Stab Magazine | The Hobgood Challenge

The Hobgood Challenge

Forget money or points, CJ and Damo Hobgood’s invitational event in Micronesia gives pro juniors what they need most of all: motivation The lineup looks like a Colgate commercial. Big teeth everywhere. Faces permanently frozen into plastic smiles — at least until another serious peaks pops up out the back and demands full concentration. A late […]

style // Feb 22, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Forget money or points, CJ and Damo Hobgood’s invitational event in Micronesia gives pro juniors what they need most of all: motivation

The lineup looks like a Colgate commercial. Big teeth everywhere. Faces permanently frozen into plastic smiles — at least until another serious peaks pops up out the back and demands full concentration. A late drop. A frothy foamball rinse bathed in blue light. And— several long seconds later — a white-spit kickout where the non-stop nitrous giggling begins all over again.
“I’ll guarantee you we are, without a doubt, the luckiest surfers on the planet,” laughs one longhaired Californian, fresh from his latest life-altering tuberide. CJ agrees, going on to claim it’s the most perfect righthand wave he’s surfed. But when Dusty Payne shyly admits he’s having his best session ever — that he’s happy he skipped the Pipeline event — that’s when you know you’ve scored something
After all, Dusty just turned 18. And unlike most cocky teenagers he really has seen and done it all.
So have Dion Atkinson, Eric Geiselman, Clay Marzo, Dusty Payne, Garut Widiarta and Owen Wright. All 20 or under and together they can check off centuries of surfing achievement and experience. National championships and amateur world titles. Years of Mentawais boat time. Miles of North Shore miracles. Gallons of magazine ink and gigs of video clips. Doing things surfers twice their age only dream of so many times now, it feels less like a fantasy cruise, and more like punching the clock over and over again. And beyond any mid-season injury or early adult drug problem, that may be the greatest threat to a big-time pro career. Because half of every “dream job” is a job. And everybody wants to blow-off work now and again.
“Obviously these kids know they want to be on the WCT,” says Damien, setting up the premise for the inaugural Hobgood Challenge presented by Pac Sun. “But they also know the WQS is gonna be gnarly for a while. Our goal was to give them a little taste of what’s waiting on the other side so they try that much harder. Because if there’s no gold at the end of the rainbow, then why do it?”

Staying motivated is the driving force behind the twins’ competitive philosophy and the defining tenet of their annual getaways for future pros. While the first “Camp Hobgood” focused on unknown, untapped talent, the second two filled a different void: pushing proven American amateur standouts in a week-long setting of increased interaction and constant competition. This year, CJ and Damien opted take their mission a step further, focusing an international field into one stand-alone event — a man-on-man invitational — and the first ASP-rated specialty Pro Junior contest of its kind.
But the Hobgood Challenge isn’t about earning ratings points. (Of which there are none.) Or even cash. (In fact, all six competitors split the $16,000 purse evenly before ever paddling out; the winner taking home just $1 more than his foes — while donating an extra grand to the charity of his choice.) For the Hobgoods, the experience should be the ultimate reward, as they strive to reproduce a model version of what life’s like inside surfing’s big leagues.
“These guys already have heaps of competitive fire already,” CJ continues. “We want to use the competition to bridge that gap and let them see the environment we see sometimes — this is what Fiji is like when it’s pumping; this is Tahiti when you’re dropping in to the biggest wave of your life one day before the contest starts — to show them a side of surfing they’ve never seen before.”

On a map, the islands of Micronesia appear as a sparse constellation of tiny, terrestrial stars in a big, blue universe. From the air, they begin as faint chalk sketches, silhouettes that slowly fatten into lithe islands surrounded by white-ringed atolls, deep channels marking many tempting reef passes. So far apart, early explorers routinely missed different islands on their journeys through the Pacific, and modern surf adventurers are no different. Our destination is one of the freshest finds in the sport — just a few years old — yet already lauded as a world-class right by past visitors such as Pancho Sullivan and Kieren Perrow, whose guest book entry brags he “spent more time looking out of the tube than in.” Unfortunately, there’s even more messages sadly scrawling, “Sorry we didn’t get to see what she can really do.”
Upon arrival, CJ and Damien have been stuck on that page for two days. The infamous freight train slowing to a chest-high crawl. We kill time shooting photos, eating sushi, flipping from waterfalls, and snorkeling a coral slab clearly rife with colorful fish and huge surfing potential. Of course, the whole top 45 will tell you that much of life on tour is waiting for swells, sometimes running heats in sub-par conditions. At least with the lack of surf, we’ve got the place almost to ourselves and a couple innovative comps to get the kids thinking creatively.

“Snap to roundhouse to layback!” yells Owen Wright.
Seventeen-year-old Wright’s the youngest of the crew. He’s also the skinniest. But the six-foot, 65-kilo beanpole still casts the biggest shadow contest-wise, dominating international showdowns from the Rip Curl Grom Search to last year’s ISA World games. The Under 16 champion leads a life of near uninterrupted heats — in fact, he’s skipping two contests for this trip alone. And as he completes another spine-bending succession of manoeuvres it’s clear he’s taking this impromptu game of SURF — a variation of basketball’s HORSE  just as seriously. Going on only the choicest sets, calling manoeuvres he’s cocksure of completing, Wright’s focused on chipping away at Marzo’s perceived position as the standout goofyfoot — even if it takes all afternoon. Which it pretty much does. After three hours, Damo starts questioning their decision, comparing the judging process to “fingernails on a chalkboard.” But as each kid crams in the craziest combinations, matching his opponent, punt for punt whether the wave wants it or not, they collectively destroy any debate over function’s role in surfing’s future. And when Geiselman shouts out “ double-grab, one-footed air” to a snickering pack, then stomps the landing, it’s clear just how much control today’s surfers have over their own destinies if the put their minds to it.
“I feel like I’m in a video,” whispers Jay, one of the few native locals.
“Those guys are like Michael Jordan.”
“No,” replies his mate. They’re better.”
Maybe not. But they are the top surfing athletes of their generation and they are expected to keep getting better. Their lives are spent in near constant preparation for professional stardom. If they’re not competing, they better be surfing. And if there are no waves at home, they quickly fly off to practice, to shoot, polishing the skills that’ll
ensure greater success.
“The stakes are higher than ever for these kids,” says CJ. “They have so many responsibilities that getting them on the trip wasn’t easy. They had to really want to be here.”
No shit. When a cyclone forms off of Australia, Dion Atkinson waits three days in Cairns to catch his next flight, spending more time in an airport than he will on the island. Instead of turning around, he turns up grim-faced and determined. Facing his first full year on the WQS, Dion’s already skipping Brazil to attend. And though the 20 year-old’s mature and fluid power approach makes him an odds-on threat for winning the Challenge, his main goal doesn’t quite fit in a four-hour contest.
“I told myself I’d skip any event this year for a trip that looked good,” he explains. “Basically, I need to get some good barrels before starting my slog through crappy beachbreaks; and get some real coverage before I get lost on tour with 100 other Aussies.”
The other kids? While they’re experts at romancing a photog, they don’t always make love to the camera. Figuring out the smaller details of who you really are — while simultaneously projecting an image of “the next big thing” — is especially tough for a bunch of teenagers who still fight over a bag of lollies but think twice about taking that first sip of beer. And aren’t sure they want to be filmed doing either.
“I don’t like it when people talk about me,” Clay admits, hulking over his bowl of vanilla ice cream, spilling quotes with his bites, gaze stuck in the headlights of a tiny silver voice recorder. Good luck. Clay’s easily the trip’s most talked about surfer. He’s got a cover on the stands, two vid projects in the works, and the best tail whip since Kalani Robb. In the water, he’s completely unguarded, one of the few who’ll ask if you saw his last ride, happy to share in each shining detail. But on land, he quickly melts beneath the spotlight. The second the boat hits the dock, he withdraws to the safety of his bunk. Chews silently through dinner.
Even the more extroverted guys — like Payne, who’ll yell Cyndi Lauper tunes from the back of a pickup. Or Geiselman, who gladly invites you to hear the new rap beats he’s cooked up under the alias G-Soldier — stop the shenanigans the second you hit record. They know that, unlike hunting, when it comes to capturing lifestyle footage,
the last thing you want is a sitting target. And while we sound them for slacking like “six figure groms,” it’s not the extra work that they fear — it’s the fear of getting worked. Misquoted or skewered by the same media that loves to report their flaws as much as their feats.
Frankly, they don’t need the punishment. They already know how to beat themselves up.

