The world number one, the two-time champ, has owned the Quiksilver Pro for a decade. Anything gonna change?
(Editor’s note: The writer and filmmaker Jamie Tierney is the producer/director on Clay Marzo: Just Add Water, Dane Reynolds: First Chapter, Young Guns 3 and Letting Go. In his tenure as director of films and online content at Quiksilver he watched Medina’s rise, first hand, over the course of a decade in Hossegor, France. Below, those pivotal moments.)
Waves are small in the Bay of Biscay. The storms in the Atlantic move in the wrong direction, out to sea. Contest organizers of the Quiksilver Pro France run the contest straight through the first five days of the waiting period in meager, dribbly lefts at Les Bourdaines. It’s the last of the rock n’ roll days on tour. Chris Ward misses his Round One heat completely and shows up for an early morning appointment in the 2nd Round with only fifteen minutes left. Rumor has it that he slept on the beach. Dane Reynolds, meanwhile, at the peak of his powers, stays up all night partying before Round Three. He runs out for his heat on a tiny twinny with a small trailing fin with Bukowski’s “Great art is horseshit, buy tacos,” hand written on the bottom. Dane, likely still drunk from the festivities the night before, then obliterates Roy Powers with some of the best small-wave surfing ever seen in a heat.
Fifteen-year old Gabriel Medina is there as well, competing in the King of the Groms event. He’s way too young for the party program. He’s got bushy brown hair, thick eyebrows, braces on teeth and a shy smile on his face. He does gymnastic style backflips on the beach to warm up. The kids’ contest is held the day after Mick Fanning wins the men’s event. The surf is slightly bigger and has a light puff of side-onshore wind blowing into the lefts.
Medina rolls to the final against Caio Ibelli and destroys him. He blasts airs and tail hucks on every wave. His lowest scorer is a nine. His two tens are a white hot glimpse of the future. The second one features a superman followed by an air reverse. A few pros stay around and witness the shocking display. All have the same thought. “If that kid was in the main event he would have won.”
Medina is seventeen now. He gets on tour after winning a QS just up the road in Lacanau the mid-year cut/graduation that Bobby Martinez famously melted down over out at the last event in New York. Technicall,y Medina’s not even a rookie yet, but it doesn’t matter. He’s in France and he’s ready to take on the world. He’s packed on muscle and has that icy look in his eyes now. He combos Kelly Slater, then en route to his final world title, surfing faster, looser and more explosively than the thirty-nine-year-old Slater. Medina’s ten against Taylor Knox is still one of the best airs ever done. He launches vertically off the opening section with his fins six feet above the lip. Ok, the landing isn’t perfect, but he pulls it off. He then takes out a young Julian Wilson in the one of the most hi-fi finals ever. The changing of the guard is on its way.
Afterwards, he hits the Place du Landais square by the beach in Hossegor with Alejo Muniz and a few friends in tow. This has traditionally been of surfing’s most debauched locales and the night after the end of the contest is usually one of biggest of the year. This time it’s strangely quiet. Andy Irons died eleven months ago and that tragedy has virtually ended the party scene on tour. Medina and Muniz, stone sober, kick a soccer ball around the square. No one pays them mind. Just two kids playing around.
Gabe’s eighteen and it’s his first full year on tour. He’s been taking some lumps after winning twice in 2011. He starts off the season with last place finishes in two of the first three events. The waves in France this year are big and burly every day of the comp. In Round Four he surfs a non-elimination (remember those?) heat against Kelly and Kieran Perrow. The three-man priority rule doesn’t yet exist and Medina hassles both of opponents mercilessly. He gets an interference on Perrow, who wins the heat. Slater confronts Medina in the competitors’ area afterward. He’s angry but seems to be intent on making it a learning experience for the young Medina. He explains that Medina’s tactics had taken both them both out of heat and had handed it to Perrow. Medina stands tall. Says nothing. Looks him straight in the eye with a dead stare. When Slater’s talking, Medina says three words:
“It’s a competition.”
Medina is a man now. He’s twenty-three, has packed on 20 pounds of muscle and is a world champion. He’s got seven million followers on Instagram, rages with Neymar and Brazilian pop stars during his time off. Despite all that, he’s become surfing’s anti-hero. He’s a quiet, dark, mysterious, (at least to non Brazilians) foil to John John Florence’s “just having fun” aloha sunshine. It’s hard to tell what the relationship is between them since they never publicly interact and have had relatively few heats together over the years. This day, though, is special. It’s a Saturday afternoon in Hossegor. It’s eighty degrees and the beach is packed with people. The waves are four-to-six-foot and glassy at La Graviere, and it’s John versus Gabs in the semi-finals. Everyone in the competitors’ area has their eyes glued on the ocean and a vast majority of the Frenchies on the beach are rooting for Jean Jean. There’s nothing like the energy of having the two best surfers in the world at their peaks going head to head in front of a big crowd in pumping waves. And if if it’s true they don’t really like each other, all the better! It feels like the makings of an epic Slater/Irons clash from the previous decade.
The audience literally holds its breath each time when one of them takes off, they gasp when they fly into the air and cheer when they land. Florence begins with an ugly landing on a big air. Then he gets a small tube followed by another missed touch down on a punt. Third wave: decent snap, then another pancake flat landing and fall on an air rev. Tough on the knees, those. Medina’s first wave is solid but nothing flashy, a series of spray chucking backside carves. Gabe then does a rodeo on his next one. It’s not the biggest or best one of his life, and the landing’s pretty rough, but he’s got the strength to pull it. John John high-lines ones on the next set full speed into a giant slob. He floats so high that he’s only a few feet away from the drone filming him. But he can’t pull this one down either. After that, Florence goes back his 75% Bede Durbidge coached surfing. He lays down a few decent scores but is still behind. In the end it’s close. John John needs a 9.4 and gets a nine on a smaller wave. He then tries to chase down a 7.4 near the end, but no sets come through and he isn’t able to recover from his falls at the start.
Medina wins the final against Sebastian Zietz, then takes the next event in Portugal to close the gap in second spot behind Florence. Jeremy Flores ends Medina’s year at small windy Pipe a couple months later, but the France win swings the momentum back in Medina’s direction. Florence tears his knee in Bali in 2018 and then does it again in Brazil this year. Medina, meanwhile, has largely been injury free his whole career. He now has two world titles to his name and looks like a lock to celebrate at the end of 2019 with his third.
These were all turning points in Gabriel Medina’s career and they all happened in Hossegor. There’s many reasons why the highly variable beach breaks of the Côte Sauvage (The Wild Coast) suit him so. He’s one of the few guys on tour with a free-flowing approach to heats.
He rarely sits. He roams around the rips, feels out the changes in the tides.
He catches wave after waves, goes big on some, locks in scores on others.
Does anyone see him not winning next week? Especially without John John there?
And, more importantly, when JJF does come back, will he still be only guy who can really match up with him wave for wave?
Or will Gabe be surfing’s most dominant force for years to come?