Tahiti Pro: Day Three
A 50-year old and a 43-year old are the best tuberiders on Planet Earth and just proved it in a day of competition at 6 - 10 foot Teahupoo. You want to call bullshit on it, but you can't because it just happened.
50-year old Kelly Slater beat World Number One Filipe Toledo.
43-year old wildcard Nathan 'Hog' Hedge defeated World Number One Filipe Toledo then World Number Two Jack Robinson.
The raw numbers for the Hog and the GOAT are equally impressive. Averaging out their four heat-winning rides, the GOAT comes in at 8.25, while the Hog averaged out to 8.50. The numbers have marked out a steady decline in performance for Kelly all season but today they do nothing but underscore his continued dominance at a wave where the fast twitch fibres of youth were soundly beaten by experience, skillset, and sheer will.
Hog outlined his mental battle to remain composed after Robinson paddled around him ("That hasn't happened to me since Andy Irons") repeatedly clocking up high scores with what I thought was the most technical display of backside tube-riding the sport has ever seen. Maintaining composure for Hog came down to remembering a simple mantra, I think familiar to most Aussie surfers: “I just wanna get pitted off me head”.
Which he duly did on the biggest bombs of the heat, somehow relegating Robinson's performance to cute; almost irrelevant. Hog was an underdog of the highest order - 81% of fans picked Robinson for the W.
I was one of them.
Asked in the booth about what he saw as the advancements in backside tube-riding, Slater graciously (or disengenuously) claimed it was mostly “the average guy has gotten better” and that the rest came down to fate.
I beg to differ. The advancements belong to Slater. Subtle positioning and dragging, a slight super-technical kick stall right at the base of the heaviest sections, hands-free pumps. When it comes to the theatre of full throttle Teahupoo he remains the lead actor.
The only other example of clear advancement in backside tube-riding has been Gabe Medina at Backdoor, who ironically honed that technique at Slater's Surf Ranch.
Kelly's the GOAT and we've become accustomed to him fending off new waves of challengers at the world's heaviest waves.
But can someone explain the Hog to me.
How does a 43-year old who last finalled here almost two decades ago, a guy who in the ensuing period could be found after midnight drunk in a gutter with a greasy kebab spilling down his face come up with performances like that?
How does a sport maintain the integrity of its competitive architecture knowing there are guys decades into retirement who can show up and eliminate the world's best, simply by being given the opportunity?
It is literally boggling my tiny mind. Can someone please present a hypothesis?
Kelly didn't dig the overlapping heat format at Chopes and I stand with Kelly on that front. There were two issues. The first was not enough waves in the non-priority heat. The second was periods of such tube gluttony that it was almost impossible to keep up with the action. A criticism of the venue is that it is hard, sometimes impossible, for judges to adequately parse rides to provide correct scoring. That seemed to be the case today and it may have been that judges were sensorily overwhelmed by the sheer number of tubes that needed sorting and scoring.
I think they basically got it right.
Some scores seemed to be juiced, such as Toledo's in Heat 1 of the Elimination Round. No way in hell his heat total should have been within a point of Hog's when the siren sounded. Toledo's Opening Round effort, a 1.87 heat total in which he claimed that “the positioning was hard, I was kind of lost out there”, was redeemed by his two wave 14.83 total against Hog, even if that number was highly flattering to him.
As stated yesterday, 2022 has been a strange year. No Medina, no John John (since G-Land) a 50-year old overshadowing all with a documentary filmed three years ago. If you'd told me in January that the heat of the year would be between Matty McGillvray and Sammy Pupo there would have been polite snickering. But that is what they delivered today.
The sun came out, the tubes glowed with that holy backlit blue and the sets pumped relentlessly.
It's not often I find myself on the same side of the ledger as WSL CEO Erik Logan but when a tanned ELO took a look at the lineup, said he was “happy for the fans” and to, “cancel your reservations, cancel all your work, it's gunna be pumping,” there was no resistance in me whatsoever.
I'd lost track of who was doing what and where as far as the Final 5 went, we'll catch up on that later. All I could see was Matty M looking to be that half-yard on the wrong side of the takeoff spot for a bomb, going anyway and somehow reconnecting with fins and edge control after air dropping sideways, ala Andy Irons, to be spat out of a huge perfect keg.
Thank the good lord, judges awarded it the perfect 10. But he was still in danger of losing to Sammy Pupo who was looking very, very comfortable threading huge tubes. It came down to the final exchange, Pupo needing an an 8 and change and getting a mid-7 on the buzzer.
Ethan Ewing looked lost yesterday. He was brilliant today. The surf went a bit weird in his Elimination Round heat with Michel Bourez, sleepy and wonky, but his final ride, an 8.67 deep threader, was a year-defining ride for him. He'll take enormous confidence out of that into Trestles and future campaigns in Tahiti. He surfed brilliantly against local Wildcard Kauli Vaast but the simple brutality of the sets that Vaast rode could not be denied, even if judges over-cooked the spread. No change for Ewing, he will go to Trestles ranked third in the world with a great chance of winning the world title.
Toledo remains in pole and Jack Robbo in the second spot. No changes there. Italo holds down fourth, despite getting beaten by close friend and perennial QS requalifier Jadson Andre, which almost had him in tears in the presser boat. He claimed it was one of the “weirdest feelings in my whole life” and asked, “why do I have to compete against my brother?”
Italo remained because Griff got pipped by Yago Dora despite riding the best wave of the heat. His last wave needed a 5.94, he backdoored a smaller wave for a 5.63.
That, as Kelly would say, is just fate fucking with you.
I do wonder if any of the women were listening when Griff said later that he was, “stoked I've put in so much hard work with backside barrel riding”.
I wouldn't call it work, but yeah, Griff looked like someone who had a plan from A-Z for almost every conceivable wave which required grabbing rail and pulling in.
Kelly called it a “game of inches” and “fun” before noting it was the first comp all year where he had won his Opening Round heat.
Fun? There were a handful of user-friendly waves, but I know from bitter experience that going in and sniffing around for one of those “easy” ones on a day like that inevitably ends with the lagoon draining out into a backless beast and a desperate panic-stricken scramble to get out and away from the impact zone while the coral rushes up at you with fangs bared.
The fact that Kelly at 50, and in the Quarters, can still call that fun, is heart-warming. It shows we can still root for the old guy, love him in spite of his flaws, and be gobsmacked and grateful we can still get to witness his greatness.
// STEVE SHEARER