Behind the Scenes at ABC’s Epic New Surf Competition with Kelly Slater

Senior Consultant and Special Envoy Kelly Slater is taken to her surf stance on the back of a wave racer during production on the reality show “The Ultimate Surfer”. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Normally Lemoore, California might seem like a strange place to host a surf competition. After all, the borough of Kings County is 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

But it turns out that “normal” is not the style of “The Ultimate Surfer”.

ABC’s new reality competition was born from a meeting of minds in early 2019 between world-renowned professional surfer Kelly Slater, CEO of the World Surfing League Erik Logan, CEO and Chairman of Pilgrim Media Group Craig Piligian and UFC President Dana White at the Surf Ranch, Slater’s man-made waves oasis in the Central Valley. Production began in early 2020, to be halted by the coronavirus pandemic. When filming resumed last summer, it was in a COVID-19 “bubble” at the ranch. Now the long-awaited debut of the series has arrived, with a two-night premiere starting on Monday.

A glimpse of Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch from the sky

An aerial view of Kelly Slater’s 700 meter Surf Ranch. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

And despite the long road, the timing is right. Surfing just made its buzzing Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games, and Slater recently told the Times that the event could one day turn into wave pools – including, perhaps, his own, when the Olympics are held in LA in 2028.

“The Ultimate Surfer,” hosted by former NFL player and “Bachelor” Jesse Palmer, features 14 men and women – including six Californians – vying for the title while living and training together at the ranch . Sports presenter Erin Coscarelli and “The Voice of Professional Surfing” Joe Turpel will provide the full color commentary, and Slater is on hand as a senior consultant and special envoy.

Surfer and Times photographer Allen J. Schaben captured exclusive footage of the making of “The Ultimate Surfer” last March, before it closed, and returned to the ranch earlier this summer to photograph the action at the WSL. Jeep Surf Ranch Pro, where athletes from around the world demonstrated what the ranch can do.

– Meet the champion –

Kelly Slater lifts her arm to her wave pool during production.

Kelly Slater, 11-time World Surfing League champion, is interviewed during the production of “The Ultimate Surfer” reality show. As the creator of Surf Ranch, Slater provided information on how to compete well in each of the surf challenges through video messages. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

ABC "The Ultimate Surfer"  has a two-night premiere on August 23-24.

ABC’s “The Ultimate Surfer” has a two-night premiere on August 23-24. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly Slater Rides A Wave On Her Surfboard

Surfer Kelly Slater turns off the top of a wave during production. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly Slater waxes her board on the set of

Kelly Slater waxes her board on the set of “The Ultimate Surfer”. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A video monitor shows Kelly Slater as he is interviewed on camera.

A video monitor shows Kelly Slater as he is interviewed on camera. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly Slater runs with a surfboard in hand as a film crew follows

Team members follow Kelly Slater as he runs to surf for the show. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly Slater Showering

Kelly Slater poses for a production photographer on the set of “The Ultimate Surfer”. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The sun sets over Airstream campers overlooking a lake beside the wave pool

The sun sets over Airstream campers overlooking a lake next to the wave pool on “The Ultimate Surfer”. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Carissa Moore snaps on a wave

Carissa Moore, who became the first American to qualify for the Olympic surf debut while claiming her fourth world surfing title in Hawaii, makes a scathing turn on a wave. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

– Inside the ranch –

Gabriel Medina does some stretches at Jeep Surf Ranch Pro

Gabriel Medina, two-time WSL world champion from Brazil, stretches out alone at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Four-time world champion Carissa Moore makes a scathing turn.

Four-time world champion Carissa Moore of Hawaii, who became the first American woman to qualify for the Olympic debut in surfing, is making a scathing turn. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Tsutomu Igarashi joins hands before his son's competition

Tsutomu Igarashi crosses his hands for a quiet moment before his son, Kanoa Igarashi of Huntington Beach, participates. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Surfer snaps on top of a wave

A surfer makes a sharp turn from the top of a wave while competing in the women’s qualifying rounds at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Friends carry surfer Adriano de Souza in the water.

Brazilian surfers and their friends prepare to throw in the water 2015 WSL World Champion Adriano de Souza, who is retiring at the end of the season after compatriot Filipe Toledo won the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Caroline Marks, 19, of San Clemente, makes a tight turn in competition.

Caroline Marks, 19, of San Clemente, makes a tight turn in competition. She is a member of the US Women’s Olympic Surf Team, multiple national champion, the youngest woman to compete in a World Surf League event and the youngest female surfer to qualify for the women’s circuit. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Ricardo Toledo and his friends raise their hands to celebrate his son's victory

Ricardo Toledo, center, joins compatriots, friends and family in celebrating as his son, Filipe Toledo of Brazil, wins the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro over Gabriel Modena. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Filipe Toledo pushes her child on his surfboard

Amid triple-digit heat, Filipe Toledo celebrates his Jeep Surf Ranch Pro victory by pushing his child up on his surfboard. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Italo Ferreira kisses his trainer Mike Parsons

Italo Ferreira, 2019 WSL world champion from Brazil, kisses his coach, Mike Parsons, left, as he competed in the men’s qualifying rounds. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kelly Slater snaps to deactivate a wave.

Kelly Slater cuts a wave at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Johanne Defay leans on friends' shoulders after winning the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro women's event.

Johanne Defay of France takes the win as she celebrates her victory at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro Women at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, Calif. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Gabriel Medina, front, two-time WSL world champion from Brazil, and Seth Muniz, from Hawaii, sit in the ice bin.

Two-time WSL world champion Gabriel Medina, front, from Brazil, and Seth Muniz, Hawaii, sit in the ice bath while watching the action on the big screen. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Ricardo Toledo kisses his son, Filipe Toledo from Brazil

Ricardo Toledo kisses his son, Filipe Toledo of Brazil, after winning the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro against Gabriel Modena. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Johanne Defay raises her arm in victory while riding a wave

France’s Johanne Defay celebrates her victory over reigning Surf Ranch champion and four-time World Champion Carissa Moore of Hawaii. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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