As the first Championship Tour (CT) contests of the year draw closer, Fantasy Surf players are already busy pondering their picks for the 2017 Championship Tour season. And they're collectively singing a familiar tune: "This is the best field ever."
We've heard it before...but damned if it ain't the truth in 2017.
The 2017 roster has four distinct tiers: There are six World Champs, five bonafide contenders, a dozen dangerous threats and seven high-caliber rookies.
Between now and the Quiksilver and Roxy Pro events next month, we'll review each group on both the men's and women's side, assessing the mindset, motivation, and methodology of athletes as they strive to reach new thresholds. This is the first of the series.
We begin with a quick look at our Championship Tour legends: The World Champs.
John John Florence
After having what many lauded as "The Perfect Year," (which he kicked off with a win at the biggest Quiksilver Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau ever) John John officially lived up to the Title he'd been labeled with years before he won: The best surfer in the world. And that's precisely what the difference could be this year: All that pressure is gone. Sure, he surfed every heat in 2016 noticeably smarter than the years prior, but actually knowing that he proved it -- to himself and the world -- must make the man a little lighter. Knowing that he'll have to trade blows with the likes of Filipe Toledo and Gabriel Medina, one would expect that more than surfing smarter this year, he'll just be surfing bolder.
Back in 2014, on the cusp of Medina's first World Title win, Kelly Slater said this: "He's [Gabriel] the most dangerous guy in the world of surfing. Why? He can and does win in waves and conditions where he doesn't even have a lot of experience at yet and people don't know what to expect. He's more determined and hungry for the win than any other surfer. He can shoot whole video parts in single sessions. He has passed every test thrown his way." Agreed. Indeed, if there's any man on Tour who's going to snatch the Title back from John John, the unanimous vote would be for Medina. Certainly the most feared competitor in the Top 34 in any wave on Tour, expect an even hungrier, more powerful, bigger-chip-on-his-shoulder-Medina this year than any season prior.
While Slater fans might relish the thought of him going out with an even 12 World Titles at the age of 45, even he knows it'll take a mental reset for that to happen. The days of anyone mentally out-maneuvering, let alone drifting to the top, are long gone. Last year Slater started the season talking World Title, faltered early, wavered a bit, then declared, "my year starts now" after winning Tahiti midway through. Granted, that made things interesting at the time, but if Kelly's genuinely interested in pursuing a Title in 2017 (which he claims to be) his season will need to start when everybody else's does. More importantly, his motivation will have to survive the unavoidable speed bumps, like early-round upsets or less-than-stellar conditions. The Australian leg is usually a harbinger of Slater's season, so we should know soon.
Since his World Title win in 2012, Parko has been sitting comfortably within the Top 10 (Top 5, even) the entire time. While some of his peers and career-spanning sparring partners like Taj Burrow and Mick Fanning have recently retired or taken a year off, it wasn't wrong to wonder if that was in his cards too. But while Parko is of that same 3 Degrees generation, he seems to be in a totally different headspace than they are. His three kids have grown up a little more, and perhaps that equates with more time Joel can give to, well, winning another Title. Or, maybe, feeling less pressure. "I think I'm at the point in my career where I'm just enjoying it," Joel said in October. "I'm just surfing the way that I want to surf and taking advantage of the benefits we have while being on Tour." And the type of surfing we could see this year from a Joel who's finally "just enjoying it"? Frightening.
Adriano de Souza
One thing is certain: Never, ever count Adriano out. The 2015 World Champ is the Energizer Bunny of competition and absolutely no wave on Tour makes his Achilles' heel tingle. The kind of Champ that shows up weeks early and stays until the bitter end, and has a record of dismantling Slater's momentum, Adriano is the wrench in any contender's works. A recent runner-up at the Volcom Pipe Pro, De Souza's heading into 2017 at peak performance, hungrier than ever.
While 3x World Champ and perhaps the most consistent surfer on the Championship Tour hasn't officially decided whether he's giving 2017 his full attention, he sure hasn't kicked it at home on the couch. Certainly, the video above is a testament to his off-duty "training." One thing is certain, however. If Mick shows up to the Gold Coast, it's on. As in, the man never does anything half-assed. Mick shows up to win, not just for a cameo. Sure, at the beginning of last year he announced that he'd only be surfing in a few, select events (and yet he still scored a 5th, a 3rd and a 1st out of the five he entered). But if Mick commits to the Goldie, he's committing on a fourth World Title for the long haul.
Catch the World Title Champs -- and the rest of the Top 34 -- on the Gold Coast from March 14-25.