In this Age of Surfing Equality, the men and women will never be more equal than they were today in the L'Amour wave tank.
There was actually a missed opportunity today for a Battle of the Sexes style showdown. Billy Jean King, who tweeted her approval two days ago of the women now receiving equal prize money, would surely abide. After watching the top-seeded women surf this morning, followed by the mid-seeded men, a canny promoter would have had them squaring off later in the afternoon. And trust me, I wouldn't want to be the one drawing Steph Gilmore or Carissa Moore.
As we noted yesterday, this pool is perfect for the women. Perfect. Why? Because it's a flow wave, and the women are allowed to flow. The men—with the exception of Parko—aren't. The men have to frantically scrap and flail and fight an opponent that doesn't fight back.
Kelly said yesterday that he thinks Steph Gilmore has spent more time in the L'Amour tank than he has—a light-hearted deflection of criticism that, as the founder of the Kelly Slater Wave Company, there is just the slightest conflict of interest with him competing in his own pool. But Steph has done a lot of hours out here and she knows where the natural line is in this wave. No one—man, woman, animal, mineral—has that middle tube section better dialed. Her 9.23 this morning was nine points of tube. Carissa, meanwhile, scored on turns. But, again, it was a smooth dance around the fall line on the wave. As a guy, I wouldn't have wanted to have surfed against either of them today.
The pool feels like a different game for the guys. Anyone who flows is surfing on a scale of seven, not 10. We saw how frustrating it was for the guys to surf during the mid-seed rounds. The wave is so thin and watery, but at the same time unforgivingly fast that any heavy turn risks waving the wave goodbye. It's like shadow boxing, and you sensed the frustration. They just wanted to fucking hit it, but couldn't.
"The beautiful sound of the machine coming to life…" said Joe Turpel at one point. To be honest, Joe, it's hardly angels playing harps. For Johnny Punter, the average surfer, the sound of all that machinery coming to life and heading your way produces a special kind of bowel-gurgling anxiety. It sounds like a Messerschmitt coming out of the sun. Thirty tons of metal hurling down the track, a wave that jumps from knee-high to overhead as it gets to you, a wave waiting to race off and leave you behind, a hundred bucks waiting to be squandered. That's the natural tension of the place. You don't want to be the guy who fucking blows it.
You can probably magnify that anxiety by a factor of plenty for the crew in the contest. They have to deal with the natural anxiety the wave produces, while at the same time be expected to risk everything on it. They get six waves—six bullets in the chamber—but it's more than that. Apart from being a few hundred miles from the ocean, surfing in the middle of onion fields, the other big difference from every other contest ever held is that once the contest gets started, the only waves they can catch are in their heat. There's no morning freesurf, no tune up, just a countdown and a screaming machine. It's driving a few of them nuts. Sally Fitzgibbons jumped in the lake next door and started paddling around like a duck.
There's limited scope for risk in this wave, due largely to the two barrel sections. The end section doesn't constitute risk—the wave is done by that point—which then kinda leaves the first section and that's where we found Griff and Igarashi today. Griff had ridden one of the best waves we've ever seen out here, but today was 0/3 when he took off on the right and fin ditched his first turn. Igarashi had just done the same thing and both waves went to high eights—the best waves so far and it was a message: This contest will be won on that first turn.
Michel Bourez should not be a contender here—no air game, heavy-footed, Tahitian in a theme park—but as the first of the top seeds to surf, he looked like he'd been born for the pool. The corkiness of his epoxy kept him gliding over the thin pool water, and for a second you could imagine him making the final eight.
But then Jordy paddled out with a steel pulse. So often flakey in ocean heats, here he was in the pool, with all the anxiety it brings, playing it cool. He looked the best anyone has looked on rail, threw a backhand spinner for variety, then nailed a backhand rodeo—all for a…7.27? Huh? Did Jordy just get flame-grilled? Were they keeping the eights on the left for the goofies? Jordy's right was equally good and finished with an alley oop for a 7.60, but the numbers seemed everywhere and immediately Kelly's opening 8.50 yesterday came to mind. Now was the time the scale should be opening up, and it was suddenly being crushed. Man, they've got a serious couple of days ahead to prevent the scoreboard becoming a massive tangle.
I received a message from Danny "The Wet Lettuce" Johnson. "I don't understand what's happening here?" I told him I thought Jordy just got cooked. "No," he replied, "I don't understand any of it!" The Lettuce was wilting but was not alone in his confusion, and he's worked in surf mags for over a decade. There's a base-level incomprehensibility with pro surfing, even when there's just two surfers in the water. There are now 36.
Owen looked fast-twitch. When he came back from his brain injury he seemed to be surfing at 75-percent speed. Today, he was at 110 percent, and his big frame on a shorter board gave his surfing an animated quality. Joe called Owen "Spelunking" in the tube after the '80s video game. Italo paddled out and went Super Mario, but mixed 8-bit gymnastics with two classically-styled backhand tubes. Suddenly, there were the eights on the left and suddenly the tepid green water was spawning life.
The Lettuce still stared blankly at the screen.
And that just left the top three. Julian Wilson might just be the most precise surfer on Tour—a fact that sometimes works against him. He surfs even on an uneven canvas, but would that work for or against him here in Lemoore, where every wave comes out of the same mold? I think he knows they're judging turns, not mistakes—judging from zero up, not 10 down—and I think Julian's conscious of surfing a little dirty, and passing up the end tube for something bigger.
But it might all count for nothing, because Medina came out cold-blooded and lit the place up. Hey-Zeus. He's a big guy, maybe nudging 180 pounds, but appeared to be levitating out there on his first forehand left. Suddenly the anaemic pool wash pushed like it was a 20-second-period ocean wave. It looked like somewhere completely different. Medina finished his left with a Kerrupt flip, emotionless, before switching out boards and dealing with the right. He got to the barrel section, flattened himself out like a falling cat, before finishing with a huge backhand reverse. It was fucking commanding. Pete Mel described it, "like a good crisp salad." Ronnie Blakey described it as raw meat.
Medina will win this contest. In a normal event, he'd still have find the waves to win. Here, someone just has to push the button.