Opening day of the WSL Founders' Cup of Surfing packed huge performances from some usual suspects like (Kelly Slater and Carissa Moore) as well as some jaw-dropping moments above the lip from (Leonardo Fioravanti and Filipe Toledo).
But behind the scenes there was team strategy at work, as each captain chose their order of competitors for Run 1, and then shuffled the deck (or not, in the case of Team USA and Team Australia) for Run 2. For the USA team, the order of surfers was mostly organic.
"I wanted to give the girls the option first to see what made them comfortable, so they could be more relaxed," said Slater, the team captain. "Carissa was happy to go second. Kolohe said straight away that he would go first to kick the team off, and originally in my head I had John going third or last, and he was happy to go third, so that fit Lakey into fourth and me into fifth. We talked about it and it seemed to make sense."
That rundown also helped put the USA ahead of all five teams as of end of day Saturday (Run 3 will be Sunday morning, before the Final). Among the top scores in Run 2, Moore -- a three-time World Champion -- scored a 9.43, while John John Florence -- the reigning, two-time World Champ -- earned a 9.80. Not too shabby.
While Team USA is currently way ahead of the pack, the Australian team finished Saturday in second place. Captain Stephanie Gilmore's planning might have had something to do with that (a team stacked with four World Champions, herself included, probably didn't hurt either).
"Tyler [Wright] started really strong, and I like being inspired by Tyler, so I went second," Gilmore said. "I think the judges judge the women next to each other and then the men with each other, in terms of comparison. And visually, the last thing they're watching is what they remember.
"Joel [Parkinson] likes to surf in the middle, Wilko [Matt Wilkinson] did great. And Mick's [Fanning] still the ultimate competitor. Even though he's retired, he's still the ultimate under pressure, he knows what to do."
And indeed, he did. On his lefthander in Run 2, the three-time World Champ scored a whopping 9.07, which he followed up with an 8.43. Just because he's newly retired doesn't mean he's forgotten how to compete.
Just behind Australia, at No. 3, is the World team, under the guidance of team captain Jordy Smith. It was Smith, in fact, who earned the team's highest score of Run 2, with an 8.87. He and his team, however, will have to push harder Sunday to keep Brazil off their backs. Despite sitting in fourth place, the combination of passion and profound skill might be more than enough to push them into contention for the Final.
During Team Brazil's second run, former World Champ Gabriel Medina scored a 9.17 on his backhand, while Filipe Toledo sent his supporters straight into a singing and flag-waving frenzy when he scored the first 10-point ride ever at Surf Ranch. Afterwards, he was radiating with excitement.
"I'm over the moon, my heart's pumping really hard right now," he said, still dripping wet on the launch ramp. As for team strategy, under the guidance of team captain Medina? "The order didn't really matter for us," Toledo said. "It was more about how much risk we're going to put into the wave. We talked about it, I said, 'I'm going for it,' and they gave me support. That's why I got the 10."
Meanwhile, rounding out the roster in fifth place, Europe's captain, Johanne Defay, was upbeat about how they did. "Frederico [Morais] said he'd really like to go first, so I put him there," she said. "And I wanted the girls to go first because the guys are a bit more innovative, so I wanted them to be at the end. But I didn't want Frankie [Harrer] to be very first [because of the pressure], so I went.
"It's not about the show, but the results," she said. "We had to improve, and everyone improved, so I think it was a good run."
Regardless of how Defay's team, or any others, do before the Founders' Cup is done, what has been most remarkable so far is the athletes' quick transition from surfing as individuals to the cohesion required for a team format.
"When you surf on the world tour, you just want to [do well] for yourself," Toledo said. "But right now you have a whole team to talk strategy and how we're going to do it. They support you and so you can surf more relaxed -- but the jersey feels a little heavy, to support the whole country."
Still, he said, he was savoring the experience, from the cheering fans to surfing as part of the Brazil team. "That's actually the best feeling in the world, being able to support my team and my country," he said. "It feels amazing."
The WSL Founders' Cup kicks off again Sunday, May 6, at 9:30 a.m. PST. See the schedule right here.