As 2016 heads for the history books it's already being called one of the most unpredictable years in recent memory. That certainly holds true for this year's race for the World Title on the men's Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour, a race that produced several surprises. Here are 12 milestone moments that shaped the season.
Stu Kennedy Slays Giants on the Gold Coast
A couple years ago Stu Kennedy almost gave up pro surfing. No, really. The 23-year-old tow-headed phenom from Lennox Head, New South Wales was nearly about to go and work on the mines in Western Australia, when he decided to give the QS one more go. "You only get one shot and no sense giving it up at 23-years-old for a job you don't like, just to be chipping away at life," Stu decided.
He finished 12th on the QS in 2015, and then due to a few injuries, slipped into the Big Show for this year's first event on the Gold Coast. And wouldn't ya know, he shocked everyone, taking out CT hero after hero with Fanning-esque turns and combos at Snapper. Committed and confident, he beat Kelly Slater in Round Two, Gabriel Medina in Round Three, John John Florence in the Quarters and ended up with a solid 3rd in the entire event. Yeah, that's three World Champs he took down in perfect right-handers. Not a bad way to make an entrance.
What the Wilko?!
Maybe people were starting to forget about Matt Wilkinson. Sure, we knew he had a personality and he'd show up to comps on rollerblades or wear fullsuits with boobies all over them (for breast-cancer awareness)…but maybe all that was getting played out and getting in the way of his, well, actual surfing. Maybe this year Wilko decided to take things a little more seriously.
Thus, by February, Wilko had been working closely with former CT competitor, now-coach, Glenn "Micro" Hall and started the year with a bang by winning the QS 6K at Merewether Beach. He followed that up with a win at the Quiksilver Gold Coast Pro, followed by another win at Bells, shocking the entire world (and himself) in the process, with a giant No. 1 lead in the rankings. Sure, Wilko's got a hell of a backhand attack in long righthanders, but I'm sure he could thank Micro for something, too.
Seabass Bags His First Win at Margaret's
Sebastian Zietz's 2015 CT year hadn't been too kind to him. In fact, the bubbly Kaua'i natural-footer hadn't made the cut for the 2016 tour. Certainly, the thought of having to slug it out again on the notoriously difficult qualifying tour was disheartening, but at the beginning of the year, Seabass showed up to the Gold Coast anyway to let the WSL officials know he was available if a window opened. Bede Durbidge and Owen Wright were actually injured, and as the third man out, commissioner Kieren Perrow gave Seabass the go ahead.
While Seabass's first two performances weren't super noteworthy, everything clicked by event No. 3 in West Oz, when Seabass mowed through the CT field to win the Margaret River Pro, while stopping Matt Wilkinson's win-run in the process. The rest of Seabass's year wasn't too shabby either with a 9th and a 5th in the Europe leg, clearly proving he's a CT-worthy surfer for years to come.
Freestone Bounces Back
One of the most anticipated rookies for 2016, surf fans and pro surfers alike couldn't wait to see the electrifying Jack Freestone perform on a world stage with the world's best. Unluckily for Jack, shortly after the Gold Coast event, he tweaked his knee which required minor surgery and weeks of rehab to heal. People began to wonder if they'd get to see him perform this year again at all.
But after a speedy recovery, Jack bounced back. And big time. At the Rio Pro, the man looked quick and nimble, advancing through the field and taking out a Brazilian-favorite, Gabriel Medina, in the Semifinal to finish runner-up to John John Florence. Not a bad result to come straight off an injury, though.
Gabriel Medina Kick Starts his Year in Flawless Fiji
Even at the start of the year, if you asked absolutely anyone on tour who the most deadly competitor there is right now, they'd say: Gabriel Medina. The 2014 World Champ could win at absolutely any wave on tour. And after a heartbreaking Semifinal loss in Brazil following three lackluster results in Australia, Gabby was due to show his true colors.
Which is where the Fiji Pro comes in. In absolutely firing Cloudbreak, Medina dismantled his competition, out-surfing each opponent he faced with tube to carve to alley-oop full rotation combos…I mean, how can you compete with that? Even in the Semis against a highly in-form Kelly Slater, Gabby snuffed him out, and then beat Wilko in Wilko's whopping third final, for the Fiji Pro win.
Taj Burrow Retires the Jersey
The announcement came in April at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, but the reality hit in Tavarua at the Fiji Pro: Taj was done. Yes, the Yallingup, Western Australia born and bred perma-grom was finally retiring after an illustrious 18 years on the Championship Tour. Now a father, Taj wanted to spend more time with his daughter, and frankly, after nearly two decades competing, the man was ready to turn a new page in his life.
