After a year of traversing the world, chasing waves and battling through heats, the 2018 World Title has come down to a three-man race to be decided at the upcoming Billabong Pipe Masters. What happens next is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Fronting the rankings, Gabriel Medina is in control of the narrative, while Julian Wilson and Filipe Toledo, who sit in equal second, have the unenviable task of trying to catch him at Pipe, a location he's previously won at.
The scenario is such that if Medina finishes first or second at Pipe the 2018 World Title is his. If he finishes third, Wilson or Toledo need to win the contest to win the Title. And if Medina finishes anywhere from fifth to 25th, Wilson or Toledo will need a first or second at Pipe to capture the Title.
"The good thing is that I depend on me, I don't depend on them," said Medina today at the press conference. "So, I'll stay focused on what I'm doing, the same thing I've been doing the last four events. It's been working. I just have to make heats."
There's been no shortage of surf on the North Shore over the last couple of weeks, giving all three competitors ample opportunity to get reacquainted with Pipe and dial in their boards.
"I've been surfing a lot. The other day I surfed Pipeline from 9:00am until like 5:00 in the afternoon, just spent the whole day at the beach cruising," said Toledo. "I'm staying with the family. I'll paddle out, catch a few, come back in. That's been my training so far."
"The last couple of days we've had some big swells and it's been really nice to ride some bigger boards and some big waves, and now I feel like I'm ready for it to start," concurred Wilson.
All three surfers noted that they were eager to get the homestretch of the World Title race underway. It's been a month since the end of the European leg, and the waiting game has been a challenge for all of them. Interestingly, they've all found different waves to cope with the anxiety.
"I took a week off, then I started training again. I've spent a lot of time in the gym in the last month. I've been surfing a lot too," said Medina, who hung around home in Brazil.
For Wilson, who resides on Australia's wave-starved Sunshine Coast, he found solace out of the water.
"I haven't been surfing a lot, to be honest," said Wilson. "One of the main things I've been doing has been riding my dirt bike quite a bit. It gets the adrenaline going and gets me somewhat comfortable in the environment that I will be competing in at Pipe."
Meanwhile, Toledo's tried to maintain some sense of normality in his life.
"I've just been hanging with the family, surfing, and enjoying life. I've been trying to stay away from all the noise, what people are talking about, no fun, just block out everything and living life."
All three surfers reported that they were very happy with their current quiver of boards. Both Medina and Toledo said they're 100-percent healthy, while Wilson noted that the shoulder injury he sustained in a bike accident before the start of the season continues to nag him.
"I'm still doing rehab on my shoulder. It consistently needs work," explained Wilson. "But I feel like it's the strongest it's been all year. It's nice to have that confidence coming into this event."
In terms of what they think they'll need to do to win the Title, Medina, Toledo and Wilson all had differing opinions. Medina noted he just needs to make heats. As long as he keeps advancing he'll stay ahead of his rivals and clinch his second World Title.
Wilson, who found himself in the 2017 World Title race as well, is taking a more pragmatic approach.
"First and foremost I need to respect the wave. Then I need to get on a roll. I need to lean on my experience out there and try to find the right waves," said Wilson. "I know I need a great result. All three of us are trying to get a great result in order to get it. Medina needs a great result to clinch it, but obviously if he doesn't achieve that me or Filipe can win the Title with a great result, so all three of us are looking at going deep in the event."
As for Toledo, he's in it to win it, but understands that some things are out of his control.
"Even if I don't win the Title, if I'm able to accomplish my goal of getting a really good result here, I can feel great about it that I did my part of the job and got it done," said Toledo.
Medina is going into the Pipe Masters with the ratings lead, the best career record and the best winning percentage at Pipe. He wins 62-percent of the his heats there, while Wilson is at 52-percent, and Toledo's the most challenged with a 38-percent winning percentage. But beyond the stats, Medina also appears to have a natural affinity for the break.
"In the past few years we've been loving each other a little more," he grinned at the end of his interview. "I learn something every time I surf there. If I can carry that confidence and love into my heats I hope I will be successful."
The waiting period for the Billabong Pipe Masters runs from Dec. 8-20. Watch live on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.