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The modern era of bodyboarding began in 1971 when Tom Morey, a Hawaiian surfboard designer, cut the foam core of an unfinished surfboard in half and took it into the break. Morey's goal was to design a board that would yield thrills, yet be user-friendly. His creation was finless, easier to ride than a surfboard and—because it was made of soft foam instead of hard fiberglass—less likely to cause serious injury if it clunked a fallen rider on the head. The sport grew slowly through the 1970s, but boomed in the last half of the '80s.
In the mid-'70s, Jack Lindholm first paddled a bodyboard into the huge Hawaiian surf and rode waves with 20-and 30-foot faces. He became the sport's first star. In 1983, a little-known 19-year-old named Mike Stewart won the second world championship at the Pipeline. It has been Stewart's game ever since.
It was Stewart who popularized now-common tricks like the barrel roll and reverse 360. He was the first to fly into the air and do a cartwheel with 540 degrees of rotation, and he expects to become the first to turn 720 degrees.
"It's usually a case of the innovator versus the imitators," says Stewart. "But I don't mind, because it gives me the edge." Stewart needed every bit of his edge on the PSAA tour last summer. A group of four bodyboarders who live and train together in Kauai came to the mainland and introduced bicycle-team tactics to body-boarding. By working together, they were able to set each other up for the best waves and to block Stewart from taking off on anything ridable.
"It was the ultimate form of respect," says PSAA spokesman Bill Sullivan. "The riders felt like they had tried everything else to beat Mike, and it didn't work. So they might as well gang up on him."
For the first time since 1986, Stewart won fewer than half the tour's events. With four firsts and five seconds, though, he won the overall title by 762 points (a win is worth 1,000 points).
It's 6:30 a.m. a few days later, but Stewart has already called the surf report for Southern California and he knows a small swell is rolling in from the south. "I guess we should head down to 10th Street in Laguna," he says, tossing his gear into the trunk of the car. "That's a fun wave when it's not breaking real hard." About 20 minutes later, Stewart pulls into a parking spot near the beach. He takes his wet suit out of his bag and wraps a towel around his waist. Stewart can talk about design, materials and production costs with the insight of a corporate business manager, but now he is standing in the middle of the street with the towel around his waist, yanking off his shorts and pulling on a wet suit, the rite of surfers all over the world.
"I pledged when I was in high school that 9 to 5 just wasn't what I was all about." Stewart walks toward the beach with the sun rising behind him. "I didn't know if this was possible. But I was sure going to give it my best shot. I guess I've basically pulled it off.
"Right now," he adds, "my whole life is like a vacation."