There was a time when Matt Wilkinson was as well known for his silly antics as he was for his CT results -- disco roller skating at the Quik Pro at Snapper, comically themed wetsuits, etc. The bloke knows how to have a good time. But since bringing the Micro Surfing Academy into the fold, Wilko's got a game face to match his party hat. Like many other surfers, he's also found a love (and probably hatred) for golf, a sport quite possible more maddening -- and obsessive -- than surfing. Kelly Slater jokingly referred to it on finals day, saying that if he gets his work done, Micro will let him go golf, a testament to his new work ethic out of the water. Not that Wilko's lost any of his legendary good humor. On the boat after his win at Cloudbreak, Strider Wasilewski asked him what he was going to do celebrate: Wilko cracked a shit-eating grin, "I guess I'm going to have to go drink some beers over on Namotu!"
On Tavarua Island, Championship Tour (CT) surfers (along with family and guests) are greeted with a traditional Fijian kava ceremony, introducing visitors to a slice of authentic Polynesian culture. Kava root comes from the indigenous plant of the same name and is an important part of Fijian society. To produce the beverage served during the ceremony, the root is smashed to a pulp and mixed with cold water. Once mixed, the concoction is dished from a ceremonial bowl and passed from participant to participant with a ritualistic handclap. The taste is like drinking muddy water and delivers a narcotic-like numbness (not to mention a devilish hangover). And while its idyllic tropical surroundings may seem to be Fiji's greatest gift to the world, the island nation's true beauty lies with its people, perhaps the happiest -- and most mischievous -- people on earth.
Opening day of the OK Fiji Pro was unique in that it also served as the Final day of the OK Fiji Women's Pro. For the first time ever, the Tour used the first two hours of the Men's event to feature the women, specifically finalists Courtney Conlogue and Tatiana Weston-Webb. The idea was to spotlight the two accomplished competitors in challenging conditions at Cloudbreak -- the most treacherous, double-black diamond wave of all the stops on the Women's Tour. In less-than-perfect conditions, the women didn't disappoint, showing courage and tenacity in the face of adversity. The heat wasn't a thing of beauty, but it was compelling theater with both women throwing themselves over the ledge with fearless abandon.
There's a certain amount of freedom that comes with finding perfection. For Owen Wright, perfection came two years ago at the 2015 Fiji Pro in the form of two perfect heats, including the Final versus Julian Wilson. But with perfection, too, comes expectations. Expectations for Wright that had to be tempered by the realities of his comeback from brain injury. Despite being perched at World No. 2, there's still a vibe surrounding him that it's all gravy at this point, a slightly euphoric sense of bewilderment and surprise. He surfed well enough, but lost against Ian Gouveia, by .40 at the buzzer in Round Three. He took the loss in stride, telling the WSL's roving amateur sports psychologist, Barton Lynch (while getting stitched up by the medics after "kissing the reef"): "It kinda hurts 'cause it's a perfect lefthander and it's pumping... bummed on the result, but still happy. I'm here in Fiji."
There's an ongoing rivalry between Tavarua and Namotu islands for Fiji Pro event champion supremacy. Both islands claim its guests as their own. The more famous of the sister islands, Tavarua's team includes four-time winner Kelly Slater, tends to get most of the media attention and once held a sizable lead in the trophy race. Not any more. Lately, Namotu has grabbed a stranglehold on the event trophy thanks to its raucous Aussie and Brazilian contingency. Namotu is schooners and shots to Tavy's champagne and cocktails. Last year's Taj Burrow retirement party -- the "Taj the Barber" mullet and sidewalls head-shaving massacre -- lasted eight days. Matt Wilkinson's win in 2017 makes it four years in a row for Team Namotu and evens the series up: Tavarua 7, Namotu 7.
