Welcome back to Post-Script, a brief yet thorough overview of each event on the WSL championship tour. Today, a recap of event #3 of the 2021 season, The Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic presented by Corona.
Firstly, a word of bravo and thank you to Rip Curl for stepping up and paying to sponsor Tour events in a time when many other brands have pulled back or are waiting out the pandemic. The business model where brands sponsor events was endangered, only existing for a few Tour stops. And herein Rip Curl saw an opportunity. The WSL had plenty of real estate for sale, presumably few buyers, so Rip Curl wisely came in and bought the block, all of the new Australian events and the finals day add-on to bookend the season. Despite Quiksilver, Billabong, and Outerknown all having single events on Tour this year, the spread that Rip Curl owns and the media coverage of this deal makes it feel as through Rip Curl owns professional surfing in 2021. Bolstered, of course, by having a team rider in every final of the season thus far. More on that in a moment.
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Also, congrats to Corona for stepping up and continuing to support the Tour this year as well. A swift PR counterpunch to the unfortunate branding of the novel coronavirus.
When we left Newcastle 2 weeks ago, Italo was a mere 500 points ahead of Gabriel and John John had been relegated to 3rd. Carissa had a giant lead over Tyler Wright and Isabella Nichols sat 3rd.
I suggested that, given the marginal forecast for Narrabeen, the top performers were predictable, meaning that it would be another Brazilian dominated event with another Italo and Gabe final. I turned out to be only half right. And while it would be preferred by all for the drama of these events be centered around the timeless and unassailable battle of man versus ocean, what these scarce and powerless conditions provide is a Hunger Games style drama. Athletes fight for a barely sustaining resource; improvising, pleading to the judges, hoping their showmanship might veil or erase our impression of them flapping through flat and fat sections.
And these displays of showmanship seemed to work for everyone, the athletes, the crowds, and the judges. A highlight reels of claims from the past 2 decades might be shorter than a package of claims from these past two events. If the wave doesn’t provide inherent drama then it’s proven to be a justifiable celebration at the end of each well-executed ride to let viewers know just how proud you are. Heck, if we can’t be awe struck by the threading of a heavy, shallow tube, then we might as well just have some fun. We’ll even give brownie points for creativity. And for that, Gabe proved to be champ, too.
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Officially, claims have zero value in the judging criteria, but one wonders what their influence weighs. As viewers, we’re keenly dissecting every moment and negotiation of each ride. It seems impossible to divorce one’s self from the the athletes own assessment of that very thing. And the very fundamentals of surfing, embedded in one’s style is their personality and their emotion. The WSL always uses these exact purportedly value-less claims of exhalation in their advertisements, their highlight reels, and commercials showcasing just how incredible this sport is. So when an athlete finishes a wave and celebrates their feat, how can this appeal to our emotions coax us into celebration, but not influence the judges? And if we accept the fact that it does, then really what the judges need to decipher is whether or not the claim is earnest. Did Adriano really think his 6.6 was gnarly or is he trying to milk another fraction of a point to get past Griffin Colapinto? The truth is, even Adriano can’t be trusted to answer that question with an objective self-awareness, nor can the judges, nor can the WSL. And that’s at the core of much larger issue that became magnified at Narrabeen. Judgment of surfing is highly subjective.
A touchdown celebration doesn’t affect a scoreline because that score is settled once the ball crosses the line. Winning swimmers are deemed by the objectivity of a stop watch. Even winning boxers can be judged winners by judges quantifying number of punches landed.
And so WSL judges have a particularly fraught task, deciding what and who is more adept; when the surfers often have different stances, always have different approaches, and never ever ride the same wave twice. The WSL has designed and continued to refine an objective criteria that helps to isolate certain variables, define common denominators of “good” surfing, and then apply that algorithm in real time during heats. But therein lies a glitch built into the code, an incident occurs, notably in this event with world #1 Italo Ferreira. Looking to defend his world title and back up his win at Newscastle. In heat 5 in the round of 16, the judges witnessed something that fit two opposing definitions. They, along with nearly everyone viewing, could agree that Italo landed a backside full rotation. And yet, they used the WSL’s objective criteria to define that maneuver as incomplete because he, “didn’t ride out of the wave.”
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This goal of defining an objective criteria has undermined the necessity to apply the criteria to something that is undefinable and subjective by it’s very nature.
I am certain that more important and more complex paradoxes have been solved, or at least agreed upon, but until the WSL figures out a way to reconcile what the viewing public is witnessing with the scores that their judges are submitting, the sanctity of the organization as a legitimate sporting body will be questioned.
