Welcome back to Post Script, a quick overview of each event on the WSL championship tour. Today, a review of the off season and recap of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.
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Coming off of the Snapper event, which was actually the DBah event, we had Italo Ferreria in 1st, Kolohe in 2nd, JJF & Jordy in 3rd. Defending world champ Gabe Medina in an equal 5th with rookie phenom Seth Moniz, American hopefully Conner Coffin, and last year’s rookie of the year Wade Carmichael.
Julian Wilson failed to defend his Quik Pro title with an early loss, reinstating the haunting question of whether or not he’ll ever secure the elusive world title that seems to always be 1 wave away from his grasp.
Slater had garnered 1 of the 4 available last place finishes and in his post heat interview seemed completely dejected, uninspired and wayward about his role on Tour. He would become reinvigorated just days later while watching fellow GOAT Tiger Woods rise from his twilight to secure his 5th Masters win in Augusta. This marks Tiger’s 1st Masters in 14 years and his 1st majors title in 11 years. Slater commented on it and attributed much of Tiger’s win to experience over his competitors and being able to draw from that experience to subvert pressure. A foreshadowing of Kelly’s coming week at Bells.
In that first event, wildcards and rookies showed tremendous potential and added drama as they displaced legacy competitors, a storyline that continued 1700 kilometers down the coast, in the southern ocean off Torquay.
The 2019 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, in it’s 58th integration, the longest running pro surf comp, started off with a whimper in marginal surf. Round 1 which is now called the Seeding Round saw winning heat totals averaging around 13 points. The frontrunner competitors held their ground while Julian and Kelly both lost again and would face each other in the elimination round of 32 where they would each implement a different strategy; Kelly’s to stay busy and catch waves. Julian’s was to simply surf the two best waves of the heat. As is often the case, the ocean would dictate who’s strategy would prevail by never delivering viable set waves. Kelly pushed through with less than a pair of 6’s while Julian frustratingly sat out the back.
This lull prompted the Commissioner to move the contest over to Winki where the wave count and progression level increased, but with everyone’s attention focused on a building storm that in 5 days would bring with it massive surf.
And so, for days the ocean went flat and the contest went on hold.
We resumed on Anzac day, but not quite with the #50YearSwell that was advertised. Nonetheless, it was massive and it showcased the essence of all of surfing, not just competition surfing; man and woman against nature firstly, and then secondarily, against their competitor. This moment of heroic efforts in unruly surf only lasted half a day as the swell peaked and the wind added complication. The previous days were small, and the following day would still be big but perfectly groomed by the wind. And as should be the case, the winner would need to showcase their prowess in a variety of conditions.
On the day of the swell increase the WSL also reinstated the Heritage Series, where Occy and Curren continue their rivalry from yester decade. Occy looked as fit and inspired as he’s looking in nearly 2 decades and decimated Curren, who well, did a Curren and chose to ride Superdave, his frankenstein modified skimboard. This heat was simultaneously a huge let down and yet it was perfect. Occy did a classic backside blast that should inspire all of to get fit. And Curren did a Curren. These are details that are probably lost on newer fans, but it’s so great to be reminded of a time prior to athleticism and professionalism of today. The WSL should keep these coming.
With the main event back on, the drama peaked in the round of 16. Surf poured through for half a day at triple overhead. Surfers scrabbled to find adequate equipment and when they did, boards broke in nearly every heat; from duck diving, leash plugs being ripped straight though the tail, or for Filipe, simply going straight and hitting a chop.
For all but 3 surfers, survival become the MO. Surviving a heat meant, surviving a ride to the finish. If one could navigate the bumps, which at times were head high in the middle of a triple overhead wave, they’d try to squeak out 2 carves.
For others, like defending event champ Italo Ferreria, survival was much more literal. After surfing a wave past Bells Bay and towards Winki, Italo got pushed in towards the rocks and unable to paddle through the endless whitewater back towards Bells, nor with the current towards Winki. He was stuck in front of the rocky cliff. The skis were busy rescuing Jordy in his overlapping heat, so Italo, at the mercy of the incoming whitewater, climbed up on to the rocks to safety and had resigned to hiking back to the event site on foot. That’s when a spectator spotted the jetski en route to Italo’s rescue, so he jumped back into the peril if the ocean and paddled towards the rescue ski in hopes of surfing the last 10 minute of the heat. The picked him up in that whitewater soup and got him back in the lineup at Bells. He ended up winning that heat over Jeremy Flores thanks to his previously surfed waves. The cameras found him on the stairs after the heat, where he looked to be in prayer or just contemplation, either way thrilled be back on terra firma. He told Rosie in his post heat interview that it was the craziest moment he’s ever had in the ocean.
