"Congrats on winning the contest," Jack Freestone posted on Instagram after Owen Wright won the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, "but also just winning in life."
Fast-forward three weeks and the two good friends are now facing off in the Quarterfinals of the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro. They both may have been winning in life in Western Australia, but now only one of them can win the contest.
Their journey to this meeting has obviously been very different. Owen's recovery from a brain injury has been well documented. That he was simply competing on the Gold Coast was in itself a win. There was little pressure and no expectation. Each heat win was a bonus, another step on the road to recovery. And when he went all the way to victory, it instantly became one of sport's most extraordinary comebacks.
Freestone, however, had a very different experience. Last year, he managed to re-qualify for the elite Championship Tour (CT) with his very last heat on the Qualifying Series (QS). Still, there was a heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders when he arrived at Snapper, the first event of the 2017 season. It's Jack's home break, and one which perfectly suits his explosive talent. However, an anti-climatic second-round loss there to Sebastian Zietz gave Jack the worst possible start to the year.
Margaret River, then, posed very different issues for both Freestone and his Quarterfinal-opponent-to-be. Wright now had the Jeep Yellow Jersey and just what he was capable of in 2017 had been recalibrated. But the power and size of Margaret River would provide a new test. His first round saw him tackle a heaving slab at North Point and have a two-foot thick lip detonate on his shoulders. Then in Round Three, he was faced with a 15-foot set on the head, which was a similar scenario to that which caused his injury.
"To see this wave coming at me brought up every frightening memory I have," he posted later. "Healing emotional scar tissue is just as important as the physical. Sometimes confronting the thing that put it there is the only way to heal."
Freestone, in contrast, had fewer psychological barriers to deal with. His obstacles were more standard, if you can call surfing giant Main Break against opponents of the caliber of Kelly Slater and Conner Coffin standard. That he came through both of those heats relatively comfortably, using smooth rail work on the huge open faces, has given him more confidence and his first Quarterfinal since his Rio last year. Jack has been staying with a couple of good mates in Margaret River and putting an emphasis on having fun and staying positive. He looks as relaxed and confident as at any stage in his CT career.
This will all make for an intriguing matchup. Wright and Freestone have backed each throughout the good and bad times through their careers, but come the first Quarterfinal it will simply come down to who surfs a better heat. May the best man win.