Long road to the top for three Classic competitors

GREENVILLE, S.C. – When the GEICO Bassmaster Classic Presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods begins at Lake Hartwell on Friday, it’ll mark an anniversary for Carl Svebek. As a college sophomore, he competed in his first B.A.S.S. tournament on March 16 to 18, 1988, thirty years to the day earlier. But for that coincidental piece of symmetry, though, nothing about his path to this Classic has been linear or logical.

He fished the Bassmaster Top 100 (forerunner of the Elite Series) in 1996, and a smattering of Opens and Invitationals thereafter, with mixed results. “I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew,” he said. “It was pretty humbling. After that he fished the FLW Tour from 1999 to 2009, experiencing more success, including three Forrest Wood Cup appearances, the last one a decade ago.

Then life’s circumstances got in the way of competitive fishing and Svebek all but abandoned the dream of making the Bassmaster Classic that he’d established as a bass-obsessed 7 year old. Two years ago, he was boatless and owned a grand total of two rods and reels. He’d lost his job and, by his own description, hit “rock bottom.”

“I didn’t think I’d be fishing again, much less going to the Bassmaster Classic,” he explained.

He wasn’t the only one who felt that his lifelong dreams had been squashed. Luke Gritter competed on the Elite Series as a wide-eyed 21 year old in 2009. He earned one check all season, barely squeaking into the money at the Mississippi River out of Ft. Madison, Iowa in 47th.

“That season made me realize just how hard it is,” he said. “I was so young. I had only been bass fishing for three years at the time.” At the end of that lone campaign, finances depleted, he put the Elites out of his mind, but he never lost the urge to fish competitively. This year, at 30, he reached that long delayed goal of reaching the sport’s biggest stage through the B.A.S.S. Nation.

Of course, that’s not the only non-Elite route to the Classic. Svebek, whose “rock bottom” included unemployment, found a guardian angel in the form of a job with Gopher Industrials out of Orange, Texas. What started off as a two-week gig turned into two months, then three months, then permanent status. He traveled with the Gopher team to the 2016 Classic in Tulsa, and they encouraged him to get into the Opens last year. He laughed at first, but it didn’t take much convincing.

“I wanted to see if I could still ride the bike,” he said. Apparently he could, because he won an Open on the Sabine River out of Gopher’s home base of Orange.

“I get cold chills just talking about it,” Svebek added. Nevertheless, the true magnitude of his achievement didn’t occur until the day after he picked up his newly-wrapped boat and truck. Waking up the next morning, half-convinced it was a dream, he went outside, saw them, and became emotional. “I’m not ashamed to say that I actually shed a tear. It was a lifelong dream to make the Bassmaster Classic.”

Another angler who made it to Hartwell via the Opens is Virginia’s Rick Morris, a former Elite Series pro who was out, until he got pulled back in. At the end of 2014 season, after competing in every B.A.S.S. tour level event for 22 consecutive years, he did not answer the bell for 2015.

“I thought that my chances of ever making it back to the Classic were between slim and none,” Morris said. “I willingly took the time off, but I borderline needed therapy. This is my family, whether we get along or not. After fishing 240 Bassmaster tournaments, it was a shock not to have to prepare for the next one. I had a hard time sleeping and a lot of weird dreams about fishing.”

Now, at 56 years old, Morris – like Svebek and Gritter – believes that he has “reinvented myself.”

Each of the three lapsed-and-returned contenders stressed that their time away from the game, while painful, provided long-term perspective that they feel will aid them this week and in the future.

“It’s mostly about the mental side of things,” Gritter said. Since leaving the Elite Series, he said that he’s improved his ability to “keep calm, stay positive and make the right decisions.” Svebek, who seemingly had the deepest fall and the most surprising rebirth, said that he’s “older, wiser and not really stressed.” Morris, the only one of the three with prior Classic experience – he’s fished five, coming in second to Luke Clausen (another long awaited returnee) in 2006 – said that the unwelcome hiatus “makes me appreciate it more.”

While appreciation and gratitude were on the tip of their tongues, Svebek spoke for all of them when he made clear that none of them are just happy to be here.

“Being here, seeing the old faces, it’s an incredible feeling,” he said. “When I won at the Sabine, it wasn’t about getting the check. It was about holding up the trophy and going to the Bassmaster Classic. I’m not going to forget the reason that I’m here – to catch all I can.”

At his inaugural B.A.S.S. event, 30 years ago this week, Svebek rode a strong Day Two catch to a 13th place finish on Rayburn. The result was a check that he recalls paying a whopping $1,500. “I was so hooked that I slept with the check that night,” he recalled. This week he’ll be fishing a check with a two more zeroes, and a trophy that takes up a lot of bed space. Like Morris and Gritter, he thought that his road had come to a dead end, but come Friday morning all three will be in the same position, tied with every other competitor and with an equal shot at the title. Their journeys may have followed a different path, but the end point is within sight.