A year after historic upset, Manuel looks to repeat as U.S. Open champ

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HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Malia Manuel seems out of place walking among the girls parading around in thongs at Surf City, USA, fawning over every hulking surfer who walks past them. She smiles at the scene, her head hidden under a hat as she walks towards the shore unnoticed, like a Hollywood starlet in disguise while sneaking into her own summer blockbuster.

It was just last year on this legendary beach that Manuel, then 14, shocked the surf world by becoming the youngest winner of the U.S. Open and youngest surfer ever to win an ASP event, completing an unlikely underdog story worthy of a Hollywood film. It's a story that she's planning on writing the sequel to on Saturday as she returns to Huntington Beach to defend her title, even though she still can't believe she even won it in the first place.

"It still seems surreal," says Manuel as she looks at the waves crashing against the famous Huntington Beach Pier before her. "I still can't believe I won the U.S. Open, a year later."

Still a month away from getting her driver's license, Manuel, who will be competing in both the Nike 6.0 Junior Pro and Hurley U.S. Open finals on Saturday, is in the driver's seat of a new movement in women's surfing that has seen women ride more progressively and aggressively than ever before. Where aerials were once the sole domain of male surfers, they've become commonplace for Manuel and the next generation female riders who grew up riding with the boys.

Yet despite keeping up with their male counterparts when it comes to their frontsides and backsides, Manuel and her peers dispelled the notion that they're simply tomboys by being featured in a Vanity Fair photo spread last month modeling bikinis by the beach.

"It's important to keep that femininity with this next generation," says Manuel, taking a look at the photo spread pinned to the wall of the press tent. "Back in the day it wasn't like that. Barely any of the girls surfed, and if they did they were big, powerful, manly women, and this new generation has really stepped up and made it a point to look good in the water and out."

There are times when Manuel is in the water and she will surf so fluidly, so effortlessly, so beyond her age that someone will be compelled to utter the cliché that Manuel was born to surf. It's a complement that makes her mom, Christy, smile since she's heard it before Malia was even born. When the doctor felt the restless baby inside her stomach before Malia was born, he said, "You have a little surfer in there."

It made sense. Manuel's parents met in the ocean while surfing in Kauai, Hawaii, where Malia was born and raised, and her father, Selso, is still a well-known big wave surfer on the island. When Malia was three-weeks-old, her parents would take turns babysitting her on the beach while the other would hit the waves. When Malia was three, she would ride tandem with her dad on his longboard in Hanalei Bay before she eventually was able to ride on her own.

"I would stand on his shoulders when he rode his longboard," says Manuel, who had never even seen a U.S. Open before competing and winning it last year. "I think that's where I lost my fear, standing up so tall above the water at a young age. I loved being out there."

There is still a certain fearlessness when Manuel rides that comes from the big-wave mentality of her father as well as the strong influence of the world-class surfers from Kauai, led by three-time world champion Andy Irons. "I try to be fluid and surf like the Kauai boys," says Manuel. "I inherited a lot of my dad's style, so I want to continue to be progressive in the same way. I grew up surfing with all guys and tried a lot of their moves. It's exciting to watch, something different I think."

While Manuel learned to surf in Kauai, she would often come out to Southern California and Huntington Beach with her mom, who was raised in nearby Seal Beach. She grew up knowing the beach and the world-class competition that has descended upon the area for surf competitions over the past 50 years so well that she aimed to be realistic heading into the U.S. Open last year.

As a wild card entrant Malia was paired against the best surfers, like a No. 16-seed would be in the NCAA basketball tournament, so when she arrived to the beach she advised her mom to save money at the parking lot and only pay for an hour. "I didn't think I would make it," says Manuel. "I thought it would take a miracle when I saw who I was against."

Miracle or not, Malia ended up turning women's surfing upside down that day. She took down former ASP women's world champion Sofia Mulanovich of Peru in the quarterfinals and the ASP World Qualifying Series leader Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia in the semifinals before beating fellow Hawaiian Coco Ho in the final.

"I was turning 15 and getting my permit and I remember thinking I needed to get my car some rims and some tint," says Manuel. "So I won the first heat and I thought that's enough for one tire. Then I won another one, so I can get some rims. Then I won another, so I can get a radio. You know you have to have a little something to push you."

That Manuel was being pushed just as much by the accessories she could add to her 1998 Honda Civic than by making surfing history is more a credit to her attempt to balance her life as a teenager and a world-class surfer than anything else. Despite making national headlines with her historic win and securing lucrative endorsement deals with O'Neill and Nike 6.0, Manuel doesn't surf competitively on tour yet and hasn't competed in a major contest since winning the U.S. Open last year.

While other standout surfers are home schooled, Manuel continues to go to a public high school, where she takes the same math and English classes as other 15-year-olds and goes to the same dances and Friday night football games. After her surfing career is over, she plans to work for O'Neill in a different capacity.

"I don't want to do this forever," says Manuel. "I want to retire early and have a fun career and enjoy it as much as I can. I'll be surfing forever; I just don't want to be a surfer forever."