There was wind, there was rain and in the end there was Wilko. The weather and the waves started out nicely today, but as the afternoon wore on, the clouds rolled in and the surf got lumpy. But Matt Wilkinson battled through the final day at the O’Neill Coldwater Classic Santa Cruz and took down Tonino Benson in the final for his first victory in a major event.
"I've won a 1-star event and a 3-star a few years back," Wilko said on the podium, dripping with salt water, rainwater, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. "And last year I made a bunch of semifinals at 6-stars, but this is the first time I've made a final, or won a final, at a major event. I'm so psyched right now."
Wilko went vertical and drifted the tail on every turn it seemed despite the quickly deteriorating conditions.
"I surfed on the 'QS for a few years," he said. "So I'm used to bad surf. And I love surfing on my backhand. I always felt like I was strong on my backhand. This week I've felt about as weak as I've ever felt on my backhand, but I don't know I ended up winning so I'm frothing."
Wilkinson will look to carry his momentum from Santa Cruz on to Puerto Rico where the Rip Curl Search event starts late next week.
"This is definitely good for the confidence. It's got me on a high and hopefully I can keep the roll going and make some heats in Puerto Rico," Wilkinson said.
Despite being a 6-star PRIME event filled with seasoned veterans like Damien Hobgood, Cory Lopez and Roy Powers, the business end of the contest was dominated by the next generation. Wilko (22), Nat Young (19), Tonino Benson (20) and Billy Stairmand (20) were the four semifinalists and there's no doubt that all of them have decades of professional podium appearances ahead of them.
It was the day of the Aussies though, as Shaun Cansdell netted the Coldwater Classic Series Title and a $50,000 bonus. The only person between Shaun and the cash was his roommate here in Santa Cruz, Dion Atkinson. Atkinson needed to win the whole event to take the ratings lead but he fell in the round of 16 to a rampaging Wilko, leaving Cansdell the champ. First things first: Cansdell called his wife back home to tell her the good news, despite the fact that it was 3 a.m. in Australia.
"She was half asleep when I called, but I, I'm just really happy," Cansdell said. For the rest of the day he could be seen shuttling beers back and forth from the concession stand to all the boys in the competitor's area, a motion I'm sure will be repeated throughout the night tonight.
The rain was coming down strong once the awards presentation came around and about 90% of the crowd had left once Nat Young lost his semi-final heat. But the Aussies celebrated just the same. Last year Wilko was in Santa Cruz for all of two days because he bailed after losing his first heat. Not this year.
"I'm definitely gonna experience the town tonight," Wilko said. "Santa Cruz is a beautiful place. Let's go Mad." —Matt Skenazy