"You might say it’s indicative of WSL failure when a 51 year old is still centre stage, but if they play their cards right, there’s a crop of athletes with both the talent and the character to change that."
You realise as you get older, that despite your best efforts, you can’t change who you are.
Where personality comes from is a mix of nature and nurture, but if you have children, or have observed the world for long enough, you’ll realise the terrible, fascinating truth.
Despite common sense and science, nature prevails.
We’re all searching for that sense of who we really are.
Some of us might find it through the medium of surfing, in our own and in those we admire.
In surfing, authenticity is both revealed and discovered. Done properly, it’s a way of silently expressing who you are without having to explain it.
That’s what we’re looking for in the pros. It’s not just their surfing we aspire to, it’s their character. We revere in others the deficiencies in ourselves. And those we love the most are those who lay it all bare, whose performances on a wave convey an authentic sense of themselves.
Your power comes from what you make.
For the athletes on the WCT, surfing is their power.
Today, Sunset Beach revealed some of their character, providing a solid day of men’s surfing in waves far better than anyone predicted.
The entirety of the Round of 32 and Round of 16 was completed using the overlapping heat format. Once again it was clear that this should be utilised more often than not.
Aside from the efficiency, the added priority wrinkles keep things interesting. Most importantly, it leads to more action, and in turn a better quality of broadcast that doesn’t fill the dead air with meaningless noise.
Kaipo tried his best to provide some irrelevance. My favourite moment was his attempted recollection of a folktale about a Hawaiian woman who is collecting octopus and is punished for taking too many.
Kaipo, bless him, informed us the Hawaiian word for waves was the same as the word for octopus. Maybe she was taking too many waves, he suggested to no-one in particular.
“Think about it”, he implored the dead air.
But whereas some men need meaningless noise, others thrive in silence.
John Florence’s character is not new to us. We know, given the time and space to perform, that he’s likely the most gifted surfer in the world. (Though it should be acknowledged that this distinction is not quite as clear cut as it once was.)
Pete Mel noted the demeanour of both John and Ian Gentil before their Round of 32 match-up as being very similar, relaxed, easy-going. Just cruising.
Of course this is something we can admire. And it’s a headspace that can lead to peak performance, as we’ve so often seen with John.
It worked this morning against Gentil, the tight final scoreline belying the distance between the men.
At his best, Florence operates in a flow state. Sometimes this happens for a whole heat, sometimes several in a row. But if you want to win, you can’t rely on it. Sheer force of talent is often not enough in pro surfing.
In his surprising defeat to Nat Young, he just couldn’t get going.
Young flared and deserved the win. The “young man from North America”, as Strider referred to him, bizarrely.
Meanwhile, Florence looked entirely out of sorts. He’d already lost by the time he snapped his board and ended up swimming. The board that had looked so red and vibrant in the early rounds now floated in two pieces, desolate and distant from its commander.
The tone in the booth was sombre.
At least we still have Ethan Ewing, everyone was no doubt thinking.
It takes a slow motion replay to highlight how different the turns performed by Ethan and John are. It’s too fast in real time, too seamless to really appreciate the perfection of form and depth of rail.
Sunset Beach did a fine job today of highlighting great surfing. Timing had to be perfect. Commitment to sections was rewarded, hesitation was punished.
Judges seemed to struggle in the early rounds, uncertain of whether to score barrels or turns highest. This led to differentials in some heats that didn’t seem to create enough separation for those who passed the eye test.
I noted some very strange scoring of non-makes. Slater, Miguel Pupo and Yago all scored mid-fives in the Round of 32 for waves that weren’t close to being made.
No explanation was offered as to this judging quirk that was a stark contradiction to all we know about how waves must be finished.
Some controversy was teased in the Round of 32 heat between Ryan Callinan and Caio Ibelli. Ibelli’s 8.17 for two turns seemed inflated. God given, even. Especially when it was compared directly alongside a 6.17 for Ryan Callinan which was almost identical.
Two full points? Kaipo hoisted. But no-one took the lead.
What of Ibelli? Do you believe in him?
His surfing can be radical, and barring the score against Callinan, was more or less undeniable today. But for me it never looks assured, despite the scores. He wields a skin-of-your-teeth style that can be exciting, but is the antithesis of men like Florence, Ewing, Medina, Robinson.
Jack Robinson, by contrast, seems to have grown further into his Alpha role in the yellow jersey.
Today he transitioned from barrels into seamless carves perhaps better than anyone. He’s far more lucid in post heat interviews, or “on the glass” as seems the de rigueur phrase.
Gone is the thousand yard stare and quasi-spiritual platitudes about being “in the moment”. It has been replaced with a self-assuredness that should send chills down the spines of all who will chase him for the remainder of the year.
If anyone can traverse this psychological chasm between flow states and hard graft, it’s Jack Robinson.
There’s an intriguing mix of grafters and masters in the quarter finals.
It might seem a disservice to the talents of Matt McGillivray, Caio Ibelli and Nat Young to class them in the former group, but it should be taken as a nod to the fact that at Sunset Beach they’ve found the centre of the Venn Diagram that leads to winning heats. Somewhere between effort, commitment, supreme skill, abundant confidence, and sheer force of will.
One man who might have all of this and more is Joao Chianca.
The best adjective I can think of to describe the surfing he did today is “frightening”.
There’s a simmering violence in the way Chianca approaches heats. A latent power that seems to border on the psychopathic.
His laissez faire post heat interviews seem like a mask concealing the fact that riding waves is a thin tissue preventing him from stabbing something to death.
There’s no discernible weakness in Chianca’s make-up, and a ridiculously high ceiling. As a fan of professional surfing, you should be enthralled and terrified by this potential.
But though we might admire the qualities of skill and character that could elevate some men to the top of this game, there are only two who have consistently proven that they have everything. They are out of this competition, but this watery theatre still depends on them: Gabriel Medina and Kelly Slater.
I can’t dwell on Medina being out. Suffice to say it caused great personal trauma. Colapinto deserved the score that won him the heat, but somehow Medina always seems unlucky to lose.
His opening barrel today would have been a closeout for anyone else. He’s still the man to beat, barring acts of god or the creeping shadow of issues that kept him out last season
Right now I’m pulling for Kelly Slater to be around as long as possible, too.
Resplendent in unusually bright red shorts, he vanquished some of his Sunset demons today but eventually fell to Ethan Ewing in the Round of 16.
He hunted barrels when turns were scoring higher, a fact he should have known given he hung around between heats, scrutinising the line-up.
I wondered if it was less of a tactical error than a tacit acknowledgement of his limitations. Going turn for turn against Ewing would never work.
Tell that to those in the booth. Respect for the GOAT is more than appropriate, but at some point they need to stop talking about him like he’s still 25.
For better or worse, he’s still the best post-heat interview. Notably, he’s the only man gracious enough (or the only one approached) to give an interview when he loses. Whatever happened to that production flash in the pan?
You might say it’s indicative of WSL failure when a 51 year old is still centre stage, but if they play their cards right, there’s a crop of athletes with both the talent and the character to change that.