Or they could just run events in great surf. Subjectivity decreases in direction proportion as wave quality increases. Running in good waves solves a lot of problems. Alas.
Day one was a layday due to lack of surf. Day two ran the women’s event in waist high, rippable surf. Nothing to highlight and nothing to note.
Day 3 saw the start of the men’s event with predictable results and a narrow elimination round survival gave Jeremy Flores the opportunity to mimic some of my own sentiments that I’ve been harping on here in Post-Script . . .
And I mentioned last show that I loved Stace Galbraith’s commentary with heat winners. I’ve decided that I even prefer his post heat interviews with the losers, something that has been conducted intermittently over the years, but elicits a much more raw and emotional interview, void of all the safe-talking tropes we hear from the winners.
And of course, as Jeremy referenced, Mick Fanning got the sponsor wildcard entry in this event. He got 3rd in his first heat, 2nd in that elimination round heat with Jeremy, and then lost in the following round to Italo Ferreira.
I also mentioned last show that while the Italo and Gabriel battle is something for us all to sink our teeth into, there’s also and intense race for those other 3 spots available in the final event. Again, in the new format this year, the world champ will be decided on a single day surf off at Lowers. The top 5 surfers from the season will gain access to that event. And while John John seems like a shoe-in for 3rd, he’s got some work to do and there’s 5+ surfers who are equally well qualified for that 4th and 5th spot. And in this event, those contenders started to elevate their performances.
Frederico Morais often has 1 event a season where he surfs to his potential and bolsters his lesser performances to anchor right in the middle of the rankings and secure requalification, only to do the same again next year. Doing it in event 3 this year positions him in an equal 8th on the rankings, alongside Filipe and Griffin, both of whom are very strong contenders for finals days at Lowers.
Frederico even beat Filipe in the round of 16. It wasn’t pretty and Filipe had the highest single wave score and only needed a 4.6 to advance, but they both surfed 5 waves and Frederico applied his same powerful, perfectly timed, albeit predictable surfing to secure his 6s and a berth into the quarters. He did it there again to an in-form Ethan Ewing, only to be stopped by eventual event winner Gabriel Medina.
The other equal 8th ranked surfer is Griffin Colapinto, who is absolutely a top 5 talent, but has very inconsistent competitive performances. In his rookie year on Tour I remember placing a bet, the stakes of which I cannot remember and I know I never collected it, but it was with Chris Cote regarding who would rank higher in their rookie of the year. I picked Wade Carmichael and he pick Griffin. I felt that Griff was a much more complete surfer, but I made that bet based on him running hot and cold. We see this with Ethan Ewing, we see it with Yago Dora. There’s something about possessing a stunning and attractive talent from a young age that leaves a surfer vulnerable to less talented, more dogged competitors. This is precisely where the coaching of someone like Glenn Hall has helped patch up those vulnerabilities for Matt Wilkenson, Tyler Wright, and in this event, Conner Coffin.
I’m also been speaking about these QS quality venues nullifying the strengths of the best surfers in the world and the inherent regression that is happening to the sport and for the WSL. Owen Wright, Julian Wilson, Mick Fanning, Jeremy Flores all lost in the round of 32. Italo, Jordy, Jack Robinson, and John John Florence all lost in the round of 16. None of these heats saw the best surfer winning. All of the results were won by tactical surfing, not “excellent” surfing. This usually happens a couple times in an event and it even adds to the dramatics if it’s a final layer of savvy beyond the primary battle between the surfer and the ocean. But here we had tactics winning more often than talent. The central tension while watching the event developed from wondering whether the clearly more talented surfer would get starved by the ocean in their heat, not about whether we’d witness “excellent” surfing.
I use that term, “excellent” referring to the WSL’s definition, an 8 point ride or higher. In the 32 heats that ran during those first 3 rounds, there were precise 2 “excellent” rides. One by Jack Freestone and one from Yago Dora. It’s asking a lot from an audience to watch 32 heats, a total of 16 hours worth of surfing, to only net 2 “excellent” rides.
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John John has been fine tuning his talents and his body for the most harrowing surf on the planet for two decades. Watching him surf waist high beach breaks for world title points is akin to putting an F1 driver in a GoKart. And if he begins devoting time and energy towards training for the GoKart rather than shaving seconds off his F1 track time, then that constitutes a huge fundamental misstep on the part of the WSL.
