Photo: Childs
Photo: Childs

The Return Of Owen Wright

Finals day of the Quik Pro and Roxy Pro Gold Coast, from the notes of Sean Doherty

Oh, the gall of it.

Joel Parkinson, perfectly positioned off the rock at Snapper, his spiritual home, parked inside a cavernous grey tomb, only to see some long-haired bloke on the shoulder madly paddling to shut him down. Any other day of the year, this ends differently, some kind of mob justice, but yesterday, well, Joel's just another guy in a jersey…a guy without priority. Joel was so far back, we couldn't tell if he was flipping the bird at Matt Wilkinson, as he did to Kelly Slater in the final here four years ago. The exchange, played sublimely by Wilko, sealed the heat for him.

I'd arrived yesterday morning with low expectations for surf. The wind forecast was easterly all night, all day, and yet the Gold Coast microclimate had somehow stalled the system and there was a small oasis of calm positioned over Snapper Rocks. It was pissing down, mind you, but the waves were clean, and if anything, a little too big for the outside bank. The inside racetrack was firing again…and the inside racetrack would again decide the day.

Photo: Joli

I was talking with Bob Hurley as his star team rider paddled out.

"You know, I told John John something once. I said, 'Look, I'm not going to tell you how to surf.' Obviously, right? You've seen me surf? 'But what I'm going to tell you is that if you surf better than everyone else, then surf. Catch waves. Don't just sit there.’"

It's certainly been a process managing John Florence's God-given talent and turning it into heat wins. They cracked the code last year, and the code is that John surfing at 70% wins 90% of the time, and that feels pretty true for what we've seen here this week, although he jumped from 70% to 90% today. Italo Ferreira has been surfing like he's a character from an 8-bit video game this week. You can almost hear the Super Mario Bros theme playing as he surfs along the wave and boings into unlikely 540s, but unfortunately for Italo, the only sound we heard was the Super Mario death sound yesterday as he fell, wave after wave, and John moved into the semis.

Photo: Joli

With Owen Wright's recovery already beyond recovery and becoming something remarkable, he paddled out against Cronulla rookie Connor O'Leary to keep alive the slimmest, most luminescent of chances that he could even win this contest.

Surf coach Andy King watched on beside me, cheering on Owen, which I thought a little unusual as he's from Cronulla and they haven't had a surfer on Tour since Kirk Flintoff almost a decade ago. He started laughing. "Mate, he's from Elouera, he's a dunnyhanger, I might as well be cheering on an American." Elouera, of course, is about a hundred yards up the beach from Cronulla, but Australian parochialism works in funny ways. By this stage, the waves had slowed up on the tide and moved almost exclusively down the point. It came down to a last exchange which Owen got by a point. Owen was in the semis and the surfers area buzzed.

"What if…" pondered my mate Binnsy, "Owen and Wilko made the final?" The two old friends would certainly make a promoter's dream, although we posed the question of how hard Wilko – the new iceman of the Tour (Ha, how does that sound!) – would push for the win. If Owen took off on his inside without priority, would Wilko take off and shut his mate down like he did Parko? We were joking at that point, but somehow, it was right on the mark…only that it would be Owen playing Wilko, not the other way around.

We put those thoughts on hold as Gabe Medina paddled out against Kelly in the big quarter. Too many storylines fed into it, and for most of the heat it was the 45-year-old (just keep saying it) who held the ace. He was certainly the more inventive of the two, running different lines and fades while the variety in Gabe's jumped between backhand hooks and backhand turns. That's not a criticism, mind you. That's surfing Snapper on your backhand.

Photo: Joli

The heat again was for the most part kinda flat, but the billing was too big for the heat to go out like a damp squib, and a last-minute set stacked up behind Froggies would decide it. Gabe drew first, hitting big out back before lighting up vertically through the inside. It looked like the 2014 final all over. Kelly, meanwhile, set up the inside perfectly and jammed hard at the pocket. He surfed like it mattered, which, in the scope of this year where he's "all-in," it really did. It was the freest, certainly the most engaged we've seen him in a long while…but it still wasn't enough.

The women – season-on-season – have improved relatively by several daylights on the men. Their quarters made that clear. In fact, at the conclusion of the women's quarters, I was left contemplating some kind of draw anomaly that allowed a John John and Lakey Peterson final to happen. It would have been competitive today.

Lakey Peterson has already lit the place up earlier in the week, dropping 10s, so she wasn't exactly pacing herself through this event, and it shouldn't have been a huge shock that she tore through her quarter and semi the way she did. Something has changed under the eye of Snips Parsons, her coach, but at the same time, there's something raw and something spontaneous to her surfing that I'm stoked hasn't been coached away.

