“Growing up on the Gulf of Mexico,” says Cory Lopez, “I had no idea what a pro surfer even was.” That all changed in the mid-80s, when he and his older brother, Shea, began venturing across Florida from their home in Indian Rocks to the hallowed grounds of First Peak, Sebastian Inlet.
In the ultra-competitive wedges of First Peak, Lopez encountered legends like Matt Kechele, Charlie Kuhn, Todd Holland, and Sean and Kelly Slater. “I feel lucky to have grown up in that era and been able to watch those guys,” he says. Lopez quickly became a top-flight talent, from the Menehune Division to Junior Mens, of the Eastern Surfing Association.
By 1997, he was primed to join the ASP World Tour, where he instantly positioned himself — alongside best friend Andy Irons — as one of the revolutionaries in surfing’s modern, above-the-lip era. His frontside tailslides became gospel, inspiration for grommets everywhere. Ranked as high as No. 1 on the ASP Pro Tour at one point mid-season, Lopez’s career best season ending ranking was No. 3, in 2001. His accolades beyond the tour include being a 3-time X-Games Gold Medalist, U.S. Open of Surfing Champion, and a multi-medalist in several ISA World Championships.
Though Lopez’s professional career is decorated, it was perhaps during the 1999 Gotcha Tahiti Pro that he secured his ironclad, legendary status. Teahupo’o was maxing out, but in an act of lunacy, Lopez dropped into one of the biggest Teahupo’o waves ever paddled into at the time. The photograph of Lopez, standing compactly inside an enormous tube, became an iconic Teahupo’o image and a hint at the future of big-wave paddle surfing. For career exploits at Teahupo’o, Lopez was a 2-time winner of Surfer Magazine’s “Guts for Glory” award.
Today, Lopez is the owner of Nekton Surf Shop, located back at home in Indian Rocks. He was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2016.
Photos by Tom Servais / A-Frame, Pete Freiden, Tom Dugan / ESM, Dick “Mez” Meseroll / ESM, Kevin Welsh / SRF NRG