Kai Lenny's remarkable career got another huge boost Monday with his win at the Puerto Escondido Challenge. It's the first Big Wave Tour win for the celebrated Hawaiian waterman, who elected to pass on the world famous Molokai 2 Oahu paddleboard race over the weekend to come and surf the event in Mainland Mexico. While he's made a career of making the impossible look easy, Lenny's run today was a grinder.
Puerto Escondido dished out healthy servings of pain and agony Monday, during Stop No. 1 of the 2017 Big Wave Tour in Mainland Mexico. The best big-wave surfers in the world braved the 20-to-25 foot waves pounding the sandbars of Playa Zicatela, under a blazing sun. As usual at this ferocious beachbreak, there was no shortage of spectacular rides.
Conditions were perfect at sunrise, and two-time Pe'ahi Challenge champion Billy Kemper wasted no time getting into his groove. He found two gigantic green caverns within the first ten minutes of the heat, and jumped out to an insurmountable lead.
Nathan Florence and Grant Baker were giving chase, pulling into some lengthy tubes. Florence, the younger brother of World Champion John John Florence, found one clean exit that looked a lot like a big Backdoor wave to move into an advancing position, but Baker kept getting pinched at the end of his rides. The defending champion had been on fire during warm-up sessions all weekend, but was just a little out of rhythm during the 45-minute heat.
Baker was hanging in there until Trevor Carlson found a beautiful empty runway that cleared him for takeoff into a perfect Puerto pit. The Hawaiian threaded the tube perfectly and shot himself into the runner-up position, dropping Baker out of contention. The defending event champ failed to advance, reminding everyone just how cruel Puerto Escondido can be.
The hits kept coming through the remainder of the opening round. Heat 2 was a battle of survival, with Coco Nogales and Peter Mel on the receiving ends of knockout punches. Both were examined by medical staff after taking gas. Neither was able to advance. Jimel Corzo, Alex Botelho and Makua Rothman limped through.
Heat 3 of Round One was the tightest battle of the day. Great Britain's Tom Lowe charged into some massive tubes to take the win, despite never finding the exit. He edged past Hawaiian Kai Lenny in the process, while Nic Lamb squeaked past Rusty Long to make it through.
Oscar Moncada represented the Mexican contingent well, taking a huge win over Jamie Mitchell in the final heat of the opening round. Damien Hobgood, meanwhile, couldn't find any opportunities, and joined the early-exit club.
Kemper bagged one of the best barrels of the day in the first Semifinal, driving through multiple sections before finally getting knocked off at the end. But when he blasted through on his belly, bodysurfing the rest of the way, the crowd went nuts, and the judges gave him the appropriate amount of points deserved for the time traveled. He headed for the Final looking every bit the favorite.
Lenny, on the other hand, was scraping for survival with under two minutes to go in the second semifinal. Lowe and Mitchell had already secured spots in the Final, a feat all the more impressive considering both were injured. Lowe was nursing a bad ankle. Mitchell, somehow, was still surfing with a broken sternum. Lenny needed only a tiny score to get past California's Lamb, and he found it in the closing seconds, squeaking through to the Final.
Kemper, Mitchell, and Lenny joined Lowe, Carlson and Botelho in the Final. Botelho, from Portugal, had made the most of his late entry. He filled in for the injured Greg Long, who withdrew Sunday night after realizing his knee was still giving him issues. Long's insights were a welcome addition to the broadcast team.
Given the beatdowns everyone had taken at that point, Long was admittedly relieved. He couldn't help but marvel at Jamie Mitchell's determination to play through the pain. The Australian wasn't holding back. He jumped into the lead after pulling into some meaty closeouts. At one point he looked as if he was heading in for some medical attention. The lifeguards circled his ski as he came toward shore. Long nearly went into rescue mode himself. But sensing he could get to the finish line, Mitchell told his driver to take him back out.
Afterward, Mitchell summed up his motivation. "To be honest, there are so many good guys wishing they could be where we are right now and, they're animals, so you just go into beast mode and numb the pain."
It would have been an incredible win for Mitchell, too, but it wasn't to be. In the closing minute of the heat, Kai Lenny, one of Mitchell's paddling buddies, scrambled through the pack and scratched into the best looking wave of the entire, hour-long heat. Lenny screamed down the face and leaned into a wide-open barrel, standing straight up in the giant green room that had a vaulted ceiling. As he exited from the tube cleanly, then cartwheeled over the back, every surfer in the lineup knew he'd just won. It was the only successful exit of the entire Final.
If Mitchell was disappointed, he certainly didn't look it. "I'm really stoked for Kai," he said afterward. "He missed the Molokai 2 Oahu paddleboard race on Sunday to be here -- which is the biggest race in the world for paddleboarding -- and I know he was bummed. So to see him win today, we all know how talented he is. It was an amazing Final and I'm stoked to be here."
For Lenny, it was a bit of sweet redemption. "I remember coming here last year and being super terrified because the waves were huge," he said from the podium. "My goal this year was to come back and make the Final...to not hold back...I was getting pounded most of the day, and I felt like I was waiting for that one wave that was going to let me out all day. I stuck to my lineup this year. I was just going to wait for it. I didn't think it was going to come, but that's what makes it that much sweeter."