As pro surfing tour comes east, local prodigy readies for close-up

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The sixth and newest event on the annual circuit is expected to begin Tuesday, wave quality permitting, not at one of surfing's traditional breaks but one mile east of the New York City line in the silver-green waters of Long Beach, N.Y., where the sport's elite have descended to compete for a record $1,000,000 purse in the first-ever ASP World Tour event in the Northeast United States. Organizers for the Quiksilver Pro New York, set to take place during on the best four surfing days (or eight half-days) through Sept. 15, are selling it as a tribute to the area's little known but percolating urban surf scene.

• GALLERY: Surfing and Sports Illustrated

The decision to hold a tour event in a region known for inconsistent (or non-existant) waves has been met with both excitement and cynicism within the surf community: lauded for bringing a world-class competition to underserved market and derided as a money grab, sometimes in the same breath. Just 50 minutes by train from Manhattan, the potential gains from a marketing standpoint are obvious. As are the risks. The organizers enlisted, the world's leading forecaster of wave and surf conditions, to pore over charts and 15 years of historical data on local conditions before settling on the site and time frame, choosing a "holding period" when the odds of distant hurricane swells are at their statistical best. The report was enough to sell Quiksilver on Long Beach as a tour destination for at least three years, but you don't need a weatherman to tell the gamble is considerable.

Roughly three-quarters of the competitors who arrived in Long Beach over the weekend hail from outside the United States, most from Australia and Brazil, others from France, Portugal, South Africa and French Polynensia. Most of the Americans come from surf towns along the California coastline. Others, like 10-time champion Kelly Slater, from Florida.

Only one will enjoy a home-break advantage.

"A lot of people don't even realize there's an ocean in New York," says Balaram Stack, the rare pro surfer from the Northeast U.S., who turned 20 on Monday. Stack, who was granted one of two wild-card entries to the contest, spent his summer jetting to lower-level tournaments in Mexico and El Salvador before a visit with friends to Peru. He's just back from the East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach, Va., where a 17th-place finish netted $1,100 in prize money and lifted his ranking to 307th in the world. "The biggest misconception is that the waves suck," says Stack of the East Coast's backwater reputation in international circles. "When it's as good as it gets, it's as good as California. But it can get flat for two weeks at a time, where in California you can stand up every single day of the year."

Stack's modest ranking belies his presence in the surfing scene, where he's been traveling the world for photo shoots and competitions since he was 15, graduating from write-ups in surf magazines to profiles in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and New York magazine. They all say the same thing: Stack is the best surfer New York has produced in decades -- at least since Rick "The Raz" Rasmussen of Westhampton, the former U.S. champion who skyrocketed to fame in the 1970s before getting busted in Bali with a kilo of coke and later shot dead in a Harlem drug deal gone bad. There hasn't been a professional surfer from anywhere on the East Coast to qualify for the World Tour since Florida twins Damien and C.J. Hobgood more than a decade ago.

• GALLERY: New York pro surfer Balaram Stack

Born in Florida, Stack's family moved to Long Island when he was five and he began surfing with his two older brothers shortly after. He was "eight or nine" when he first caught the attention of Mike Nelson and Dave Juan, co-owners of Long Beach's Unsound Surf Shop. Before long, the lanky waterbug with a preternatural sense of the wave was racking up victories at regional surf competitions as a member of the Unsound team. He honed his skills regardless of season, beating the dangerously cold temperatures of the bitter Long Beach winters by wearing one wetsuit on top of another. ("Surfing in New York takes determination," he says.) Two summers later in 2004, Quiksilver took notice of Stack at a one-day surf camp in Montauk, signing him to a sponsorship deal and sending him to train in Hawaii the following winter to train with the rest of the team.

As Stack's star rose, the sponsorships started rolling in: Red Bull, Oakley, Sector 9, Vestal Watches, Sanuk, Skullcandy. His high school green-lit an independent study course so he could travel the world in 2009, when he spent time in Tahiti and the North Shore of Oahu, familiarizing himself with the most violent tubes on the planet, the barreling waves that made prosthelytizers of Mark Twain and Jack London. (His three favorite surf destinations so far: "Scotland, Australia and Hawaii.") After graduating with a correspondence degree from Long Beach High School the following year, Stack earned four titles and nailed three perfect 10s at the National Scholastic Surfing Association East Coast Championships -- an unheard-of showing for a surfer from the Empire State.

The towheaded Stack is handsome, a compact 5-foot-10 and 110 pounds, more grown-up when we meet at the beachfront Allegria Hotel than his larger-than-life image in Quiksilver's flagship store in Times Square. While walking the Long Beach boardwalk he recalls his excitement when he first heard rumors of a World Tour event in his backyard -- and elation when he finally learned for certain he'd received one of the two coveted wild-card entries a few months ago. Actions over words is the surfer's reflex, which can explain why Stack isn't overly interested in discussing himself.

At the moment, he's more interested in talking about Hurricane Irene, which days earlier flooded the area and knocked out power in thousands of homes. Stack's house in nearby Point Lookout was mostly spared, save for some minor flooding, but others weren't as lucky. The ground-floor lobby of the nine-floor Allegria, which is serving as competition headquarters, was flooded. (The storm prompted both the City of Long Beach and Quiksilver to cancel a concurrent eight-day concert series that featured performances by Interpol, The Flaming Lips and Q-Tip -- but the competition itself was salvaged.)

After touring the contest site at National Boulevard Beach -- where a dozens of workers have been toiling around the clock to repair the damage inflicted by Irene -- Stack excuses himself to join his friends in the water. After running to the car to switch into a green and blue wetsuit, Stack jogs out to the ocean. "If I don't see you later, it was nice to meet you," he says. Ninety seconds later he's out there and up on a wave. His back faces us, since the waves break left at Long Beach and Stack rides goofy (or right foot forward) as opposed to a regular stance. The crests are barely three feet high, but Stack's ability to negotiate his board in compact spaces can make even the smallest waves look powerful -- a home-break advantage that could serve him well in Tuesday's opening heat.

The preciously short month-long window in Long Beach that blends the swell consistency of winter with the warmth of summer is here. Stack betrays his poker face when the Quik Pro comes up. After all, the wild card is always paired with the top seed. And the top seed is Kelly Slater, the youngest and oldest champion in ASP World Tour history, whose first-place finish last week in Tahiti vaulted him atop the standings. "It's kind of like a dream: surfing against Slater at your home break," Stack says. "Having a chance to beat him would be amazing. The best birthday present I could ask for."