With a virtual changing of the guard in the midst (Taj, too, a part of a change when he qualified at 17) Burrow didn't go out in Fiji quietly. In a fantastic battle with John John Florence in Round Three, the two traded 9.4's and 9.2's in mind-numbingly perfect Cloudbreak barrels. Florence barely edged past Burrow to advance, proving that even 18 years later, Taj could battle with the world's best.
Fanning's Emotional Return to Africa
People couldn't stop talking about it, even a year later. You saw the clip; it broke the Internet. Of Mick Fanning, mid-Final with Julian Wilson in the 2015 J-Bay Open getting knocked clean off his board by a curious great white shark. Halfway in the water, Fanning proceeded to punch the beast in its nose to scare it off, which is about the time when the jet skis showed up to save him.
"The first thing was just getting out there again," said Mick Fanning in July, when he returned to Jeffreys Bay. Clearly Mick was being modest because the 3x World Champion not only "got back in the water," but tore apart the competition, including a rematch with Julian Wilson in the Semis and a win against John John Florence in the Final, Mick's 4th J-Bay Open win in his career. And this year, without the "man in a grey suit" in sight.
Florence-Medina's Heat of the Year and Slater's 55th Win in Tahiti
Gabriel Medina got a 9.23, 9.10 and a perfect 10 in his Semifinal heat in Tahiti against John John Florence this year. And he still didn't win. John John Florence got a 9.27, 9.17, 9.93 and a 9.73 in the same heat. Thus, Florence edged passed Medina by .43 points to get into the Final against Kelly Slater, but not without giving the world one of the greatest heats we've ever seen. While Kelly Slater went on to beat John John Florence in the Final (Slater's astounding 55th World Tour win), he did say of the two young World Champs, "Those guys are monsters."
The Hometown Hero Proves It at Lower Trestles
A majority of the wildcards that make it into the 11 events on the Mens Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour often get outclassed by, well, the world's very best, that is the Top 34. Not the case with San Clemente's Tanner Gudauskas. After winning the Lowers Hurley Pro Trials (local contingency) and a spot into the main event, in front of his brothers, friends and a crowd of hundreds on the rocks, Tanner took the gloves off and went to work. After a perfect 10 in Round One, he beat two World Champs-Medina in Round Three and Parko in Round Four before an impressive 3rd place finish in the Semis. Said Tanner, blithely, of his performance, "I just wanted to battle."
Asing's Giant Win in France
No one saw it coming on Finals day. Indeed, somebody, somewhere won a big bet with large odds against he or she. On paper, Asing was the weakest link in the Semis…and then he flat out beat John John Florence and Gabriel Medina to win the whole Quiksilver Pro France. And it's hard to say exactly what it was, other than Asing's picture perfect backhand flow and relentless, compact approach to every single wave in every heat. But not only did Asing capture his first CT scalp in his career, by beating Medina in the Final, he helped secure Florence's lead by 2,000 points heading into Portugal.
John John Florence Locks World Title No. 1 in Portugal
"I can't believe I won the World Title," said John John Florence, short of breath, right before his Final with Conner Coffin at the Rip Curl Pro Portugal. "It's really gotta sink in. I was expecting it to go to Hawaii, I'm kinda still stuck in that mode…" And we all were. In fact, most were expecting a showdown for the ages at the Billabong Pipe Masters with No. 2 ranked Gabriel Medina, a la Slater vs Andy, but Florence's point lead was just too darn large. He went on to win Portugal landing massive full-rotation alley oops in his heat against Coffin.
John John's year started amazingly, though, with an opening win at the biggest Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational ever run. He continued to surf the 2016 CT season noticeably smarter than his past years and this alteration clearly made the difference. He won the Oi Rio Pro, got a runnerup at J-Bay and in Fiji, got a 3rd in France and capped it with a win at Portugal, the same day he found out he couldn't be beaten even at home at Pipeline. "It's been my dream to win the World Title ever since watching Kelly [Slater] and Andy [Irons]. I might cry or something later," he concluded in typical John John-cool.
Bourez' Pipeline Hat Trick and Igarashi Against All Odds
While John John Florence's World Title win had been decided in Portugal, there was still a whole lot on the line at the Billabong Pipe Masters. Guys on the CT-bubble like Nat Young, Keanu Asing and Kai Otton were fighting for their spots on next year's World Tour, while potential qualifiers like No. 11 Ezekiel Lau could join the Big Show if a CT-guy double-qualified.
One of those CT-guys that could double qualify was Huntington Beach's 18-year-old Kanoa Igarashi, a good friend of Lau's. But Kanoa not only had to make a few heats to bump in Lau at a wave he's not particularly known to shine at, Kanoa had to advance to the Semis. A tall order, indeed, but the kid rose to the occasion and took out World Champs (and event-favorites) like Kelly Slater to Final with Michel Bourez.
In the end, Michel won -- making him one of the very few to win ALL three Triple Crown of Surfing events -- but Kanoa's performance bumped Lau onto next year's Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour.