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Surfing's next star ready to shine

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. -- Surfers are often judged by their ability to ride waves from the fronstide and backside, which seems like a good starting point in understanding one of the sport's rising stars.

There are seemingly two sides to Michel Bourez, a 23-year-old rookie on the World Championship Tour and only the second Tahitian to ever qualify for surfing's top flight, which is reserved for the top 44 surfers in the World.

There's the one that walks towards you from the water with a wide smile, chiseled physique, speaking in a smooth Tahitian accent that makes women swoon and grandmothers want to pinch his cheeks. Then there's the one that walks away from you with a scarred up back that looks like he's just been through a hardcore wrestling match as he enters the water and punishes one wave after another as if they have somehow wronged him.

Bourez's frontside may make him a hit on Madison Avenue (he has signed sponsorship deals with Nike 6.0 and Red Bull within the past year), but it's his backside that gives him the street credibility in the water that few rookies on the tour ever had. Then again not many rookies (or any surfers for that matter) can say they've beaten Kelly Slater as Bourez did two years ago when he knocked the nine-time world champion out of the Quiksilver Pro France.

While Bourez's first name is often misspelled or mispronounced (it's spelled Michel and pronounced Michelle), he is commonly referred to on the tour by his nickname, "Spartan." In a sport where many nicknames sound like cartoon characters, Bourez's couldn't be any more appropriate. He's built like GerardButler's character in the film 300 and when he's in the water, he approaches each wave with the same type fearlessness. "I like being called spatawn," says Bourez in his Tahitian accent. "It means I'm a fighter."

Surfing is different than almost any sport in the sense that fearlessness isn't so much a throwaway cliché as it is a requirement in certain parts of the world. Each baseball stadium, for example, might have different dimensions that makes it unique. At the end of the day, however, you're still playing baseball and the only thing on the line is the game. In Bourez's backyard, about 15 miles south of his home in Tahiti, resides the most dangerous surfing locale in the world -- Teahupo'o (pronounced Chopu), where surfers risk succumbing to the deadly reef break for the chance to ride the heavy picturesque waves that can swell higher than 10 feet.

"All of us understand what the wager is when you surf Teahupo'o, the wager is your life," said Ian Cairns, the founder of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) and one of the top ranked surfers in the world in the 1970s. "So you have to have the balls to face that and go for those waves and also the skills to be amazing on those waves. If you look at Michel's back, you can see that he's paid his dues and that gives you street cred. Everyone wants that kind of credibility. He's got watermelon-sized cajones."

Cairns, who devised the points scoring system used in surfing competitions and now coaches surfers, first heard about Bourez after he had won the Reef Hawaiian Pro last year in Haleiwa, which qualified him for the WCT. The footage of Bourez gliding through barrel waves impressed Cairns, who wanted to work with him and finally got the chance a few days before the Nike 6.0 Lowers Pro began this week in San Clemente. Since Bourez had never surfed Lower Trestles before he connected with Cairns, who lives in nearby Laguna Beach.

"When someone is able to lift their performance level to beat Kelly Slater, a nine-time world champion, and has won significant events you know that there is something there," said Cairns. "What Michele has is a really good combination of quickness, strength and power, which is really a rare combination. I think he can be a top five candidate on the world tour and the potential to win a world title because people who have won world titles have been exceptional at Pipeline and Teahupo'o and so can he."

Bourez is not only a skilled surfer but his style, with his brute strength and explosiveness is tailor-made for competitive surfing where surfers are given a short amount of time during which they are judged on the their two best waves. It's like a starting pitcher becoming a closer and using his two best pitches in order to strike out the competition. In that respect, Bourez has shown that he can be like Francisco Rodriguez when given the right conditions, busting out a fastball (backside turn) and breaking ball (forehand turn) that is hard to compete against.

The key word in Bourez's surfing lexicon is power, which is perfect because the WCT rewards power moves over finesse. So when judges saw him perfectly carve a wave and hack it off the top and come down and back up and blast the top off the wave with the tail sliding out in full power, it was no surprise that they gave him a 9.77 and a 9, the highest scores on the opening day of the Lowers Pro.

"Oh, I'm 100 percent power," said Bourez. "I love to put strength in my surfing. I like to get barreled. It's such a good thing. I love it."

With tree trunk thighs that look as though they're rooted to his board every time he gets airborne on a backside turn, Bourez was clearly built to surf. He's the same height and weight as Slater (5-foot-9, 160 pounds), who he looked up to as a kid, and was practically raised in the water where his home was near a reef break in Patu. "We were surrounded by the water," said Bourez, who has become a national hero in Tahiti with hundreds of people welcoming him at the airport after competitions and billboards congratulating him on his success. "When you grow up next to a reef break you know you're going to get scratched and smashed so you just try to protect your head."

It's the same mentality that Bourez keeps now, 15 years after he was given his first surfboard by an older cousin and surfed with his older brother Naea, 24, and his younger brother Kevin, 15, who Bourez thinks has the potential to be better than him. While Bourez is known for his fearlessness in the water, his sponsors will be happy to hear that he takes care of his head (and his dimples) as well, since they aren't just selling his talent in the water to the masses.

"He's the 'Spartan,' he's built like friggin' Adonis," said Jason Kenworthy, Nike 6.0's surf team mentor. "Don't let him take off his shirt in front of your lady because they're going to split. I definitely try to keep him 30 feet away from my wife and that's when he has his shirt on."

Combining Bourez's backside and frontside both in and out of the water will be the key to his success in the WCT. It's already seemed to work as his mild mannered demeanor on the sand belied the shark in the water that paddled around his competition and frustrated them as he dominated his first day surfing at Lower Trestles. "We want him to be an animal, which is contrary to his personality," said Cairns. "You have to decide if you want to surf or you want to win and I told him if you want to win you have to bring the animal."

The high-water mark of Bourez's young career may actually come next month when the ASP goes to his backyard for one of the tour's most prestigious events, the Billabong Pro Teahupo'o. It's a competition where the men are separated from the boys on reef breaks that are nightmares to most but a dream to the tour's first Tahitian in over a decade.

"I've been dreaming about this my whole life," said Bourez. "To wake up in my own bed and drive my own car to the [competition]. It's weird because I don't see Teahupo'o like everyone else. It's the wave that I surf. It's my home. I remember seeing the older guys come down for the [competition] when I was younger and I remember thinking I want to be one of them one day and now I am."