Tom Curren was the American surfing icon of the 1980s. As the first American to find success on the Australian-dominated Association of Surfing Professionals tour, he gave hope to hundreds of young would-be competitors across the country. Between his fame, his success, and his clean-living Christian lifestyle, Curren was a role model for thousands of young surfers.
The First Legendary Curren
Tom Curren is the son of an earlier surfing legend, Pat Curren, who was one of the pioneers in the modern age of the sport. The elder Curren started surfing in California in 1950, at the age of eighteen. In 1955 Curren moved to Hawaii to surf the larger waves of the North Shore of the island of Oahu. He continued to shape surf-boards there as he had in California, but the larger surf required a different style of board. Curren's designs, known as Elephant Guns since they were designed for hunting the biggest waves, had more of a rocker or curve than standard boards and went very quickly. Curren also made a name for himself in Hawaii for being one of six men who pioneered surfing in the Waimea part of the island, where the waves can be particularly dangerous.
In 1961 Pat Curren married a surfer named Jeanine. A year later the two of them moved to Santa Barbara, California, where Jeanine ran a bikini shop and Pat made a living by shaping surfboards, diving for abalone, and designing bikinis for Jeanine's shop. Tom Curren, the first of their three children, was born in 1964, and almost as soon as he could walk he was in the water. He got his first surfboard, a present from his father, when he was six. But Pat was discontented with this domesticated life, and eventually he and Jeanine began to fight. Tommy, caught in the middle, began drinking, running away, and smoking marijuana as a sixth- and seventh-grader. Jeanine, at her wits end, hardly ever let him out of her sight. She took Curren to church with her, inculcating the Christianity that would later become an important part of his life, and she drove him to surfing competitions all along the West Coast. By the time he was fourteen, he was winning major championships.
Taking on the World
After winning two U.S. junior national championships, one world junior championship, and one amateur world championship, Curren was ready to try his luck on the professional tour. The Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) world tour was only in its seventh season when Curren joined in 1982, but the Australian and to a lesser extent South African surfers had already established their dominance. As a teenaged American, Curren might not have merited much respect from the other surfers, except for one thing: he won events, three in his first season alone. The next season, Curren became the first American to complete the four-event Australian Grand Slam, a feat which he repeated in 1985. Curren was handicapped in his quest to win a world title because he boycotted the competitions which were held in South Africa to protest that country's apartheid system. Despite this, he captured the ASP championship in 1985 and in 1986.
Curren's most memorable single event from these years may have been the 1986 Op Pro. The Op Pro, which is held at Huntington Beach, California, has always been a good event for Curren: it provided him with his first professional victory in 1982, and he won the event again in 1985. In 1986, Curren was undefeated going into the event. He faced perennial rival Mark Occhilupo in a preliminary round. Curren took the lead early, but Occhilupo caught two great waves to catch up in the second half of their thirty-minute heat. With only minutes left to go in the heat, the two had a paddling race to the priority buoy, which would determine which of them would get first choice of waves. Occhilupo won by mere inches, forcing Curren to move closer to the shore and take a less desirable wave. This gave Occhilupo the victory in that heat, and he went on to win the entire event. The American crowd, looking forward to watching Curren win, was furious with this outcome, and some of the 50,000 spectators began to riot, even overturning and burning a police car.
Curren took some time off from surfing in the late 1980s, but he returned in 1990 to win an unprecedented third world title. He continued to compete through the early 1990s, but after 1992 he spent less and less time competing and more time doing other things. As he had throughout his career, Curren continued to appear in surfing cult-flick films, including The Endless Summer II in 1994. He also became even more famous through an ad series called The Search, featuring Curren searching the world for the perfect wave, produced by his sponsor Rip Curl.
After having been out of competition completely for several years, Curren mounted another comeback in 1997. Occhilupo made a comeback around the same time, and crowds were thrilled to see these two masters surfing against each other again. Curren quickly made it back into the upper ranks of surfers in the world, winning or finishing in the top three in several events in 1998. His wins in seasons since include the 2001 Quiksilver Pro at Lower Trestles, where he won his first professional competition ever in 1982. At the latter competition, even Curren's board was loaded with nostalgia: it was a replica of his famous Black Beauty board of the mid-1980s.
|1964||Born July 3|
|1981||Father, Pat Curren, abandons family|
|1983||Becomes first American to win Australian Grand Slam|
|1983||Marries wife, Marie, April 26|
|1983||Appears in the film Blazing Boards|
|1985||Has a reunion with father in Costa Rica|
|1986||Appears in the film Beyond Blazing Boards|
|1986||Crowd in Huntingdon Beach riots after Curren loses Op Pro event to Mark Occhilupo|
|1986||Appears in the film Son of the Last Surf Movie|
|1992||Begins appearing in the Search ad campaign|
|1994||Appears in the film The Endless Summer II|
|1997||Returns to professional competition|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1978||Boys fourteen-and-under Western Surfing Association champion|
|1978-79||U.S. Boys Nationals|
|1980||World Junior Championship|
|1982||Amateur World Championship|
|1985-86, 1990||Association of Surfing Professionals world champion|
|1998||Clarion Car Audio Surf Tour overall champion|
Curren remains an inspiration to thousands of young surfers, although he is uncomfortable about being given too much credit for influencing today's competitors. "Sometimes I feel old out there…. No, most of the time," he told Los Angeles Times reporter Erik Hamilton in 1999. "[S]urfing is changing. There's more of a technical aspect to it. I can't do the stuff these kids are doing." But those kids might not be competing with the spectacular aerial tricks that they perform today if Curren had not paved the way for Americans to be champions on the world tour.
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Sketch by Julia Bauder