Each December on the North Shore, dreams are both made and crushed if you’re vying for a spot on the ‘CT. It’s the circle of WSL life: some guys fall off Tour while new blood claims the vacant ‘CT spots. Back in 2015, Kauaian surfer and fan favorite Sebastian Zietz fell into the first category, after failing to make the requaliification cut-off at Pipe. Zietz has a spontaneous, unleashed approach to riding waves, a knack for navigating the tube, and an aloha attitude that lightens any mood. The thought of a Tour without all that was a sad one.

Luckily for Zietz, he was given a wildcard spot in each 2016 ‘CT event, and he was able to requalify for this year’s circuit without technically being on Tour. And now, as the 2017 season is rounding out its final lap, Zietz is sitting 10th on the ratings and at this year’s Pipe Masters, he won’t be worrying about requalifying or having to go back to the ‘QS. To get an idea on what he’s thinking about, and how his qualification stumble has changed his outlook on his surfing career, we rang up Zietz just a couple of weeks before the start of the Triple Crown:

Congrats on your killer European leg. You made the finals in France and the quarters in Portugal. What was going through your head during the final in France?

I was just super happy to make the final. Looking at the draw, I had Owen in Round Five, and he was super gnarly. But the other side of the draw had John John and Gabriel and Parko and Mick, so I was looking at it and thought if I could just make it to the final, then we'll see what happens. But I was pretty gassed out by then. I had a couple paddle battles with Kolohe in the semis and surfed five heats that day, so I was pretty exhausted, but yeah, no excuses. I definitely think John and Gabby are the best surfers in the world right now. During the semis, I thought, Oh man, I'm going to have to beat one of these guys.

Do get nervous surfing against John or Gabriel?

Yeah, Gabriel more so than John. I think John is amazing and he can do crazy stuff, but Gabriel is just a machine and is always going to get two 7s or two 8s every heat. John being from Hawaii, when he makes it, I’m just happy a Hawaiian made the heat––so I kind of want to beat Gabriel more than John [Laughs]. But I try not to worry about the guy in my heat; I try to surf against myself, because you can only do as good as you can do. Everyone is beatable. It's all about getting the right waves. You definitely can’t count yourself out, but at the same time, you know you have to surf harder than you usually do when you come up against those guys.

How did the pressure change for you as you moved from the France event and into Portugal?

Before France, I was sitting at 15th and there were only 4,000 points between me and 22nd place cut off. After doing well in France, I had no pressure, and Supertubes is a really fun wave. It kind of reminds me of home a little bit. I knew we were going to get swell, so I was stoked to get barreled—I feel like that's what I'm good at too, so there was even less pressure.

Going back to 2015 when you fell off Tour—–is that time always in the back of your mind when you show up to events? Or are you able to push that out of your head and just focus on winning?

I try to tell myself that the less pressure you put on yourself, the better you'll perform—–at least that's how it is for me. But that was a really scary time for me, and falling off Tour was definitely a blow. I was super bummed. I had always done all the primes while I've been on Tour, and I had never requalified through the ‘QS, so it was nerve-wracking knowing I had to go back and grind to get back on Tour. But I was lucky enough to get some wildcards [the next year] into ‘CT events.

Did falling off Tour change your perspective on your surfing career?

Oh yeah, definitely. I realized that I was taking my place on Tour those years for granted. When I got the wildcard to Snapper, I was just so excited to be in the event. It felt like my rookie year again, being back at Snapper. Every time Kieren would call me up for another wildcard in another event, I was over the moon. I just tried to take that into this year, being thankful and not taking anything for granted, and it's working well. I'm just really thankful for where I'm at. Being in these contests and surfing against the world's best is epic.

It’s no secret you’re a laid-back guy who likes to laugh and have fun. Does that same attitude toward life transfer to how you approach contests, or do you get into comp-mode during heats?

I don’t know…I feel like when other guys are getting ready for their heats and they're laser-focused and are looking right through you, it almost feels rude. I understand everyone wants to win, but just because I don't have my headphones on or I'm saying hi to people, that doesn't mean I don't want to win. I just like to cruise around and talk to people and act like it’s any other day. It's super fun being down there at the contests. I want to win just as bad as anyone, but that doesn't mean I have to be a robot. I feel like a lot of guys have maybe taken stuff from other sports and tried to apply it to surfing, but I feel like surfing is so much different than anything else. Surfing is mostly about your connection to the ocean, not about having a competitive, I'm-going-to-rip-the-other-guy's-head-off attitude.

What are your goals for the rest of the year?

Now that I'm 10th, I'd like to stay up in there. That'd be a big accomplishment for me. But I don't really set goals. I feel like you can set yourself up for disappointment if you set goals. My goal is just to requalify, stay on the dream tour, and get to surf all these amazing spots next year with all my friends. That's my goal, but whatever happens, happens. I don't really want to put any pressure on myself. I just want to surf well, not get injured, and be happy.