Many Struggle, Kelly Prevails In Challenging Conditions at Quiksilver Pro France

By Allison Arteaga

Our sport is different. Surfing stands apart from every other competitive endeavor for one key reason: the complete and total reliance of our athletes on something as fickle and entirely uncontrollable as the ocean. Sometimes, good old Mother Nature just doesn’t feel like playing nice. Sometimes she even picks favorites. And sooner or later, every surfer, no matter how good or bad, will have his fate dictated by the ocean. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes it’s for the worse, but across the board, oceanic conditions are the big question mark of surfing: a huge variable thrown into the competitive equation. A great equalizer. No other sport has that. But in surfing, it’s just a fact of life. And the best athletes are the ones who learn to roll with the punches and make the most of whatever they’re given. Those are the people whose names will consistently end up on the leader board despite the inconsistent nature of our sport. And The Quiksilver Pro France is a classic illustration of that point.

Throughout the contest, the La Graviere beachbreak in Hossegor, France, served up powerful shorepound conditions that were just about as challenging as it gets. Chunky and a bit wonky on certain tides, the waves were hard to read and even harder to get set up for. This was certainly not the machine-like perfection of a break like Teahupoo, but those who found themselves in the right place at the right time could end up with a big, beautiful, kegging barrel. The proof was right on the score sheets, with perfect 10’s thrown down by the likes of Yadin Nichol, Julian Wilson, and Kai Otton. But competitors quickly found out that they could just as easily get cleaned up and washed in to shore by snarling close-outs, having to run back up the beach with nothing but a snapped board to show for their efforts. Or, worse, they could sit out there for an entire heat and simply not catch anything of consequence. That scenario, too, showed up on the score sheets, with many athletes failing to break double digits in their heat totals.

East Coast heros saw both sides of the spectrum starting with the early rounds. Kelly Slater dominated his first heat, moving straight into the Round 3, where he won by a landslide once again. Meanwhile, Damien Hobood was up against Brazilians Jadson Andre and Adriano De Souza in a tough Round 1 heat. The tide was changing, and the waves were small and strange, so everyone seemed to be struggling off the starting line. It wasn’t until the very end of the heat that the real action kicked off, as Damien got what was easily the best barrel of the heat on his backside then cranked two snaps to finish it off. The judges gave him a 5.10 for it — possibly a lowball — but he still moved into first. Then, with only about three minutes left, Andre and De Souza both posted buzzer beaters to improve their scores and pull out just in front of Damien, who was unfortunately still sitting on a 3.10.

CJ didn’t fare much better in his Round 1 matchup against Gabriel Medina and Freddie Patacchia. Medina started the heat out by snagging the only real wave of consequence that would roll through during the entire heat, logging a 9.0. Meanwhile, no one else could even break double digits with their heat scores. CJ kept getting closed out on and finished up the heat with only a 2.5 and a 2.73, surely a disappointing way to start off the contest. He then took on Freddie P. once again in the next round, but this time it was man-on-man with elimination at stake. The Hawaiian started out strong, comboing CJ with a 6.50 and a 7.17 on a few clean, sizable set wave tube rides. CJ was once again having trouble finding exits, and it wasn’t until the very end of the heat that he finally made it out of a smaller barrel then went for a big cutback that he didn’t quite pull off. The score only came in at a 3.43, which still left him combed as the clock ticked down. He did quickly manage to snag another bigger one out from under Patacchia’s priority, but coming in at a 6.59, it still left him well behind at the buzzer.

In Damien’s Round 2 heat against Miguel Pupo, Hobgood started off by picking off a big lefthander, but it only scored him a 3.83 thanks to a scoring scale skewed by a few 10’s in earlier heats. Miguel Pupo answered back with a longer, deeper barrel that earned him a 5.33, but Damien wasted no time putting another score on the board, stringing a quick lefthand barrel and forehand snap together for a 4.57. He then led for most of the heat, but Miguel only needed a 3.07 to take the lead, and with less than 10 minutes remaining, he picked off a speedy little barrel for which he received a 4.43, easily putting himself in the lead. The ocean then promptly went flat, leaving Damien without an opportunity to improve his scores as time winded down. Miguel took the win, and the contest was put on hold for the rest of the day.

Though Kelly breezed through the early rounds, by the time his non-elimination Round 4 matchup with Kieren Perrow and Gabriel Medina rolled around, even The King floundered a bit, missing his chance to pass straight through into the Quarterfinals after a long, exhausting day. Perrow caught the biggest wave of the heat at the very beginning and set the benchmark at a 7.67. Kelly and Gabriel Medina set about playing catch-up, with Kelly logging a 5.33 on a small but clean drainer. At about ten minutes, Kieren logged a solid backup score of a 6.73 after a sketchy paddle battle with Gabriel Medina that almost resulted in an interference call. Kelly snagged one at the same time that he barely made it out of, just completing the maneuver to claim a 6.33 before being squashed by an oncoming section. Kelly then only needed an 8.07, and he found himself in position for a nice set that rolled through right at the end of the heat, but Gabriel Medina was also desperate for a wave and tried to paddle around Kelly, earning himself an interference call but also preventing Kelly from catching the wave that could have moved him into the Quarters.

