"Not all heroes endure slow deaths, but for some there’s no way out that isn’t tragic."
We’re just animals at the end of the day, and our senses, vestigial though they may be, require immersion in nature. In our stolid homes and offices of glass, concrete and steel it’s easy to forget this, or never know it.
Surfers, for the most part, understand this need to reconnect with our animalistic senses. This intuition is part of the draw. The same is true for other outdoor pursuits, for anyone who knows that exposure on mountain ridges, deep forests or heaving oceans is where we might find our true selves, the ones we lose in the mundanity of daily existence.
But there are levels to this understanding. And only the most skilled, the most committed, understand that peak experience comes when you toe the line between glory and disaster.
The surfers of the WCT know this when they travel to Tahiti. Where else is there such a quixotic mix of beauty and threat?
Some travel in hope, knowing they have the faculties and the arena to reach peak states. Others travel in trepidation, knowing that Teahupo’o will expose them, through inexperience or fear, and that there will be nowhere to hide.
Teahupo’o wasn’t perfect today, nor did it reach its terrifying potential, but it was enough. Sufficient to test the inexperienced and showcase mastery alike.
The result is a tantalising quarter final draw. The world’s most talented hollow wave aficionados remain alongside two local wildcards who prove once again the lesson our incumbent world champion has never learned: experience and commitment matter most at the end of the road.
And desire. Perhaps desire matters most of all.
Who has exhibited more desire, more love, than Kelly Slater? He travelled for forty-nine hours from Namibia to Tahiti, rested for just six, then surfed heat one of the opening round.
Today, after laydays allowed some respite, he attacked Teahupo’o like a man in possession of some dark power. He caught ten waves in his defeat of Ryan Callinan, eleven in his narrow loss to Dora. The oldest man in the field rode more waves than anyone else, and took just as many floggings. Slater was once again the hunter, and for veteran surf fans it was a pleasure to witness.
It’s often possible to discern Slater’s mindset by the way he exits waves. Today, after exiting a barrel for a 7.33 in his heat against Yago Dora, it was a turn that exhibited Kelly’s verve. A searing backhand carve, perhaps one of the best turns we’ve seen from him all year, ironically in a competition where turns score nothing, was followed by a wild hook under the lip. The final turn wasn’t made, and it wasn’t necessary, but it showed a man reconnecting with the energy that formed him.
In his post-heat interview after a comprehensive victory over Callinan, he seemed Dracula-like, the years falling away before our eyes as he dissected what he did and why, how he drained the life from his victim.
But he was to lose to Dora in the next round, in a heat he had controlled throughout. In what we might come to see as foreshadowing of world champion credentials, Yago Dora never lost his composure. With a minute left, Slater had priority and control. Each feinted, and eventually Kelly was forced to go. Dora needed a high seven, on a day when scores could not be manufactured. In Slater-esque fashion a wave materialised, stretched out down the reef, and was threaded with typical panache by Dora. An eight point ride and no argument.
In the wake, Dora was elated. “I was pissed off,” he said, referencing Slater’s dominant rhythm throughout the heat.
Kelly took it hard, slain in the manner he has so often inflicted on others. “He’s the most upset I’ve ever seen him,” said Strider.
You can be assured that Slater planned to win this event and then finally, for once and for all, bow out, just as he wishes he had after his last Pipe victory. Instead, his dominance has ebbed away in a sea of marginal waves and high fours.
This wasn’t the last competitive heat we’ll see Kelly Slater surf, but it was another notch in his mortal decline, and it’s understandable that each is exponentially more painful.
Not all heroes endure slow deaths, but for some there’s no way out that isn’t tragic.
But on a day when surfers pinballed between inside and outside waves, never quite sure where the best scoring potential was, the pretenders to Slater’s throne could still learn a thing or two by watching him. The best did.
Joao Chianca, now eliminated and with the unfortunate fate of watching Medina, Florence, Robinson, and perhaps even Fioravanti, hunt down his top five place, was evidently hungry.
He rightly felt pressure facing local standout, Kauli Vaast. This was evidenced by a critical drop early in the match-up which Chianca somehow made before disappearing in the ferocious churn of foam. In the aftermath he ripped off his wetsuit and discarded it in the channel. It was an animalistic response, in the same vein as drunk young men tearing off their shirts as nightclubs spill into the streets, readying for battle against as yet unidentified foes.
By contrast, there was an unexpected calmness in his post-heat interview. He spoke of “the dark part of the game” referencing the fact that people must lose so you might win. “It’s how you have to play,” he stated, but said he wished to distance himself from it for now and just see how things play out.
Final five or not, Chianca has established himself as a force this season, in all conditions. There’s a cerebral ruthlessness in his demeanour, and I suspect we’re still to see the best of him in heavy water.
Kauli Vaast recognised the strategy of getting busy today in his victories over Chianca then Colapinto. It was counterintuitive, perhaps, in a line-up where the take-off spot is normally narrow and well-defined, and waiting for the best waves pays. But today the best waves were uncertain, and the most feverish hunters were rewarded.
Once again Vaast has reached the finals stage as a wildcard, cementing his legitimate talent at Teahupo’o.
In the same way the wavepool lays bare the talent differential between surfers on the WCT, so too does Teahupo’o. Comparisons and judging are refreshingly straightforward and free of controversy when the criteria is clear: make critical drops on the biggest waves and get barrelled for as long as possible.
The masters of this are Jack Robinson, Gabriel Medina and John Florence. Teahupo’o is their element, and their mastery is unmatched.
The contrast between these three men and the one sitting atop the rankings is jarring. For the layperson or those new to pro surfing fandom, it would be hard to explain.
Robinson, in contrast to the zen of his early season, still appears a little frazzled and edgy in post-heat interviews. Not so his surfing in waves like this. He’ll face Dora in the quarter final courtesy of a nine-point-four for a barrel which wasn’t exited cleanly, but he had no right to appear from.
Gabriel Medina’s prowess in hollow, technical lefts is always arresting. To my eye, he’s marginally the best of this holy trinity, even though he lacked the high nines on his scorecard today. Like everyone who performed well, he surfed his way into rhythm, gambling on inside waves to rack up scores early, before moving outside. He controlled his heat against Seth Moniz from beginning to end and will match up with Florence in a quarter final made tantalising by form, location, and rankings.
And it was John Florence who was to punctuate the day with innate mastery of waves like this. He had three or more, and a heat total in double figures before we’d even seen one. This was the result of the still inexplicable “Stay Tuned” breaks, showing us nothing but a longshot of distant whitewater and judging tower.
Florence’s final wave, the last of the day, was not only the best by score at 9.57, but also aesthetic beauty. He was blown cleanly out of the tube, head bowed as if baptised in the spit, with a style that exemplified both grace and mastery.
“The wave did not look like it was going to do what it did, it was almost like it did it because he wanted it to do it,” fumbled Strider.
We wonder why Florence persists with surf competition when there are so many other things he might do, so many ways he might exhibit this skill. But to do this in the heat of battle, when all eyes are on you, and when it means something: that’s sport. And perhaps sport is the only way to mesh our clashing worlds, the material and the natural. Maybe John Florence understands something of this that we never could.
What better sport than pro surfing to provide us with everything we lack in life? Communion with nature, chance and consequence, pitting the strength of your desire against that of another human being.
In this final wave Florence was everything we hope him to be, everything that conveys a vicarious pleasure that many of us may appreciate but will never really know. It was a glimpse of the peak experiences he seeks.
It’s a fallacy to question him.