Despite an impressive list of veteran surfers currently on the Championship Tour (CT), recent growth of the rookie talent roster is keeping even the most seasoned competitors on their toes. The last two years in particular have featured more than a dozen fresh faces joining the elite ranks, and many of them are here to stay.
The 2016 class was no exception. In fact, five members did well enough on the world stage to return for a sophomore season. Sure, they all had their share of cold streaks, missteps and moments of glory. But they learned something from each event and, more importantly, they survived.
Interestingly enough, when the dust settled, barring the exception of Jack Freestone, the remaining 2016 rookie class finished right in the middle of the pack, side by side in the No. 16-20 slots. Now, they're headed into their sophomore season -- and they have something to prove.
Here's a look back on their first stabs at the CT…
CT Rank: 16
Best Result: 5th Margaret River Pro
As the 2016 Rookie of the Year, Caio Ibelli certainly has a lot to celebrate after a solid first season on the CT. The explosive surfer from Sao Paulo, Brazil came out firing on the world stage in Australia, bagging a pair of 9ths at Snapper and Bells, followed by a Quarterfinal finish -- his best result of the year -- at Margaret River. And, despite a few mid-season blunders, Ibelli was one of the few rookies who didn't lose sleep over requalification. Still, the Brazilian knows consistency can only get you so far. This year he's set the bar even higher.
"The year is long and I'm glad I got the job of qualifying done a little earlier than some of the other rookies," Caio admitted. "But I wish I could have gotten myself into a Final like a few of the other guys did."
CT Rank: 17
Best Result: 2nd MEO Rip Curl Pro Portugal
It was no surprise when Conner found some of his best results last season at righthand points (9th at Snapper; 5th at Bells). The stocky Santa Barbara native groomed his fluid, lead-footed approach on the famed walls of Rincon, his forehand carve recognized as one of the best in the world. What many people aren't aware of, though, is Conner's commitment in heavy surf.
And after a series of disappointing results following the Australian leg, his breakout performance in Portugal came as a bit of a surprise. Coffin's hard-charging antics at Supertubos earned him a spot in the Final of the MEO Rip Curl Pro, where he finished second to the newly crowned World Champion, John John Florence. And now that Coffin's tasted a CT Final, there's no question he'll be hunting for a win in 2017. With his new sponsor Rip Curl and coach Brad Gerlach in his corner, Conner has plenty of support.
CT Rank: 19
Best Result: 3rd Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast
When Stu Kennedy hit the water last March at Snapper Rocks as an injury replacement wildcard for Owen Wright, many were quick to write off the 27-year-old Qualifying Series warrior. But armed with a funny-looking Firewire surfboard and a hunger for success, Stu took down Kelly Slater, Gabriel Medina and John John Florence on his way to an incredible 3rd-place result. And he didn't stop there.
In July, Kennedy was finally offered a full-time slot on the CT for 2016 and he didn't let it go to waste. With a growing family depending on his every result, Stu fought tooth and nail to requalify. And thanks to a 5th place finish at Trestles and a solid European leg, he did. This year, if Stu can round out his repertoire at other Tour stops, the Australian's grit and electric brand of surfing could do some serious damage.
CT Rank: 20
Best Result: 2nd Billabong Pipe Masters
Up until the Billabong Pipe Masters, Kanoa had been cursed by consistency for most his rookie season. Following a 9th place result on the Gold Coast, he racked up an astounding nine-event streak of 13th-place finishes.
But at Pipeline, the Huntington Beach native put that curse to rest when he knocked out event favorites Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith (beating both, twice) to crack the Final with Michel Bourez. And even though Michel won in the end, Kanoa's heroic performance at Backdoor bumped his pal and teammate Ezekiel Lau onto the 2017 CT. Short of winning the event, Igarashi couldn't have dreamt up a better way to cap off his rookie year. And that momentum will stay with him straight through the offseason.
CT Rank: 31
Best Result: 2nd Oi Rio Pro Brazil
After tearing his MCL on the Gold Coast, Australian upstart Jack Freestone was fighting an uphill battle for most of his rookie season. To his credit, though, Jack stayed positive through all the pain.
"Mentally, to watch someone else be where you should be, it's pretty hard," Jack explained. "But in saying that, it made me really want to come back and do well."
And he did. Jack came back swinging in Brazil to earn a huge 2nd place finish in the Oi Rio Pro. Unfortunately, that success was short-lived, leaving Jack scrambling on the Qualifying Series to keep his CT dreams alive. Ultimately, his CT destiny came down to a high-stakes sparring match during the Vans World Cup at Sunset Beach (QS10000). Here, he bested Ezekiel Lau by just 50 points to finish the year No. 10 on the QS, requalifying for the elite tour by the skin of his teeth. But that's all in the rearview. Now the only thing the Gold Coast native cares about is making a statement at Snapper in March.
With one of the most stacked CT rosters in recent history, these second-year warriors know there won't be any easy heats in 2017. And with seven more frothing rookies entering the picture, no one is safe.