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After winning a big contest and a $4,000 prize in New Jersey, Mendia started getting major attention. "When I was 17," he says, "I didn't ask for it, but I got a contract in the mail from [clothing company] Quiksilver to get paid." That in effect bumped him up from amateur to pro. He moved to California for a while and started competing on the World Qualifying Series (WQS) — the international tour that's one step below the ASP World Tour.
About eight years ago, Billabong became Mendia's main sponsor. Two years in, they asked if he wanted to be a free surfer — meaning he'd no longer have to compete. "At first, I didn't want to!" he says. "I was stuck in that little world." He chuckles. "All those years, I was trying to make the [World Tour]. Then as soon as I stopped competing, my sponsors started to put me in selective events that suit my surfing." The waves in places like Mundaka, Spain, or Tavarua, Fiji, Mendia says, are generally long, left barrels — so goofy-footed surfers (people who surf with their right foot forward) like him can draw out their turns.
Mendia can't quite articulate what's so special about his turns. His friend and fellow surfer Blake Burns, 23, chimes in: "It's that backside laid-out thing you can do that no one else can. We all sit out there in the water and try to copy it." Basically, when Mendia is riding a wave face that's jacked up straight like a wall, his turn is so powerful that his spine goes straight and he lays out almost horizontal to the water.
"I go around the world with magazines, and their photographers just shoot this turn over and over and over," Mendia says. He knows — it's pretty awesome.
All right, he's got some moves. But let's be honest — how much of his success is based on his hair?
"That's half the reason why this is still on my head," Mendia laughs, tugging at his mop top. Saltwater isn't easy on his mane, and the back half of his hair has molded into little dreadlocks. "I'd like to get a haircut, but I'd have to shave it bald."
"The whole thing's about marketability," videographer Panas says.
Other local surfers — like Ryan Helms and Barron Knowlton — might be equally talented, but they still have to keep day jobs — partly because they haven't gotten lucky breaks. Burns says they tease the hair-challenged Knowlton that he'd be rich "if people wanted to see old bald guys."
Burns himself has model looks ("They call me Blakelander") and gets free clothes from sponsors Ezekiel and Sanuk. But he still aspires to be a free surfer like Mendia — who doesn't have a coach ("some crazy person pushing you") or a training regimen ("I've never been to a gym").
Maybe best of all, Mendia acknowledges, is that he has no boss, save for a few contacts at Billabong who arrange his trips. He develops close relationships with the best photographers, who also stand to profit if their images get bought by magazines. Incentive, Mendia says, comes from his family — he is married, with two little boys.
For the record, Ted Shred's founding president, Ed Hennessey, says he hired Mendia not because of the sun-bleached Malibu looks but because he is "a fantastic guy on a personal level and also an unbelievable talent." Hennessey says his support has "0 percent to do with the hair," adding, "I happen to think Peter looks more handsome with short hair. In fact, during the photo shoot, he didn't even have the consideration to brush it for us. We had to put a hat on it."
Around his friends, Mendia has a comically self-deflating take on the easy-come manna of sponsorship.
"I need a watch sponsor!" he tells Burns, taking it up a ridiculous notch. "No — I need a car sponsor. Everybody has a car sponsor now — they give you a three-year lease..."
"I definitely don't want to know what kind of shampoo he uses," Burns notes.
So long as he doesn't get sidelined by physical injuries (he's rehabbing a knee he hurt on a trip to Uruguay), Mendia will travel to California in June to help coach the Jupiter High School surf team in a national contest. Then he's got an East Coast tour in July — he'll visit surf shops in Bob Dylan's old tour bus. September, he's going to Indonesia, and in the winter, he heads to Hawaii. "I'm about to sign another three-year contract with Billabong," he says. "I'm happy — because this could have ended a while ago." Every day, he's just "prolonging the inevitable real job."
After lunch, Mendia heads to his parents' home, where his beautiful wife awaits, his kids climb a banyan tree, and his mom calls hello from an upstairs window. It looks like something straight out of a picture-perfect J. Crew commercial.
Hey, J. Crew. Do you, by any chance, make watches?