Photo: Joli

Steph provided the perfect counterpoint. Style-perfect on her home point, she started toying with it. Her three-turn, top to bottom combo against Carissa would have won dudes’ heats. It was a steep, bowled section that she could have easily and procedurally stalled for a white-bread Snapper barrel, but instead, she just drove off the bottom and went at it. The surfer’s area collectively gasped. She had us at the first turn, and after three, she had the judges, as well…straight 10s.

Walking in yesterday morning (It was packed, so I was parked in NSW again) I was listening to Head Judge Richie Porta being interviewed about the feel of the day and what the judging panel would be looking for, but by the end, I still wasn't sure. What naturalfooters needed to do. What goofies needed to do. Up the point or down the point? Tubes or turns? Variety, and how it applies to goofies, who are naturally hamstrung out here. I know they have to keep it open for interpretation and don't want to make a noose to hang themselves with, but with three screwfoots in the last four yesterday (and three goofy winners in the last four years), it feels like the winning paradigm here has certainly changed.

Between heats, Wilko sat there playing with his dog, sitting next to his old boy Neil who was wearing a "Wright #1" singlet. He's gloriously detached from his upcoming semi, but must silently be wondering what it might take to beat John Florence, by this stage the last regularfooter left. When John opened with a huge nosepick huck, followed by a mix of tubes, slashes, and a reverse to finish, Wilko looked in trouble. His response was inspired. He threw a huge backhand huck. He played John at his own game, and gave the judges their first bit of backhand variety all day. Wilko was back in the heat, but as the heat ran down, he still trailed. Then, just as we saw last year, he just found a way to win, a walling wave he whacked four times for an eight. For the second year in a row, Wilko was into the Snapper final.

Photo: Childs

Locals here in Rainbow Bay reckon Gabriel's win here in 2014 changed the place, as suddenly every second visitor here was Brazilian. They've dubbed the place Rainbow De Janiero, and listening to the crowd erupt as Gabe ran down for his semi, you wouldn't doubt it. The Brazilian rent-a-crowd has inflated the spectator numbers, but even without them, this contest has been a beehive all week.

Most thought Gabe would drop the clutch and cruise past Owen Wright in the second semi, but by that stage, the wind had finally started to blow. They'd been lucky all day in that it rained so hard, the wind couldn't blow, but as soon as the rain cleared, the wind moved in and broke the lineup in two. The sections were hard to find, but Owen found them, Gabe didn't. I don't know whether the storyline of Owen and this remarkable comeback began pulling the strings, but it all went Owen's way and he found himself in the final with good mate, Wilko.

A few weeks back in Newcastle, after the national boardriders club final, we had a night out with the crew from Snapper Rocks. Amongst Parko and Rabbit and a couple of the wild juniors, Steph was there, drinking with the boys. The crew kicked on into Newcastle on a quiet Sunday night, back to an old dive bar in the abandoned west end of town, and Steph not only stayed the distance, she led the charge. You're so used to seeing her in a fashion shoot or rubbing shoulders with celebrities in Malibu or throwing jazz licks on a guitar or styling impossibly on some exotic pointbreak, you forget that deep down she's still Steph From Coolie. She hasn't, and after cleaning up the final yesterday, the fist pumps and the war cry that erupted – well, what it lacked in refinement, it made up for in something real.

Photo: Joli

And that just left the guys.

Glen Hall coaches both Matt Wilkinson and Owen Wright, and earlier in the day, we'd joked that if they both made the final, he'd already have a beer in his hand, as his job was done.

The notion of Owen in the final seemed fanciful even yesterday morning. A week ago, Owen's older brother, Tim, saw him paying $51 for the win, but let it slide. He was happy enough for his brother to just be back in the water. I'd surfed with Owen a bit down in Byron over summer, but never at any stage felt he'd get to Snapper, let alone win it. I still thought he was a long way off.

You've never witnessed a scene in the surfers’ area quite like it as the final ticked down with Owen in the lead. The feeling was palpable. His whole family was there, most of his close mates, but even those who'd never met him were along for the ride. There were tears – before he won, after he won, and there'll be residual showers for a few days, I'd imagine.

Owen's had some luck in the contest, sure, in drawing three good friends – Mick, Gabe, and finally, Wilko. While all three surfed hard to win, the dynamic of surfing against friends subliminally changed everything for Owen. They seemed less like heats and more like surfs down the coast. It allowed him to relax for the muscle memory and the mechanics of surfing to all kick back in. It's what he's done most of his life, his equivalent of riding a bike, and he just went with it. Physically, he still looks underdone, but mentally, everything was all there. He was all there to the point of foxing Wilko into using his priority late in the final…leaving Owen all alone in the lineup with the winning wave.

A year ago, Owen wasn't even Owen. His brain injury – as brain injuries do – rob you of the things that make you, you, and there are no guarantees. That's what makes them so cruel.

But yesterday, Owen returned.

Photo: Joli

[Title Photo: Childs]