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What. Did. We. Just. Witness? The WSL Championship Tour was just greeted with one of the warmest “welcome-backs” ever. From office-dwelling weekend warriors to Mother Nature herself, let’s just say we are all glad the tour is back. After an eventful offseason (Lowers AND Fiji got the axe, Mick is retiring after Bells, and a wave pool is on the schedule - who would have guessed that?), it’s great to see the world’s best back in the jersey and duking it out. With an explosive new rookie class looking to prove their worth, it’s no surprise the first event of 2018 was highly anticipated, and WOW did we get exactly what we wanted! Before we dive into the details though, there’s been some changes on tour! Let’s take a look at what to expect this year.
The first notable change in 2018 is the elimination of Round 5. Instead of the “no-loser” three-man Round 4 that fostered carefree, creative surfing, Round 4 now sees first and second into the quarters, while 3rd place is eliminated. Previously, the guys who won Round 4 would go straight to the quarters, while 2nd and 3rd went to Round 5. It may seem harsh, but we’re big fans of the new format for one reason - we will see the best surfers surf more! Ok, ok, none of the heats on tour are boring per say, but let’s be honest, productivity in the cube farm tends to fluctuate depending on the matchup. Surfing is a spectator sport and we all want to see the top seeds ripping, right?
Another significant change, as mentioned before, is the CT schedule. For the first time in what seems like forever, Lowers is not going to be a stop. Everyone’s favorite skatepark is getting replaced by a more perfect, consistent wave - Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch. While it’s sad all the pros won’t be a stone’s throw away in San Clemente, they will still be in California. It’s yet to be released if the CT event will be open for live viewing, but the upcoming Founders Cup is open to the public - for a fee, though.
Perhaps slightly overlooked is the addition of Keramas to the schedule! We all remember the ally-oop heard ‘round the world that now two-time world champ John John Florence stomped when Keramas made its world tour debut in 2013. Don’t forget, Parko got a perfect 20 heat score there too. The high-performance wave in Bali is a favorite of the regular footers on tour and should prove to be one of the most exciting events of the year as well.
Now that all the housekeeping is out of the way, can we please take a second to reflect on Snapper? And Kirra! That was the most exciting start to a year since, well, last year when Owen won his first event back after a traumatic brain injury that nearly ended his surfing career.
Round one was pretty straightforward with two exceptions. World Tour rookie Griffin Colapinto took down current world champ John John Florence, and Kelly Slater had to pull out due to the nagging foot injury he sustained at J-Bay last year.
John John would later lose to event wildcard Mikey Wright in round two, shocking the entire surf world, but also opening everyone’s eyes to the potential Wright has. The radical Matt Hoy inspired grab-rail cutties followed up by poised post-heat interviews showed that the young Australian has matured and is serious about joining the big leagues with brother Owen and sister Tyler. He is currently ranked 1st on the Qualifying Series, so be sure to keep an eye on him throughout the year.
As the contest progressed, we saw 3x world champ Mick Fanning go down in the new Round 4 format. Unfortunate for him, because a cyclone swell on the forecast was just about to light up the Gold Coast. Brazilian rookies Thomas Hermes and Michael Rodrigues both made the quarter-final, but it was American greenhorn Griffin Colapinto who stole the show. At absolutely pumping Kirra, the 19 year old pulled into the wave of the event. The 3 barrel combo left the judges nowhere to go but perfect, earning the 19 year old the first 10 of the year and a spot in the semifinal.
Semifinal 1 saw CT veteran Ace Buchan against rookie Thomas Hermes. A classic new blood vs. seasoned competitor clash in well over-head rifling right-handers. Ace, as a goofy footer, was probably at a disadvantage due to how fast the waves were, but his experience and wave selection prevailed and for the first time in his career, he made the final of the Quiksilver Pro.
In Semifinal 2, Griffin Colapinto was slotted against an in-form Julian Wilson. Ironically, Julian was not at 100% - a few months back while cross training, he took a bad fall on his mountain bike and sustained a separated shoulder. Although an Instagram video was released announcing his withdrawal from the event, he somehow recovered and put on a great performance that took down the rookie.
The final was set: Ace Buchan vs. Julian Wilson. Goofy vs. Regular. Tour veteran vs. new school progression. It couldn’t have been a better matchup. The hooter rang and the heat was on. As the minutes ticked away, it became apparent how difficult the job of a pro surfer must be. The uncrowded lineups actually make it hard to tell where to sit, and at a spot like Kirra where every wave looks good, how do you pick the “best” good waves? Something to think about when you’re yelling at your fantasy pick for losing priority! Anyway, Julian Wilson was first to strike and did so in near perfect fashion, pulling into a bomb that spat him out leaving the crowd cheering. The judges almost went perfect, but held back and awarded the ride a 9.93. Ace would do well to battle back later in the heat with an 8.6, but the 7.5 backup score Wilson was holding onto proved too much for the goofy foot. When the final buzzer sounded, it was Julian Wilson on top, separated shoulder and all! It’s a true testament to how much heart the Australian has for the sport of surfing. From not knowing if he’ll even be able to compete to winning the event, the roller coaster of emotions must have been overwhelming. Congrats, Julian. Well done.
As we look forward to Bells, (which starts on March 28th) it will be interesting to see if the rookies can be consistent and what guys will rise to the top. The Bells bowl is known for producing sections that guys like Mick, Parko, and Conner Coffin specialize in, but it’s anyone’s guess who will capitalize! Stay tuned for more, and we’ll see you in the water!