This, boys and girls, is our reward for the hours we spent paying attention to this shit.
Was that the best day of contest surfing this year? A big call, perhaps, given Pipe and J-Bay, but in some moments it seemed like it might be.
There was a frenetic start, a lully, slightly onshore middle, then an explosive end. It was a day with a pace that was hard to keep up with at times.
Storylines abound, but I only have so many words and so many hours to wrangle them. It would be a dereliction of duty, say, like being a professional athlete unfit to perform, if we did not first address the little elephant in the room.
You know, the one in the yellow jersey, bobbing on the shoulder.
A swell that has been forecast for what feels like months, a swell wrapped in gilded cloth.
Historic. Perfect. Pumping. Or any other superlative from the WSL word bank.
What size? Eight foot? Ten? Fifteen? Who even knows anymore. Certainly not Surfline.
No matter, we can see for ourselves that it’s good.
First heat of the day!
Nathan Hedge, forty-three years old. An ex-pro put out to pasture long ago. A wildcard whose choice infuriated, irritated and perplexed the handful of WSL fans around the world. But a specialist in waves of this type, nonetheless.
Kelly Slater, fifty years young. Your eleven-time world champ. Lord, master and Lucifer. (And, not to forget, the title sponsor of the event. Hence the reason he was competing this morning and not in the junk of yesterday.)
Finally, Filipe Toledo, twenty-seven years old. Our incumbent world number one. Yellow jersey wearer. World champ in the wings. The best surfer in the world!
These are our characters. We know their history. We know their minds.
This, boys and girls, is our reward for the hours we spent paying attention to this shit. It is only us, the self-identifying sour-faced locals, the keyboard shredders, the pithy commenting, casual upvoting kings and queens of surf fandom, who can really appreciate the nuance of what happened here.
So, when we watch the two older men take control of Teahupoo’s throaty power, threading masterful tube after death defying drop, while the alleged best surfer in the world floats idly by and refuses to paddle into a wave, we are not surprised.
And yet, we are no less perplexed by the sheer oddity of it.
This is not a new problem, of course.
It’s not the first time he’s refused to paddle at Teahupoo. He sees the smoke of our online commentary, tastes it, breathes it thick and deep into his lungs, and it continues to choke him.
It was pure pantomime. Toledo, sat on the shoulder. Toledo, pretending to paddle and giving up priority. Toledo, drenched in bathos.
How can a man with such technical mastery of a surfboard, a man who routinely dazzles us with a preternatural skill in waves up to four feet, simply refuse to paddle when the waves get big?
Fear is the only possible answer.
For Filipe Toledo, Teahupoo is an unassailable mental barrier. It grips him with a deep-rooted terror that will not be budged.
We understand this, of course. We all experience fear, naturally. And of course the accusation will be levelled that the majority of us wouldn’t heave ourselves over the ledge at Teahupo’o on a day like yesterday.
Although this is certainly true, we are not professional surfers. Much less professional surfers who might soon lay claim to a world title, yet cannot perform the basic and fundamental act of surfing in waves of a certain type.
The end of the road, indeed. A dead end for Toledo.
I tried to think of context for this today, something from another sport, perhaps. The best I could come up with is the imperfect comparison of an NBA player who routinely airballs free throws. Blake Griffin at his peak, perhaps.
But a better one, if we take the fear and anxiety factor into account, is perhaps Ben Simmons, once of the Philadelphia 76ers, refusing to shoot in the playoffs for fear of missing. For those of you who follow such things, you’ll know that Simmons hasn’t suited up since, for no discernible reason other than sheer terror.
It would take a stony heart not to have some sympathy for Filipe Toledo. Watching him left me with a feeling of uncomfortable glee. It makes for a wonderful story, but I would hope not at the expense of his mental health.
Regardless of any empathy we might feel for his humanity, as fans of surfing we have a right to question him.
Will you accept him as your world champion, if that comes to pass?
Some dignity was restored later, perhaps, when he did make a few waves in his elimination round loss to Hedge, but his 14.83 heat total flattered to deceive. Far greater waves and deeper barrels were awarded lesser scores than those of Filipe Toledo today, sympathetic as the judges were to his plight and clearly relieved that he was actually going.
Such is the lottery of pro surfing. California’s Jake Marshall advanced to the round of 16 with a cumulative total, over two heats, four scoring waves, of just 9.03.
Italo Ferreira, by contrast, was eliminated despite a 16.60 heat total in the elimination round alone.
Consolation for Italo came in the form of Yago Dora, squeezing by Griffin Colapinto in the round of 16 by the narrowest of margins and despite what could, on another day, have been buzzer-beater magic from Colapinto.
Just as this assured Ferreira’s place at Trestles, so it cast doubt on Colapinto’s. His place now depends on the quarterfinal match-up between Kanoa Igarashi and Miguel Pupo, both of whom could clinch the fifth spot.
Just a note on Yago Dora. If I were able to bet on such an outcome, I would be placing a healthy wager on him to finish in the top five next season. There is no weakness in his game. If not for the foot injury that ruled him out for most of the season, I’m sure he’d be there already.
But today, above all, was owned by two men: Kelly Slater and Nathan Hedge.
I’ll spare my word count on Kelly, except to say that once again when the waves get hollow and serious, he remains one of the best in the world. It was a performance certainly worthy of more analysis, but his mastery of barrel riding is so evident it seems almost trite to continually point it out.
Now, almost more than ever, I feel sure I need to keep some superlatives in reserve for when he’s still doing it five years down the line, ten even.
But Kelly is Kelly, he never really went away. The real miracle renaissance man today was Nathan Hedge. A middling pro through the early 00s who hasn’t competed at this level since 2014. There were yowls of derision across the airwaves when he was awarded this wildcard slot.
What about the locals? What about the young guys?
What about them.
Hedge is through to the quarter-finals and was unquestionably one of the three best surfers in the water today. His victory over the seemingly unbeatable Jack Robinson in the round of 16 was a joy to witness. It was a win conjured in two waves after being comboed by Robinson, who seemed to have a stranglehold on both the heat and Teahupoo as a whole.
I maintain justification in screaming “TEN! TEN!” sometime around three am and waking my four-year-old (co-incidentally also called Nathan, and from this day forward named in honour of Hedge) for a wave with an untethered ferocity that Hedge had no right to make.
It seemed to spit from take-off as he dropped from the sky, somehow engaging his rail as he compressed on landing then vanished. When he reappeared it was nothing short of miraculous. After watching multiple times on replay, I’m still not sure how he made it, and I still don’t expect him to come out.
Two judges agreed with me, 9.87.
An 8.43 on his next wave iced the heat and an improbable victory.
Robinson has the right to feel unlucky, in the sense that it was only magic that could defeat him. His composure is as evident as Toledo’s brittleness. On evidence of the season, yet contradiction to the ratings, he’s the right and proper world champion this year.
I’d invite you to watch his 9.10 against Hedge, the moment the Slater vs O’Leary heat ended and priority shifted. His movement inside the tube can only be explained by clairvoyance.
In fact, watch the back-to-back heats in the round of 16 between O’Leary and Slater then Robinson and Hedge.
Heroes, all four of them. A clinic of technical, ballsy tuberiding in the world’s most spectacular wave.
The swell will fade tomorrow, of course, as will the magic.
Today held the sorts of moments that can’t be repeated, otherwise they wouldn’t be so special.
But Slater and Hedge are on opposite sides of the draw going into the quarters.
Just imagine the swell did hold. Imagine the magic could last.
For very different reasons, the day belonged to the three men that started it.
At the end of the road, not all men reach the same destination.