. Basically, we are going to take the top riders from every country and they are going to have invitations to the event. The person who wins that event will be the champion of champions.”
For Mike, Pipeline is the ultimate proving ground. So much of the origins of the sport of bodyboarding go back to Pipeline, where reputations were made, maneuvers were invented and the sould of bodyboarding was forged in the heat of the Banzai crucible.
“There is no other wave like it. You could argue that there are on occasions waves that could get better but there are not.”
2020 Pipe champion Iain Campbell wanted to send a special shout out to Mike and his team.
“They did a fantastic job, I know Mike and Jeff worked together and I think that is what we need more of in the sport, for everyone to join together more and work as a team and get stuff done. This event shows that in the best light because you have two guys who are in business compeition but here they are making Pipeline possible.”
Jeff and another Kauaian old school bodyboard legend, Chris Burkhart, along with Chris's wife created a non profit called Hale Kipa which Chris and Jeff run their bodyboarding events through. Jeff and Mike worked together to use this non-profit to run the Pipeline Invitational event.
The aim of this non profit is to run events in Hawaii and increase youth ocean awareness. The idea is to perpetuate ocean awareness through sport and try and teach the kids how much fun you can have in the ocean and the value ocean activities can bring to you life.
It was a huge thing for Iain to see these two giant figures in the world of bodyboarding come together for the greater good of the sport.
“So just a shout out to those guys for making it possible. The judges the event staff and the water patrol and everyone else. It is so sick to see that bodyboarding is so alive in Hawaii. I am lucky to have a really good team back home that has helped me through this difficult time. I am really grateful to finally have a Pipeline event win to my name.”
The sport of bodyboarding was the big winner from this year's event highlighted by superb technical performances. The level of riding in professional bodyboarding competitions is increasing year in year and, regardless of the financial state of the industry, that is not going to stop any time soon.
The Pipeline event was also an exhibition of the free flowing good vibes attached to our sport. With out that, I don't see bodyboarding surviving. Sure, the top guys and girls want to do competitions and win titles but they also want to just have fun too. As long as the bar is being raised everyone is pretty happy, whether it is prone or on one knee or two knees or on however many number of knees.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about a global shake up of many professional sports organisations which before were riding high. For various reasons, bodyboarding had been pushed to the bottom. It can't go any lower. Bodyboarding is like the cockroach in the nuclear fallout, it will survive and crawl out from whatever rock it was hiding under. It might be a little radioactive for a while but these things pass.
The global pandemic has led the next six events of the fledgling International Bodyboard Corporation world tour being postponed. For sure, Iain Campbell was intent on chasing the tour and the glory of more event wins. Now the events are postponed, he is not too stressed. Iain has developed a strong mental game evident with how he came back from a near-critical knee injury. He has his big Pipeline win in the bag. It is back home sitting in his trophy cabinet in Cape Town.
Iain is a great torch bearer and at the moment he is carrying the flame. He is a young man with a wise head on his shoulders and a very accomplished competitive bodyboarder who has proved to the world he is the man to beat. And I don't doubt for a second he could do it all again.