I mentioned that there were 3 surfers for whom survival wasn’t the only objective, and that’s to say that they actually looked comfortable in the massive, unruly surf. Dueling two time world champs Gabriel Medina and John John Florence, along with Jordy Smith, and perhaps even Kelly and Filipe.
Filipe surfed beautiful, but did it mostly on the mid sized waves. The key to his success was in timing. Bells can be challenging to sync into rhythm, but Filipe patiently waited for sections and never differed from going right up into heaving sections. This approach found him into the finals.
Kelly Slater was able to draw on his unequaled experience, but only in 1 heat, his only heat win of the season thus far. And unlike Tiger, not to an event win, or not yet anyway. He finished in the quarterfinal where he lost to Ryan Callahan with a 5.67 heat total. Kelly admitted to Rosie that he never quite felt in sync through the event. Although I’ve been critical of Kelly on this podcast, all of my commentary has been about Kelly’s inability to keep up in small waves with the younger, acrobatic surfers. I actually expected Kelly to beat Ryan Callanan in big Bells, and with all due respect to Ryan, this looked to be a failure of equipment choice for Slater, another thing that has plagued him in the past few years. During the biggest day of competition, in his round of 16 heat against Peterson Crisanto, where they had the first heat of the morning and the swell was on the increase. Kelly surfed his first wave, a small wave, on a Webber shaped board and garnered what would be the highest score of the heat, a 6. As the swell increased, he came in a swapped boards for a longer Simon Anderson. He backed up his 6 with a 4.8 and won the heat, and we didn’t get to see him on that board again, which was a shame. The board looked like what Kelly needed. Not as responsive as the other boards he was riding, but that was a very good thing. It had a drive that’s been missing from his surfing in bigger, sloopy surf. The Simon board was steady and predictable, and I haven’t Kelly surf that fast in years. He was flying. The long arcs were precisely what those walls called for and were the key to Ryan’s success over Kelly in the Quarters. Kelly’s always been a pioneer with design and influencing board trends, but this should have been a moment where experience would have dictated longer, heavier equipment. He got the waves he needed, they presented steep outside sections, walls that connected to the inside closeout, but Kelly’s pacing was off.
Another victim of seemingly not enough board refinement and focus over the years has been Jordy Smith. Jordy has ridden a wide variety of boards over the years, but really seemed to have dialed things in at the end of 2018 and looked especially refined at DBah when you’d expect him to be oversized on those small waves. That was thanks to a new board model he’s worked out with coach/shaper Chris Gallagher. I’m presuming he had a dialed-in quiver for Bells, but when the massive swell arrived he had an array of boards from Arakawa, a DHD, a Dahlberg and who knows what else. That said, Jordy looked amazing on everything he rode. While John and Gabe generated highlights each time they surfed, Jordy just looked steady and pragmatic. As you’d expect from a former event winner, he looked completely comfortable and his pacing was never off beat. He surfed well in his semifinal against John John, garnering a 15.24 heat total, but it also struck me that he never really seemed to giving 100%. He seemed casual through the event, and then I realized, he looked casual on the Gold Coast too, both in the water and in interviews. So I wonder, is this a strategy? Is this a new Jordy? A world title Jordy? I think about Martin Potter’s belabored point about peaking at the right time, which Pottz means as the final; perhaps Jordy is viewing his arc as the entire season. His casual surfing, coupled with his decade of experience on tour, is adequate enough to get him into finals day at any event on Tour. If this is his strategy, he’ll sneak under the scrutiny of the media, the naysayers, and his competitors who are busy strategizing against Gabriel, John John, Filipe and Italo. This suspected strategy by Jordy also mitigates against the undeniable and unfair phenomenon of over-saturating the judges. Meaning, if Filipe is pumping down the line towards an air section, we all, judges included, have a expectation for the quality of air that Filipe is capable of. Thereby, the air that he completes becomes judged off our expectation, rather an objective measure. This discrepancy is easiest to appreciate if you think about Willian Cardoso pumping towards that same section. If Willian throws his 210 pounds into the wind and spins a full rotation, he’s virtually guaranteed to get 8 points because we’ve never seen him do it before. Filipe needs to exceed our Filipe expectations to get an excellent range score. Jordy reserving 20% of his full throttle surfing for moments when he needs it; not in a given heat, nor even an event, but for moments in the season, is not only prudent, it’s a level of competitive sophistication that we haven’t seen from Jordy yet. And it could be the exact ingredient that might unlock a world title.
