If there’s anyone who knows what a difference a year can make, it’s Jordy Smith. Last year at this time, Smith was just coming off an injury that had sidelined him for the majority of the competitive season. He was gun-shy about his return for the last event of 2015. But 12 new moons later, Smith’s fully recovered, and as of Sunday, he’s the new Vans World Cup of Surfing champ.

Though John Florence took away Smith’s chance of a first World Title back in Portugal, the heavy-footed South African still sits comfortably at third on the rankings, and is ready to take an inaugural crack at the Pipe Masters. We caught up with Smith just after he got out of a fun session at Rocky Point.

Title Photo: Miller, Above Photo: Ellis

So you’re third in the rankings and you just won Sunset for the first time. Your mindset must be a bit different now than it was last year at this time.

Yeah, my situation wasn’t the best last year, but I think I was just so glad to be at the end of all my troubles. I wanted a fresh start and to be pain-free. I went to Hawaii last year really hesitant, because at that point, I hadn’t surfed in over four months. I didn’t want to come back too soon and then be out for even longer, so I just took my time with it.

You hurt your back, right?

Well, that’s where the pain was coming from. Turns out there was nothing structurally wrong with my back, it was mostly because my glutes and hamstrings were so tight and that was causing my back pain. It just took a while to figure that out.

What steps did you take to get back in form, both physically and mentally?

Pretty much anything you can think of [Laughs]. At one point, I was doing therapy about six and half hours a day, every day for two months, and I never seemed to get better. I started questioning myself, like, Jeez am I ever going to get better? But my glutes and hamstrings were extremely tight after 27 years of surfing. It takes more than one rehab session to get them better.

Above Photo: Miller

Photo: Miller

Were you nervous about securing the wildcard this year or was it pretty much a given that you were going to get it?

It was pretty nerve-wracking, to be honest. No one wants to go back to the 'QS. But at that point, I had already accepted whatever the challenge was going to be, if that’s what it was going to be. It was out of my control, so the only thing I could focus on was maintaining my health. I was fortunate enough that a few other guys qualified and the WSL gave me the wildcard.

Did you learn anything about yourself from your time off Tour?

With everything that you do, as long as you’re learning from it, you can grow. For me, I think my biggest lesson is that I can’t be 6’3”, 200 pounds and just expect that I’m going to go out there and rip everyday. I’ve got to do body maintenance on the regular and make that a part of my life.

How do you think this year compared to previous years?

I think I matured a lot and learned to compete a little better. Some people pick up the ins and outs of competition really quickly, but I think it took me a couple years to figure it out, and I think I’m really finding my feet now.

What were some of the highlights for you this year?

Making the finals at Bells was pretty amazing. I feel like I’ve been an in-form surfer there for the last 4 or 5 years, I could just never get the nod. I didn’t win the contest, but it gives me something to work towards next year. The win at Lowers was really special, too. I had a few memorable heats, like that heat in Portugal where I got that 10.

Speaking of Portugal, you were a whisker away from pushing the title race to Pipe. What was going through your head when the stakes were getting higher?

As the event started to unfold, it became clearer as to what I had to do, what John had to do, and what Gabriel had to do in order to push it to Pipe. Or, in John’s case, to win the World Title. John was in the first half of the draw and I was in the second half, so every time he made a heat, that basically meant I had to make two more. It was black and white for what I needed to do. So I just tried to focus on that.

Above Photo: Miller

How do you calm yourself during nerve-racking moments?

Just making sure that I’m prepared and that I’ve done everything I could before that moment when I stand up on my board and perform. When I know that my diet is right, my equipment is right, I’ve had my morning surf, etc., I find that my mind is really at ease. Then when I paddle out, that’s the time to shine.

Do you find that your mind gets in the way of your performance sometimes?

Sometimes I might think about heats too much, but I just try to learn from my mistakes after those heats. Sometimes the ocean is your best friend and other times it’s your worst enemy.

Were you bummed at all when John took the title?

Obviously, I would love to be in the race for a World Title, but I can’t be bummed at someone else for achieving their goal. I think that’s pretty selfish. The cream rises to the top, and [John] deserved to win. I mean, if I could have made the final and won it, then I would have pushed the race to Pipe and I could’ve tried to go for the title. But to be honest, since I was the injury wildcard at the beginning of the year, I just wanted to do my very best and see how far I could climb the ladder.

Above Photo: Miller

Photo: Miller

Photo: Miller

Your edit Collecting Dust got a lot of attention this year. What motivated you to put that out?

Basically it was just a collection of footage that never really fit into any of the sections that I put out before. They were basically just collecting dust over there in the corner [Laughs]. So I thought I might as well put all that out online before it never gets seen again.

Obviously there are a lot web clips that circulate online these days. What gets you amped or excited on a specific edit?

For me, it could be anything from the song choice to just one maneuver that sparks something in me. I often go back and watch really old surf videos or old interviews just to keep fresh. Sometimes I’ll go out with a specific song from a specific section in mind and I’ll try out turns like the ones I was just watching in the movie. I think that’s how everyone works. I still do it today, whether it’s a section of Kelly or an old section of Taj.

What’s one of your favorite sections?

I’d have to say Tom Curren in …Lost’s 5’5” x 19 ¼, where he shapes a board with Greenough. That song to me was really cool, too.

Do you think it’s hard juggling the demands of being a competitive surfer with trying to put out a cool web clip, or trying to spend the time to master a new maneuver?

To be honest, being a competitive surfer doesn’t allow you much time to do that kind of stuff. Most of the time before heats or before events, we’re pretty much just dialing in equipment and trying to feel it out at a certain break. But it doesn’t really allow for us to experiment and go crazy every single wave. At the same time, when I do get those opportunities, I always try to make the most of them.

Above Photo: Miller

With guys like Taj Burrow retiring, Mick doing the Tour half time, and a new crop of young rippers coming up through the ranks, do you feel like now is an interesting time to be on Tour?

I think every year there’s a bit of a shift. What Taj and Mick and all those guys are doing is never going to get old. I think power surfing and rail surfing is in a league of its own. Now I feel like more people can do air reverses than good rail turns. In the past, more guys were doing rail turns than airs, but I think the times have changed.

You announced on Instagram that you were excited about the induction of surfing into the 2020 Olympics. Do you think you’d like to be a part of that?

Absolutely. I think it’ll be really fun. We might not get the best waves in Japan, but just the fact that we’ll be able to be in the Olympics for the first time is just the beginning. It’s a gateway for those people to be introduced into our sport.

After Pipe is finished, what do you think you’ll do with your time off before Snapper?

I’m just going to continue to train and be healthy. I want to continue the form that I’m on until the start of next year and just having fun with every surf. Exploring a bit, too.

Have you been to Kelly’s Wave yet?

I haven’t been invited yet [Laughs]. Still waiting for that.

Would you rather have an event there or Trestles?

Probably Trestles. It would be insane to have is at Kelly’s Wave, but from looking at all the footage, I don’t know if I’d fit in the barrel [Laughs].

Above Photo: Miller