At events such as the Pipe Masters, held at dangerous venues where athletes battle the elements and often put their safety on the line, the waves are often the main attraction. Big, heavy, hollow barrels bring natural drama to a surf contest, and often the ratings and various title races and qualification scenarios are simply an excuse for us spectators to shirk responsibility and watch courage and carnage and pumping waves all day long.
But the final day of the final event of the final ASP season, at the most famous barrel in the world, on a stretch of coast many have called “the proving grounds” — was not really about the waves. In fact, based on heat scores alone, one could easily have justified stepping away to get some work done. With a dropping swell and too much sand still plaguing the lineup, it was once again a matter of finding the right wave, and scores were dropping all over the spectrum. Kolohe Andino and Bede Durbidge both had two-wave totals of less than one-and-a-half points, while John John Florence, Ace Buchan and Kai Otton all won three-man heats with just over six points.
While there were some big performances being rewarded with big scores, many others were less than riveting, and sometimes downright sleepy. (Of course, sleepy heats at Pipeline still involve overhead barrels, so it’s not like it was flat or anything.) But sometimes we don’t need Pipe to be at its biggest and best to provide a comp with drama; sometimes competition for its own sake is enough to keep us watching. And today, with the world title, Triple Crown title, Pipe Masters title, and final remaining qualification slots all up for grabs, the waves were more than happy to serve as backdrop.
While there were nearly half a dozen storylines playing out today, things started getting really interesting in heat 6 of round 3, where Gabriel Medina advanced over Dusty Payne and ended Kelly Slater’s title hopes. It was now down to Medina and Mick Fanning for the world title, and the fact that Dusty was out also left the door open for Michel Bourez or Julian Wilson to snatch the Triple Crown title from his grasp (Michel beat Wilko in round 3, while Julian Wilson beat Kolohe Andino in a one-sided affair).
Meanwhile, Mick Fanning fended off a dangerous Jeremy Flores in his round 3 heat, keeping himself in the title race. With both him and Medina through to round 4, Fanning could now only win the title by finishing second or better, while Medina could clinch it by making the finals.
By the time the last heat of round 3 kicked off, it no longer mattered if Kelly Slater beat Alejo Muniz—nothing Slater could do would win him his 12th world title. Alejo, on the other hand, was surfing for his career. The only surfer remaining in the event who could earn his way into requalification, Alejo was looking to move into the top 22 in order to remain on tour in 2015. But Sebastian Zietz and Julian Wilson—the two surfers within his sights—had both already advanced into round 4, putting the pressure squarely on Alejo. For once, the young Brazilian stepped up, beating the winningest surfer at Pipeline 15.50 to 13.10 and keeping himself in the hunt.
Round 4 is a non-elimination round, but a win there means a shortcut to the final series—and on a day in which 27 heats were run, rest time was at a premium. Medina faced off against Felipe Toledo and Josh Kerr and continued the form he has shown all year, winning a shootout with his countryman, 15.67 to 15.23, and inching his way ever closer to Brazil’s first world title. Meanwhile, the other nine surfers in round 4 suffered through painfully slow heats. Fanning lost a low-scoring affair to Ace Buchan and found himself relegated to round 5, while John John Florence and Kai Otton both notched unimpressive wins with 6.74- and 7.06-point heat totals respectively.
Round 5 was full of consequential heats, as both Bourez and Wilson pushed to gain ground on Triple Crown leader Dusty Payne, and Fanning pitted his title hopes against Muniz’s requalification campaign. By this point the beach was standing room only, with near record numbers lining the sand—and a good portion of them from South America. Alejo Muniz had already taken down title hopeful Kelly Slater in round 3, and now faced off with Mick Fanning in a heat that was do-or-die for both surfers. Alejo found the only quality wave of a very slow heat and was leading 6.53 to 2.44 with 30 seconds remaining as Medina paddled out for his quarterfinal. With the clock counting down, Alejo and Mick paddled over to congratulate Medina, who immediately paddled back in to the beach to celebrate with possibly the most passionate throng of fans Ehukai Beach has ever seen. In the process, he abandoned his quarterfinal heat, leaving Felipe Toledo alone in the lineup.
And that is when things really started to get crazy. While the clock continued to run down in his quarterfinal, Medina spent 25 minutes being cheered and chaired around the beach, waving flags and granting interviews and generally enjoying the shit out of himself. The only number on Medina’s scoreline was a 0.17 for the wave that he’d ridden to the sand, but while the party raged on shore, Felipe Toledo was unable to find anything above a 1.5. Then, with 15 minutes remaining in their heat, Medina suddenly decided that he’d celebrated enough. He paddled back out, found a mid-range three, and got himself back into the event.
Amidst all the chaos, Julian Wilson had won a largely ignored heat against Sebastian Zietz, posting a mid-nine for a throaty barrel at Backdoor and a high seven for a solid tube to backside air reverse at Pipe. Posting one of the highest heat totals of the day, Wilson was keeping his Triple Crown hopes alive by the skin of his teeth (Bourez fell out of the race after losing to Josh Kerr in round 5), and now found himself needing to win the event in order to edge out Dusty Payne for the Hawaiian title.
Fast forward two hours to a revitalized Pipeline that had suddenly begun pumping out waves that from my perspective looked pretty damned good. Wilson had continued his rampage through the quarters and semis, surfing six heats on his way to the finals where he would vie for the Triple Crown against the new world champion, Gabriel Medina. On a day that had been plagued with tricky conditions and low scoring heats, Wilson started things off with a near-perfect 9.93. Not to be outdone, the pride of Brazil answered back, threading a long, perfect drainer on his backhand and scoring the only 10 of the day—and suddenly Pipeline didn’t seem like such a fickle, confusing wave after all. Medina backed his 10 up with an 8.0, while an exhausted Wilson threw himself into a handful of closeouts in a desperate attempt to work his way back into the heat. Then, with around one minute left in the season, a bump appeared on the horizon—and just like that, one of the most dramatic days of competitive surfing in recent times came down to a two-wave set. Wilson spun on the first one, pulling in at Backdoor and getting blown out for a 9.7. Behind him, Medina rode the last wave of the year, a frothy barrel that came up just short at 9.2.
While Medina got chaired up the beach for the umpteenth time (never mind the fact that he’d lost the heat), Julian spent a few quiet moments reflecting on his first WT win in three years—a win that also earned him the Triple Crown title he was denied the opportunity to contest a while back. Then it was up to the podium for half an hour of awards presentations, in which Medina and Wilson took turns collecting more hardware than they could hold (between them they were awarded the Pipe Masters title, the Pipe Masters runner up, the Triple Crown title, and the ASP world title).
As the new world champed addressed his fans in Portuguese, Wilson snuck away to some much-needed rest. It has been a long, hard year for Wilson, full of as many downs as ups, and after today’s performance he certainly deserves a few months off before the 2015 WSL world tour kicks into gear at Snapper Rocks.
In the meantime, for young Gabriel Medina the party is only getting started.
2015 World Tour Competitors
John John Florence
Freddy Patachia Jr.
(*Author’s Note: The WSL will award two wildcards for the 2015 season. These have historically been injury wildcards, but may be awarded at the WSL’s discretion. Considering the fact that CJ Hobgood is the highest rated surfer not to have requalified, and had to miss Pipe due to an injury, one would think that he’d be rather deserving of a spot on tour. And after Alejo Muniz’s world title-affecting performance today, plus the fact that he is the next highest rated surfer after CJ, and missed two events this year due to injury, he can make a pretty good case for himself as well. Here’s hoping the WSL’s first official decision is a good one.)