That said, John John was beat soundly and definitively by none other than Morgan Cibilic. In fact he was also beat by Frederico Morais in round 1. He beat Miguel Pupo in round 2. And then faced Morgan in the round of 16. Morgan dispatched John in the round of 32 at Newcastle. And so when they met in heat 4 in the round of 16 at Narrabeen I expected John to bring his absolute A-game to avenge that upset. But strangely, he didn’t and Morgan seized the opportunity yet again.
This is where we’re seeing the separation between John and Gabriel. Not just as it relates to Morgan; John’s 0 for 2 against him in Oz while Gabe is 2 for 2 against him, but more symbolically. Morgan has presented the precise same threat to both surfers and Gabe is the only one who has neutralized the threat. John’s opening wave of the heat was tepidly surfed. Three standard backside snaps. No real excitement. Casual is the best way to describe it. And he earned a 6 accordingly. Morgan was on the very next wave, which from the looks was a lesser wave, certainly shorter, but on it he looked ambitious. He did 2 snaps compared to John’s 3, but they are critical, dynamic, and he earned a 7.17 and the lead which he’d retain through the rest of the heat. John would sit with priority for 10 full minutes of the heat, not catching a wave, from the 20 minute mark to the 10 minute mark, needing a 6.18 to advance. That is until, at the 13 minute mark a wave came, John paddled for it and then elected not to go, Morgan scraped into it, blitzed it again with 2 backside snaps and earned the best score of the heat, an 8.53 under John’s priority on a wave that John let him have. This was the best backside turn of the event and Morgan would also go on to score the best backside barrel of the event, an absolute gift in his quarterfinal heat against Gabriel Medina.
In that heat, Gabe got busy quick, as he does, with a couple of midrange scores. This left Morgan with priority waiting for a set. The wave of the day approached and Morgan had to race into position for the left. He paddled horizontally out and towards the shoulder as the wave began to break. Before he even got to his feet, the wave began barreling over him. He falls from the lip, seamlessly into a Pig Dog stance and with forward momentum pacing the speed of the barreling wave, deep enough that we can only see that he’s still riding but not how he’s negotiating it. The wave breathes him out with enough time to complete a cut back and a snap on the end section. It was the first real barrel we’d seen all event so we weren’t sure how the judges would score it. But that take off was undeniably dramatic, he surfed it flawlessly, and for it he was awarded an 8.67. Gabe then needed a 6.18, which with 20 minutes left he’s guaranteed to get, so Morgan decided to sit and wait for another set. With 6 minutes left and on his 4 attempt, Gabriel got the score on a mediocre wave by doing an alley oop and couple turns; stock standard for him, but in an ongoing anomaly of our sports scoring, this would have been an 8 point ride for almost another surfer on Tour. But, we know what Gabe’s capable of so he only got a 6.67. This left Morgan only needing 3.87 with 5 minutes left and Gabe looking to better a 5.87. Only needing that small score, Morgan finally used his priority on a mediocre wave, a wave similar to 10 others that he let pass in the previous 20 minutes. He barely got the score he needed, a 4, and the lead with 2 minutes and 30 seconds remaining. He did precisely what he needed to do in that moment. Whether or not he mismanaged that middle part of the heat can only be determined with the benefit of hindsight, but in that moment, he did was he’s been doing to John John and what he’s been doing to beat every competitor he has faced in Australia. Everyone other than Gabriel Medina.
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The very next wave approached Gabriel. It wasn’t a great wave and Morgan’s score hadn’t dropped yet so Gabe didn’t know if he was still in the lead, or if not, what score he might need. But it didn’t matter. This is where Gabe separates from everyone other than Italo. He doesn’t leave anything to chance, and he rarely even leaves the judges any rationale argument against him. He comboed the marginal wave with a variety of turns and finished with a big air, and again getting a 6.27 for something you feel they’d give Conner Coffin an 8 for.
While the two surfers paddled back out, their scores were called out. Morgan temporarily into the lead with his 4, then Gabe back into the lead with his 6.27. Morgan was now sitting with 1 minute left, holding priority yet again. This minute felt very similar to the 2nd half of their semifinal match in Newcastle. Morgan highest score in that heat was also for a barrel, the only of it’s kind on that day too. But despite it, it felt that Morgan was always one step behind Gabe. Even if he was on the first wave of the set, getting the score he needed, Gabe was on the next one and Morgan was forced to watch Gabe undo the work he had just done. That weight seemed to settle on Morgan’s shoulders while he sat with priority for that final minute at Narrabeen, only needing a 4.2.