Before we get to the superstars of this event, John John and Gabriel, let’s quickly detour to revisit Kolohe Andino who entered Bells in 2nd after a very tough judges decision at DBah. Kolohe is leaving Bells in 6th after losing to wildcard Jacob Wilcox in the round of 32 before the surf got huge. Wilcox deserves a huge congrats. And in my Post Script for the Quik Pro, I questioned Kolohe’s, or really any human being’s mental fortitude to soldier on after some of the very unconventional adversities Kolohe has faced. RedBull has reintroduced their 21 Days series this season and the first episode features Kolohe and Jadson as they prepped for the Quik Pro. I’ve included that with today’s videos on SurfSplendorPodcast.com. It offers a pretty deep dive into Kolohe’s psyche and current state. It’s well worth a watch and provides interesting context for the rest of his season.
So, back to the Quarterfinals. John John and Gabriel seemed destined to collide throughout this event. As with some of our sports greatest rivalries, they are such an interesting contrast of styles. They consistently beat each other heat scores on opposites ends of the draw; John with a 13.0 in the Seeding Round, Gabe with a 13.7. Then in the next round, Gabe ups it to 16.03 and John posts a 17.67. In the round of 16 Gabe increases to a 17.27, and then John goes HAM with an 18.16, the highest total of the event. Through each round I kept thinking, John John is a step ahead, but it really was more a reflection on my own preference for John. Objectively, it is very difficult to argue who was surfing better. Both surfers had insane speed, power, and flow. Both attacked the lip, even on the massive day. The one point of difference for John over everyone else is his poise. He’s virtually motionless between sections. Bells hits these lully sections and everyone else keeps their board moving, is anxious as what’s building down the line; John just stands there. He’s driving his board and he’s always in the prime spot to approach that next bowl or lip, but there’s something majestic about seeing him just stand there motionless in confidence on triple overhead wave.
Ultimately, it was John John who imposed his will over Gabriel in the quarterfinal where he posted a 16.87 to Gabriel’s 15.17. The one criticisms of John was that his selection of turns were perhaps repetitive. Well, he relied mainly on 2 turns; an open face carve and then an end section slam. That said, they were both the appropriate turn for those sections and he was doing them to a degree of gnarliest that was completely unmatched. Further, the open face carve covered so much ground that it was remindful of his famed Margaret River carves; which was a thrill just to see recreated. And his top turns were slammed against the lip, but they were really frontside carves with his rail fully buried while timing it perfectly to be slammed snuggly right up in the lip, on what was sometimes an overhead wave. It was surreal, and while repetitive from one heat to the next, was just so spectacular and unlike what anyone else was doing on their forehand. So he was the form surfer of the entire event. It’s also worth mentioning that he was riding a 6’2” throughout.
He went on to beat Jordy in the semi’s, again with Jordy seemingly only surfing at 80%. Filipe beat Ryan Callanan in the opposing semi.
The stormed tempered and the finals day presented flawless conditions and double overhead surf.
Filipe continued with his tack sharp surfing, perfectly paced, meeting the lip whenever it presented and drifting up and over sections. He dominated the first half of the heat with a 6.5 and 7.33 while John John fell on his first 2 efforts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that this was their 3rd heat of the day. With 20 minutes left in the 40 minute final, John John posted his first meaningful score, a 6.67 for a trio of turns, similar to but lesser than what we’d seen from him through the event. 8 minutes later, and with John John still needing a 7.17, he picks off a steeper wave, sticks to his same equation; an open face carve, cutback, and an inside slam, but this wave also presented a lip out the back and the additional slam on that garnered him an extra point, netting a 7.63 and the lead through the final 10 minutes where Filipe was never presented a wave. 13.83 for Filipe to John John’s 14.30. Which incidentally was both of their lowest heat scores through the entire event.
The top 10 looks very different going into Bali, which by the way, is a detour this year before coming back to Margaret’s. So, John John’s in pole position, Italo’s in 2nd, Jordy stays in 3rd. Filipe leaps forward 5 spots into 4th. Gabe stays in 5th. Kolohe’s down 4 spots into 6th. And the biggest mover is Ryan Callanan jumping 8 spots into the 8th position.
Seth Moniz looks uncontested for his rookie of the year bid and he sits in 7th overall. Reef Heazelwood is sitting in 16th and he’s not even on tour. In a simultaneously comedic and heroic storyline, Jadson sits in 30th, but has already requalified for 2020 via the QS.
I’d predict the top 5 to all perform well at Keramas whether perfect surf or slop. They are all well equipped for either scenario out there. Italo is the defending event champ. This is the location where John John had his season ending injury last year. Will Jordy cruise to another semifinal? Kolohe and Julian’s surfing is perfectly suited for the venue, but they’ll need to induce the thrills that we expect from that top 5. This will also be a great venue to confirm or contradict my critique of the modern Kelly’s smaller wave prowess, or lack thereof. For the record, I hope to wrong in that assessment. Perhaps, in the next two weeks Tiger Woods can do something spry and spectacular. He has until May 13th. I’ll catch you then at Keramas.