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Morgan Faulkner is shredding the wave.
The 18-year-old is in Isla Blanca Park, South Padre Island, shooting for air on a broken-nosed shortboard. The fiberglass snapped like a potato chip in the previous heat, cutting an inch off the front end. But Faulkner has gone a whole foot shorter in competition, so he's not about to let this set him back.
His waterlogged yellow jersey stuck to his back like a layer of skin, the six-foot-one, 175-pound Faulkner shoots across the lip, then he's down, tumbling into the wave, disappearing into the sun's searing reflection. Watching these surfers ride the light-reflecting waves is like eyeing a bird across the sun. The light just swallows them. One second, you see a surfer magnetized to the lip, then there's a flash and he's gone, and you have no way of telling what happened.
Faulkner's head pops up and he retrieves his board. He paddles patiently in place, seeking the wave that can make up for his spill.
Overhead, an orange Coast Guard chopper follows the shoreline and a Coast Guard boat trolls slow as driftwood beyond the breakers. They're looking for an 18-year-old swimmer who got sucked into the undertow and never came up.
The surfers pay no attention. This is the semifinals of the state championships, and they're busy counting waves. In the 15-minute heats, surfers can catch only eight waves, with judges counting the top two. You can't wait too long for the right one, but you can't just go for the first eight that come your way, either. And when the timekeeper, perched upon his folding-chair throne high atop the scaffolding, blasts the air horn, you know you've got only five more minutes.
They also have to watch out for dropping in on another surfer's wave. Dropping in can cost you a heat, and worse, respect. It's a kook's move.
Until he hits the wave, Faulkner has no idea what tricks he'll pull.
"I really don't think about what I'm gonna do on the waves," he says. "That just comes with the waves."
But he knows what he'll do in a month. He's done all he can do in Texas, so he's moving from Port Aransas to Oahu's North Shore, home of Pipeline, the most treacherous wave in the world. He wants to go pro. If he can brave the North Shore, he'll have a shot.
It should be easy to hate Morgan Faulkner.
His long blond hair frames a smooth, handsome face with a splash of freckles beneath his brown eyes and across the bridge of his nose. He's the only child of extremely wealthy parents. His mother, an attorney, and his father, who works in the oil industry, are able to back up their incredible emotional support with cash. They have taken Faulkner to the beaches of California, Hawaii, South Africa, Ecuador, Venezuela and Australia.
He drives a souped-up 1956 International panel truck and has more surfboards that he can keep track of. In August, he and his surfer girlfriend, 20-year-old Brittany Tupaj, will move into his parent's duplex on Sunset Beach, Oahu. When he's not taking business classes at the University of Hawaii, he'll be in the seven-mile stretch of waves along the North Shore that is to surfers what Cooperstown is to baseball fanatics.
And, oh, yeah, he just may be the best surfer in Texas.
He's a three-time member of the U.S. Amateur Surfing Team and has racked up first- and second-place awards in both shortboard and longboard on both coasts. His sponsors include Quiksilver and Reef Brazil, two of the biggest names in surfing gear.
So you may expect a cocky brat, and part of you almost wishes for it. Eighteen and living rent-free in Hawaii with your girlfriend? What a jerk.
What you get instead is a soft-spoken, well-mannered guy with no airs, and then, damn it, you can't help but like him. The same goes for his parents, who are only doing what any other parent would do for their child, given the means. The key is that Faulkner's drive comes not from besting opponents but from surfing against himself. Out in the water, it's just him versus the wave.
Most of the time, it's him versus the lackluster surf in Texas. In Galveston, Port Aransas and South Padre Island, the waves are strictly wind-generated, producing a continuous assembly line of modest, slow-moving swells. Ocean swells are triggered by storms hundreds or thousands of miles offshore, resulting in intermittent bursts of monster waves. Texas surfers who want to go pro can't train exclusively in Texas, and even if they get out to Southern California or Virginia, many still can't adapt to a totally different kind of wave.
No Texan has cracked the Association of Surfing Professionals' top 25 rankings in 20 years, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Bill Clinton was still president the last time a Texan made a dent in the surfing world -- but it was one hell of a dent, and fitting for a Texan. In 1998, Houston-born Ken Bradshaw roped an 85-foot behemoth on the North Shore and rode the biggest wave in surfing history. Texas surfers can't talk for long without mentioning Bradshaw in reverence.