In a very uncharacteristic maneuver, and one that defies any heat management strategy I’ve ever seen, Morgan, with priority, paddled away from Gabrial. With 15 seconds left the precise wave Morgan needed approached, precisely where he had just been sitting 20 seconds earlier. He raced to get back towards position but was way too deep so he just duck dove the wave. Gabriel, under Morgan’s priority and with 6 seconds on the clock had free reign of the set wave. It had one closeout section on it, and Gabe did exactly what he did to Morgan in Newcastle, one giant spin on a giant section, on a left, for the highest score of the heat and an immediate submission to the WSL’s highlight reel. Compared to his lofty Newcastle air that covered 20 yards of distance, this one was a flat spin into the flats, he nearly landed with both feet on his tail pad which made the completion even more impressive. The judges gave him a 9.3 and the heat win on a wave that Morgan could have and should have prevented.
The lapse in his judgment I have to attribute to a potential premature acceptance of defeat. I think Gabriel had mentally defeated Morgan on that last exchange, and despite having priority and a wave being on the way, Morgan acquiesced in a way that John John hasn’t forced him to.
The woman’s side of the draw saw an all goofy foot final and a shake up on the rankings. Caroline Marks took down Tatiana Weston Webb in the final heat, but there were 5 surfers who were all surfing well enough to win depending on who would control their pacing and peak against their most formidable opponent. Sally Fitzgibbon was on a tear through the early rounds. Sally has been in the top 5 for the past decade straight and finished 2nd place 3 times. When she surfs like she did early in this event, it seems like she can win events. But when comparing her surfing to Carissa, Tyler, or Caroline, Sally doesn’t have a single strength over any of them. I’d add Stephanie to that list too, except Sally has progression over Stephanie. And that brief calculus would place Sally in 5th, which is where she has ranked for the past decade. This advice could be applied to Kanoa, Kolohe, and a few other surfers having trouble breaking into those top 3 spots; she needs a point of difference in her surfing. She’s complete, she’s consistent, but she needs a point of difference that she can rely on when she draws the top 3 women.
She suffered a narrow, quarterfinals loss to Tatiana Weston. Tati’s strength from year to year has been getting tubed. She used that to defeat world number 1 Carissa Moore in their semifinal bout. This was really Carissa’s heat to lose. She simply picked bad waves. She stayed busy, surfed 8 waves, but Tati’s picked higher quality waves, including that barrel, the best of the women’s event.
Newcastle finalist Isabella Nichols completely failed to back up that performance and lost in round 1 and 2, for a last place finish. She went into this event ranked 3rd in the world and now sits in 10th.
Courtney Conlogue and Joanne Defay were the other two big movers here. Joanne posted the highest heat total of the entire event in Round 2, a 16.66. She also beat two time world champ Tyler Wright, resulting in another 9th place finish for Tyler. But considering Tyler’s win at event number 1, and everyone other than Carissa’s inconsistent season, she still sits in 4th on the rankings. Joanne would lose to eventual event winner Caroline Marks in the quarters.
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Caroline’s toughest heat was against Courtney Conlogue. Courtney is a surfer who is overdue for a world title. Each year someone else seems to be hitting their zenith; Carissa, Steph, Tyler on a run two years in a row. The point of difference for Courtney is her power. She thrives in West Oz, Bells, and more events like those on Tour will benefit her. But she grew up in Huntington Beach and that groveling combined with her power was what saw her through into the semi finals where she narrowly lost to Caroline.
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Courtney held the lead through the entire heat. With 3 minutes left Caroline needed a 6.34. Courtney held priority and let Caroline go on a marginal wave. She did a couple decent turns with great flow and the judges had a split decision but the the average favored her by a margin of three one-hundredths of a point. Watching the heat back, the scores could have been flip flopped. Both surfers surfed solid, but perhaps safer than they should have. Either could have done more. They left it in the judges hands, squabbling over mid 6s and hundredths of a point.
The final between Caroline and Tati was more of the same, they traded average scores back and forth, each time one attempted an excellent maneuver they’d fall so of the 19 waves surfed in their final, a pair of 6s would win it for Caroline. She moves to 2nd on the rankings behind Carissa. Tati moves to 3rd. Tylers in 4th and Stephanie is in 5th.
The beneficiary of Italo’s judging misfortune was Conner Coffin. Conner lost his 1st round heat. He lost his 2nd round heat to Alex Ribeiro, but beat Ace Buchan to survive elimination. He beat Wade Carmichael with a combined heat total of 9.6. and then Italo with an 11.47. He then beat Kanoa in an absolutely wacky quarterfinal.