Bam!…Bam!… Bam!
Through the endless roar of crashing waves, comes the droning staccato of a fist pounding fiberglass.
“Dusty is most definitely trying to break his board.” Geiselman deadpans
as Payne pulls into another lefthand closeout, far up the reef
from everyone else. “I don’t blame him. I feel like breaking something,
Following four days of small sessions, fins-free matches and one night of bad karaoke, the official challenge is finally on, and every kid’s energy level is rising to meet the increase in swell. More length then height, the four-foot sets still require deep backdoor entries and never stop racing, causing widespread predictions of a forehand blow out. Which is why Geis and Dusty are so shocked to find themselves eliminated first round, beaten by goofyfooters Marzo and Garut. It doesn’t help Payne’s mood any that Garut only arrived the day before. Or that he’s forced to watch from the inside as a pulsing set picks up while Garut has priority. Grabbing his rail, he goes from underdog to pigdog, weaving through an endless curtain call that ends well past the judges boat, bringing cheers from the crowd and puts anextra 10 teeth in his constant Balinese smile.
“I always surf left at home,” Garut beams as if he just won the whole damn thing. “When CJ say ‘Go!,’ I like, I don’t know I can make. Then I like, Oh what? I can make!? Wait. I can do! I can do!” Dusty doesn’t even need to hear the judges scream “9.75.” His arms go limp as he crawls out the back to wait for a bomb that never appears. And though all week long he’s been harshing his own surfing claiming every rock-and-roll-slide top turn was weak, every perfectly positioned tube lame — this two-time National Champ definitely doesn’t want anyone else to say it. Or even think it.He sours for hours.
All through Marzo and Atkinson’s semi throwdown, where Dion nabs the drainer he came for, dragging to arms from top to bottom to scrape past Clay with the highest score of the comp, a 9.99. (And earn $500 from Anon for best wave.)
All through the final where Wright quietly picks off superior sets, adjusting his surfing to please the judges and upset his veteran foe with a fully mature tactical approach.
And all through the nighttime awards dinner. As Owen gladly takes a bucket of ice on the head, Dusty casts a cool pall from the end of the table, black hoodie wrapping his freckled, frowning face like an impish Grim Reaper. And though Owen’s still basking in the afterglow — phoning his team manager, posing for photos, even trying to change his ticket to stay two more days— the champ has no trouble sympathizing. He knows the difference between their moods is as thin as that crisp dollar bill.
“It just feels good to flog yourself when you lose,” he explains. “Especially when you don’t get a chance to show what you can really do.”

Thirty-six hours later, we’re on a half-empty flight home, still dazed from one full day of solid eight-foot sets and open ocean power and a last short, but absolutely flawless session. Three hours, not a lick of wind. A wave so perfect, each new ride erases the last from memory. Bruised and brainwashed, it almost doesn’t seem real, the only evidence being the stark lack of boards in our bags and a few thousand digital photos, which immediately start circulating between seats on a portable player.
CJ’s locked onto one tube shot in particular, caught literally in the closing seconds of his trip. Damo’s flipping over a triple-section spelunking mission. But it’s Dusty who ends up getting more goods than anyone. Wedged between the two twins, the mischievous grin’s finally back. And though he once again assumes the cool posture of your typical “I don’t give a shit” grom, his eyes closely monitor every shot, documenting each piece of undeniable proof that he can still get the job done.
“So, Dusty: best session ever, eh?”
Payne peers sideways and cringes at having such a bold claim thrown back this face.
“I don’t know about best ever,” he hedges, slyly grimacing. “But maybe one of them.”
He leans back in his seat to relive some more moments. He knows it’s a long road ahead. And he’ll need something to look forward to.

Editor’s Note: At the time of writing, Owen Wright was still unsure which charity would receive $1000 (although he immediately expressed interest in “ the Owen Wright Foundation.”) The twins decided to set an example by giving a grand to the Conservation Society of Pohnpei and MICSEM or Micronesian Seminar


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