It’s not all fun in the sun for the 14 up-and-coming surfers in the action-packed new competition series, The Ultimate Surfer. The last man and woman standing each win $100,000 and, more importantly for their careers, wild card spots at three events on the elite World Surf League Championship Tour.
“There are mind games being played, backstabbing potentially happening,” says host and fan of the sport Jesse Palmer. “Being physically the best surfer doesn’t necessarily guarantee you victory. You’ve got to be very mentally and emotionally tough.”
The eight-episode contest takes place more than 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, at the man-made Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater, who’s also a mentor and judge on the show, helped develop the technology that consistently creates the perfect 6-foot wave. Unlike competitions held in the unpredictable open water, this outdoor facility, which spans the length of seven football fields, eliminates Mother Nature’s chance role in scoring. “There’s no question if the wave is going to be good,” executive producer and WSL CEO Erik Logan explains. “The wave is going to be good. The question is, can you perform on that wave? It’s a completely different type of pressure.”
The format also creates tension in and out of the water. In the premiere, the seven men and seven women (including 23-year-old Tia Blanco, above; Malia Ward, the 22-year-old daughter of pro surfer Chris Ward; and 26-year-old Hawaiian favorite Zeke Lau, who’s trying to return to the top ranks) are partnered in mixed teams. Only the pair with the highest average score at the end of the first challenge — stylish and splashy combo turn— is safe. And they get to choose one team to send to the Surf Off elimination round. That team then picks the duo they want to battle head-to-head: Man vs. Man, Woman vs. Woman.
The lowest-scoring man and woman in the Surf Off — which, to everyone’s surprise, is held at night! — head home. If they’re from different teams, their surviving partners form a new, and possibly more powerful, union. “Strategy is a big part of this show,” Palmer says. (Logan teases “a lot of twists” in the back half of the season, so expect the unexpected.)
Contestants bunk together in Airstream trailers on the Ranch. Given the close-knit surf community, some of them already have history. “Alliances start to form relatively quickly based upon prior friendships, as well as prior fights,” Logan hints. “It worked out really well. Plus, a little romance maybe.”
The Ultimate Surfer, Series Premiere, Monday, August 23, 10/9c, ABC