Connor’s 11.06 was actually the lowest score of any of the other 6 quarterfinalists, meaning he would have placed 3rd if he was in any of those other heats. But very very strangely, in his heat, Kanoa didn’t complete a single wave. He caught 1, but kicked out after a half-attempted turn. This seemed to be the result of a blunder at the 10 minute mark. Neither surfer had paddled for a wave and neither had priority. Kanoa paddled into the first, a very good wave and Conner paddled directly in front of him, blocking Kanoa. Kanoa pulls back and immediately starts appealing to the judges for a paddling interference. The judges didn’t not impose that, but they gave Kanoa priority and then bizarrely, before we had to rewatch that incident, they called a restart to the heat despite that very contestable wave passing through.
So the new heat started with 30 minutes on the clock and Kanoa with priority. Both surfers seemed rattled and distracted, constantly looking back to the beach, paddling back and forth, with score-able waves sneaking underneath. Conner finally breaks the tension and does 3 stock standard turns for yet another 6 point ride and ultimately that would be all it took. 10 minutes later Kanoa got his only ride, but looked completely disinterested and didn’t even finish his backside snap, figuring the wave didn’t have a huge score so he just paddled back out and seemingly pouted. He got a .8 for that wave and that would be his end heat total. He held priority almost the entire heat and just didn’t want to use it to do the dirty work of surfing marginal waves for mid range scores. Conner, for his part, did precisely what Micro has been reminding him that he is fully capable of doing; no matter who is in the heat, just go belt a couple backside turns on two waves. So he did it a couple more times and easily took the win while Kanoa seemingly refused to play. Here’s what Kanoa had to say about it . . .
He’s right. And to my original point, this undermines the entire event. There were no waves with excellent scoring potential in this heat, which Kanoa is groomed and programed to look for. But there were waves in the heat. Conner surfed 4 of them. And while Kanoa resigned to the headspace of John John, Jeremy, perhaps Jordy and Julian, and certainly Kelly Slater by not even showing up for these events, Gabriel has yet again identified a weakness in the other title contender’s game. Gabriel’s singular strength through Australia thus far has been to surf every heat in whatever conditions as if it’s a final heat at Pipeline with the title on the line.
He met Conner Coffin in the final where both surfers elevated their performances and peaked. Despite that, it was still a lopsided affair. It was Conner’s best surfed heat of the event but it still only garnered a 14.10 heat total for it. Within 10 minutes Gabe had Conner comboed. Conner stuck to his game plan, belting backside snaps, looking to push his 6’s up into the 7 range. But that plan was never going to beat Gabe at what he’s been doing in every other heat, even if he didn’t elevate his performance in this final. But again, Gabe leaves nothing to chance and he left no ambiguity for the judges.
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His first left showcased a new turn we hadn’t seen and he finished it with a lofty full rotation for a 9.27. He backed it up minutes later with a cartwheel type rotation on his backside for a 9.5. 20 minutes later, in a last ditch effort to escape combo land, Conner again stuck to his plan and did his two backside turns. He did them harder and steeper, and on a bigger wave, so he got his highest score of this event, an 8.77 and freedom from combo but still eclipsed. Gabe took the win, 18.77 over Conner’s 14.10.
Gabe’s win and Italo and John’s 9th place finishes gives Gabe a healthy 6000 point lead over Italo. Kanoa and Conner both now share an equal 4th.
The WSL deserves congratulations for running two events in Australia without a COVID interference. They are facing a new challenge in Western Australia where after 12 months of no COVID transmissions a family of 3 all just tested positive in Perth. The area has entered a 3 day lockdown, and while the Margaret River area is still open, this does disrupt the sense of relative safety and normalcy of these past two events.
Hopefully the event commences on May 2nd as scheduled. Considering the options of North Point and The Box, it would offer a very welcomed opportunity for excellent surf, excellent scoring rides, and allow the best surfers in the world to actually do what they are here to do. It would also take some pressure of the judges, giving them a chance to decide something other than the difference between a 6 and a 6.5. That is, of course, if everyone makes it to Margaret with time for potential quarantine. As of today, April 25th, it appears some of the athletes are still in New South Wales. Including Gabriel Medina who, perhaps for his first year ever on Tour, seems to be enjoying more than just heat wins; visiting the opera house, taking in sunsets with his wife, and documenting all of it in selfie mode on Instagram. He seems more in control, self aware, an actualized than ever before. Less tense. He’s also wearing a bigger target on his back than ever before. And after the frustrations of the beach breaks, Italo and John John are among the most motivated to seek redemption in the Wild West.
This is David Scales for Surf Splendor and I’ll see you there next week.
Host, Producer, Writer: David Scales @David_Lee_Scales