Winning the WSL's Qualifying Series title isn't always a precise indicator of success on the CT. But in the case of Connor O'Leary, his No. 1 finish on the QS in 2016 is looking more and more like True North. A year ago, when he wasn't out grinding on the QS, O'Leary was sweeping floors and selling board shorts working part-time at his best mate's surf shop in Cronulla, a blue-collar coastal suburb 15 miles south of Sydney (and home to legendary surf icons Mark Occhilupo and Jim Banks, as well as former CT-surfer- turned-coach, Richard "Dog" Marsh). Flash forward 12 months and O'Leary's standing next to Matt Wilkinson on the podium at the Outerknown Fiji Pro accepting a runner-up trophy (and paycheck) from 11x World Champ and event sponsor Kelly Slater, the same guy he knocked out of the event in Round Three.
Lay days in Fiji are unlike anywhere else on tour. At many stops they can be an unwelcome distraction from the task at hand. Not in Fiji, however, where lay days become the task at hand. Fishing, diving, SUPing, sea snake hunting, the distractions abound. For some surfers on Tour -- Parko, Bede and Mick to name a few -- the fishing can rival the waves. For novices, fishing off Tavarua and Namotu can be a revelation -- the ocean is teeming with some of the best sport fishing (and best tasting) species money can buy: Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, Mahi Mahi and more. Mick Fanning, with his catch of the day.
Live surf contest commentary has spawned a vast collection of colloquialisms over the years, i.e. building a house, coming unstuck, pack the pit, wiping off speed. Of that group, "wiping off speed" may be the most perplexing to the uninitiated. The phrase feels counterintuitive to the exploits of everyday surfing in average beach break conditions, where a pedal to the metal approach is often required to find any semblance of open face. But when surfing Cloudbreak -- a wave described as a combination of Sunset Beach and Pipeline -- you're slowing down much of the time, stalling on your tail before releasing your rail...literally wiping off speed. Imagine driving down a steep, winding road in a Porsche 911. A fair comparison if ever there was one. Ace Buchan, speed to burn.
With all due respect to John John Florence, Kelly Slater and Owen Wright, Gabriel Medina was Round Three's biggest casualty. He'd won two out the previous three Fiji Pro events, pushing the boundaries with his technique and creativity -- alley-oops over the Shish Kabobs section anyone? But Medina's been a bit of an enigma this season. Once a surfer of few peers and less equals, his unmatched youth and talent are no longer unique in a time when surfers like Florence, Jordy Smith and Matt Wilkinson have improved, while others, like Filipe Toledo and Kolohe Andino, have matured. Since his breakout World Championship season in 2014, he's come back to the pack, the peloton has swallowed him up. In the end, it's less an indictment of Medina's world-class skills than it is a referendum for the raised level of the Tour as a whole since his spectacular arrival mid-way through the 2011 season. Still only 23, Medina has plenty of untapped potential, but the biggest question remains: can he find that next gear and get back on top?
Wipeouts at Cloudbreak are spectacular. The wave's imperfections are what make it so challenging, and it carries South Pacific power, closeout sections and an unnerving end bowl dubbed Shish Kabobs. All of the makings of a world-class meat grinder. It's important to note that the world's best surfers are also the world's best at wiping out. Their technique saves them from horrendous injuries in places were mere mortals dare not tread. Above: Jules Wilson executing a jump, tuck and roll.
After sitting out for two and a half months -- and three CT events-- following a free-surfing mishap on the Gold Coast at the conclusion of the Quik Pro at Snapper, Italo Ferreira arrived in Fiji still sporting a heavily strapped right ankle. His first day back in the water happened just over a week before the Fiji Pro waiting period opened. With serious ligament damage to the area where his tibia and fibula bones meet at the ankle joint, the fact that Italo Ferreira surfed competitively may be the one of the event's biggest surprises, second only to his takedown of Gabriel Medina in Round Three. For most, the injury would mean surgery, and it still might if Italo doesn't bounce back after Fiji. The WSL medical team yanked Italo from any free-surfing between rounds, and his ankle did not look 100 percent in his Round Four and Five heat losses.