Florence is favorite to repeat world title, but 3 stand in his way
POULLENOT / WSL
The four contenders for the WSL World Title are eagerly waiting for the waves to pump in for the Billabong Pipe Masters.
All five principal characters were on hand Thursday, including the loudest and most imposing.
The other four — John John Florence, Gabriel Medina, Jordy Smith and Julian Wilson — bow to the fifth with the utmost respect. Pipeline, with its infamous hollow waves that crash on the reef at Ehukai Beach, is the real superstar of the upcoming North Shore winter show. The others hope to be the chosen one, the surfer most welcomed behind the curtain and deeply pitted in the womb of the steaming maelstrom of a wave.
Florence, the hometown boy, is ranked No. 1 in the World Surf League, but he has company in the year-long points race that will be decided in the Billabong Pipe Masters that starts today, conditions permitting. No. 2 Medina of Brazil, No. 3 Smith of South Africa and No. 4 Wilson of Australia all have a shot at surfing’s ultimate prize.
All four have been preparing for this last test of the year since Medina climbed into the runner-up spot by winning the last two tour stops — in France and Portugal — in October.
“It’s amazing that he did that,” said Florence, the defending world champion, about Medina’s hot streak.
Florence, the defending world champion, is also thankful that Medina is right there in the mix of contenders.
“Gabriel is an amazing surfer and such a great competitor and he brings the best out of a lot of people, especially me,” he said. “I’m excited he came into the title race after Europe. It’s going to be fun. I don’t think I’d rather be in any other position than coming into the Pipe Masters in the lead for the world title.”
Medina, who won the world crown in 2014 despite losing to Wilson in a dramatic Pipe Masters, and Florence talked about how they’ve grown since their world championship breakthroughs.
“More confidence,” Medina said. “I really believe in what I’m doing. I was competing for my first title then. Now, I already have one.”
Said Florence: “I think I’m a lot smarter. I’ve learned a lot this year.”
Florence has been a lot more free to focus on competition, too. A year ago, he was busy making a movie and had other projects but still clinched it all in October in Portugal.
“It’s been great to put all my energy into one thing,” he added.
Smith is glad to be in the conversation.
“It’s such an exciting time, just to have a shot at it,” he said. “If those guys slip up, I’ll definitely give it a run for it. The ocean has such a big role to play. Crazier things have happened, so I’m definitely not counting it out.”
Wilson, too, knows the conditions at Pipe are likely to be a crucial element.
“If it’s big and unruly, John John has the upper hand,” he said. “It’s in his back yard. But if it’s perfect and anywhere from 4 to 8 feet, it’s kind of an open book. I’m pretty confident, but you can never be too confident on a wave like this.”
Wilson is not counting on any of the others faltering early, which is what he would need to happen.
“If the wild cards don’t spoil anything, I expect them to go deep toward the end,” he added. “Neither has won (the Pipe Masters). Gabe has been to two finals and John John one.”
Wilson knows he’s a long shot, but just like Smith, he’s not backing down, and one comment he made about his preference for Pipe conditions may have been a first salvo in his year-ending quest: “I like it all, to be honest. Waking up here and seeing what it’s got to offer. It’s always different.”
Remember, of the four competitors, Wilson is the only one who has navigated successfully to the title of Pipe Master.
The Pipe Masters is also the third (and final) contest of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. Griffin Colapinto and Kolohe Andino, both of San Clemente, Calif., and Wiggolly Dantas of Brazil are Nos. 1 through 3 in combined three-event standings. Conner Coffin, the winner of the second Triple Crown contest, the Vans World Cup, is No. 4, and Filipe Toledo, who surfed to victory in the opener, the Hawaiian Pro, is No. 5.
Today’s forecast calls for 8- to 12-foot-plus waves, with the start of the Pipe Invitational (trials for the Pipe Masters) a possibility. The contest window ends Dec. 20.