Kelly’s Round 5 heat against Australia’s Adrian “Ace” Buchan was then a really key moment. Kelly needed to finish in the Semifinals or better in order to really stay in the title race. Both competitors had a great opening exchange right out of the gate on a pair of reeling rights, but both botched their finishing maneuvers.  Ace’s wave was a little bigger and cleaner, so he scored an 8.43 over Kelly’s 8.17. From there on out, both struggled to find good waves, and it became a battle of the back-up scores. Ace posted a 4.23 on a smaller left about halfway through the heat, while Kelly still hadn’t logged a reasonable back-up. Close-outs abounded, and Kelly had one memorable wipeout then took the next wave on the head, wasting valuable energy as he had to paddle back out. But luckily, Kelly only needed a 4.5 to take the win, and he was able to work his magic to snatch a 4.9 out from under Ace’s priority before the heat came to a close. Everyone on the beach breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Kelly Slater dodges not just a bullet, but a missile,” the announcers noted. “That’s about as close as you’re going to see Kelly leave it without actually losing.”

“It was definitely a super important heat for me,” Kelly said. “That was a nail-biter for sure…I wouldn’t count myself out, but I was also thinking this could be the end of this little run here.” But luckily for all of us who are pulling for World Title #12, it wasn’t, and Kelly continued on to the Quarterfinals, where he took sweet vengeance for his Round 4 loss, absolutely crushing Kieren Perrow. Kelly started out with an 8.50 then turned right around and made a late drop into a super deep barrel for a 9.93. Then, just when everyone thought things couldn’t get worse for Kieren, Kelly pulled deep into a long lefthander for a no-grab tube ride that earned him a perfect 10. The heat was essentially over just 10 minutes in.

Kelly moved on to a decidedly more low-key Semifinal the next day. Joel Parkinson took the lead early with a 4.10 and stayed busy, trying to keep Kelly on the ropes. About 18 minutes into the heat, Kelly picked off a foamy barrel on the inside and expertly navigated it for a 5.67 to take the lead. It all came down to the end of the heat, with both surfers looking for big scores. As time ticked down, Kelly found his first, paddling across the beach to chase down a set wave that held up nicely and landed him a 6.60. With 30 seconds left, Joel was left sitting out the back with priority, only needing an 8.17 to take the win. A clean set wave popped up right at the buzzer, and he smoothly navigated the tube then ripped one of his signature cutbacks. The resulting score, a 6.83, was the highest of the heat, but still not enough to overtake Kelly for the win.

In the finals, it all came down to a battle between Quiksilver’s two favorite sons, Kelly Slater and Dane Reynolds. Coming into the event as a wildcard, Dane’s journey to the finals was truly an incredible ride. He beat Joel Parkinson and Bede Durbidge in Round 1, moving right along to Round 3, where he came up against World #1 Mick Fanning. Dane’s entire quiver had been stolen, so he was riding a board that he had buckled in his first heat. Undeterred, Dane went on to blow Mick out of the water, scoring a 10 for a huge set wave where he stuck an airdrop, disappeared for what seemed like an eternity, then miraculously punched through a thick chandelier section. By the time the final buzzer blew, Mick was still comboed. It was one of the biggest upsets of the contest, and it boded very well for Kelly Slater’s World Title aspirations. Dane then went on to narrowly take out John John Florence, another World Title contender, in the Semifinals by only 0.10 of a point.

By the time Dane came up against Kelly in the finals, his buckled board had finally given out for good, and he was riding a board that he handshaped himself. The waves had cleaned up and things kicked off hard and fast with Dane pulling into a decent one then launching an air reverse into an oncoming section that he almost landed but couldn’t quite hold on to. Nonetheless, he earned a 6.50. Kelly got a slightly bigger wave and pulled a big grab-rail carving cutty that he also didn’t quite ride out of for a 7.93. Then Kelly really put the pressure on and comboed Dane when he snagged a perfectly formed right and dropped in straight into an arm drag, locking himself deep inside the barrel all the way down the beach. Dane fired back with another barrel and an oh-so-close air attempt that got him out of combo-land with a 7.50. Dane then spent the vast majority of the heat looking for a 9.76. He went all-out trying to land big airs, but never did quite pull it off, and in the end, Kelly earned himself another crown.

Slater’s 51st ASP contest win bumped him into 2nd in the World Title race as Joel Parkinson pulled out in front, but with three events left and a gap of less than 1,000 points between the two, Kelly is poised to take the lead. “If I couldn’t get past Parko today, it was really going to put a lot of pressure right on me,” Kelly said. “This has now sort of put the pressure back on Mick, because both Parko and I did well, and John John did well. It was almost worst-case scenario for Mick in a way for the three of us to make the top four.”

But regardless of how the rest of the tour goes, ­(the Rip Curl Pro starts up in Portugal on October 10th) Kelly was thoroughly satisfied with his win in France. “I didn’t think I’d be doing this at 40 years old. I really didn’t. And to be able to win an event still at this age, I’m really stoked. It’s really something special for me today.”

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