The U.S. Open of Surfing has become something incredible.
It's the biggest surfing contest in the world, with men's winner receiving a check for $100,000. I was down there Monday checking things out and I heard Rick "Rockin' Fig" Fignetti say on the loudspeaker that it had to be a record crowd for a Monday.
Event organizers were anticipating 750,000 would attend throughout the week. And with good reason.
How many world-class competitions can anybody get so up close and personal with the world's best? My 10-year-old son Cade and I were underneath the pier at the water's edge during the men's opening heats Monday.
Before their heats, many of the surfers would go down to the sand under the pier, stretch out and then enter the water on the north side of the pier and paddle out.
"Hey Cade, don't turn around, but there's a guy standing right behind you," I said. "His name is Adriano De Souza. He's from Brazil. He's one of the best surfers in the world."
De Souza is ranked No. 4 in the Assn. of Surfing Professionals World Tour standings, trailing Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater and Joel Parkinson in the race for a world championship.
Would we ever get a chance to stand next to Albert Pujols when he was in the on-deck circle? How about standing under the hoop while Kobe Bryant was getting ready to shoot a free-throw?
When Slater ran by in his bright red rashguard and shiny bald head, I didn't have to tell Cade who he was. We watched him paddle out, then watched his heat while we were standing ankle deep in the water.
We watched Slater win his heat, landing a 360 rotation for a big score. Right there. Right in front of us.
But what sometimes gets lost in the frenzy that the surfing world has become are the pioneers who made it all possible. That's why, among other tributes, Don MacAllister, Mike Abdelmuti and Jack's Surfboards created the Surfing Walk of Fame in 1994.
You've seen the sidewalk in front of Jack's, the honorees' names and handprints imprinted in cement squares.
This year's honorees include seven people in six categories, including four with local connections. They'll be recognized during the induction ceremony at 10 a.m. Thursday in front of Jack's.
The Woman of the Year inductee is Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns, whose family moved from New York to Laguna Beach when she was a kid. She quickly was hooked on surfing and began competing in — and dominating — NSSA events until she became a world amateur champion at 15.
She was the ASP Rookie of the Year in 1984 and had her best season in 1986 when she finished fourth in the world.
Women's surfing back then was not like it is today. Sponsors were not easy to get and the women simply didn't have the money to travel the world like the men did. So Schwarzstein-Cairns — who is married to surf legend Ian Cairns — served on the ASP board after her surfing career ended in an effort to help build the sport for women.
Nowadays she helps out with the Laguna Beach High surf team and mentors Laguna's up-and-coming female surfers Taylor Pitz and Leah Pakpour.
The Honor Roll inductee is Stacy Wood, a physical education teacher at Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach, where she is also the school's volunteer surf club coach.
Wood's teams have won multiple NSSA Interscholastic titles, but she won't let just anybody on her team surf. The club requires all the surfers to carry a minimum of a 2.0 grade-point average.
Wood also is a former winner of the Duke's Outstanding Educator Recognition award.
The Surf Culture honoree is Sean Collins, whose surfline.com is the premier surf forecasting website with its offices on PCH and Main in Huntington Beach. Collins died Dec. 26, but he was — and still is — one of the most influential people in surfing history.
The Local Hero honoree is George Draper, who has owned George's Surf Shop on Main Street in Huntington since 1967.
He was born in Kansas but moved to Carlsbad in 1952. He embraced the California lifestyle, learning to surf and becoming a lifeguard. He bought George's Surf Shop — ironically named for the original owner, George Panton — for $1,000, and had all the big-name boards and best shapers of the day hanging out at his shop.
Also being inducted into the Walk of Fame are Michael Peterson and Dick Brewer (Surf Pioneers) and Michael Ho (Surf Champion).
JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.