The absence of so many stars from the Fiji Pro rekindled the long-standing debate as to how Championship Tour (CT) surfers best prepare for competing with the elite: take risks while surfing outside of the jersey or surf cautiously until it's go-time?
Missing faces from Fiji included Michel Bourez (PYF), Brett Simpson (USA), Jordy Smith (ZAF) and John John Florence (HAW), all of whom withdrew due to injury. All four hurt themselves during freesurfs before the event.
"All I wanna do is be healthy enough to compete in these events," said Simpson, who reinjured his back during a session at home weeks before he was due to head to the South Pacific. "In my mind, to lengthen my career and get healthier I've had to really pick and choose what I do cause it can cost me in the long run. Those are the tough decision a top athlete has to make and I think with time you learn and make clearer decisions."
Not everyone sees a clear distinction between freesurfing and competitions. Florence, for example, has no boundary between them according to his shaper, Jon Pyzel.
"When John got hurt," said Pyzel, "I was talking with his mom and she said, 'I was telling him you need to settle down,' And he was like, 'Mom this is what I do. I don't go surfing and try not to do stuff and not get hurt.' But that's his passion, it's not an option. It's just the way it is and he accepts those results."
Those results can significantly impact a CT surfer's career. According to Al Hunt, the men's Tour Manager since 1984, there has been only one instance in pro surfing history where a surfer has missed an event and still won the World Title: Kelly Slater (USA) was injured for Rio in 2012, the year he won his 11th Championship. Yet the alternative -- holding back outside of heats -- requires a big shift in mentality.
"It's been a consistent internal battle, personally," said Smith, the South African who is out for Fiji. "Obviously I want to do the best I can in the contest but they're only a few days long. The rest of the 10-day waiting period or the month and a half between contests I want other things to satisfy my needs and my time."
Pyzel, who has shaped for Florence since he was a grom, is well aware of the froth-factor that comes into play for the pros. "There's guys on that top level that are surfing amazing and those guys want to do other stuff," he said. "They don't want to be like, 'I surf two weeks out of the month in front of other people and that's it.' They want to showcase what they're doing. It's not ego-driven, it's exciting. It's like, 'Look at what I can do, I want to film it and do projects.' It's hard for those guys to dial it down."
"Dialing it down" isn't how most of the athletes on Tour made names for themselves. Bourez, for example, said in an interview earlier this month that the board he was on when he got hurt at Teahupo'o was too short -- but the thrill of the moment was too tempting to ignore.
"When I got enough confidence and had caught a couple good, fun ones," he said, "I told myself the next big one that comes through I was going to go for it. There's one way I could make it and one I couldn't and that's what happened."
Freesurfs, though, aren't just about going big and going home; arguably, they're also training ground. The idea of freesurfs as another form of practice came up among fans' comments on the WSL's June 4 Fiji injury update article. One person wrote, "pro athletes in other sports do not risk their careers during their seasons, save it for off season." Another fan said, "pro athletes get hurt in practice. They have to practice to stay in form just like any other sport."
Smith, for his part, shed some light from a pro's perspective.
"Practicing is such a vast area and I guess we're lucky because you can still get footage out of that," he said. "But your mindset is different for an event. You're thinking about finishing your last turns and how to maximize the wave to the fullest. In a freesurf...it's more about more experimenting. You go to the event with a plan to execute what you already know."
You go to the event with a plan to execute what you already know.
Still, the implications of serious injuries -- and missing Tour events as a result -- are undeniable, even with the "throwaway" rule: At the end of the season, each competitor is allowed to toss out their two lowest finishes, including events missed because of injury. Despite the provision, Florence and Smith will each count at least one 13th-place finish in their Jeep ranking at the end of the year. Bourez and Simpson will each have at least two 25th-place finishes. And while it's a little early to talk requalification for the CT, it's less of a stretch to see all four surfers' Title chances almost out of reach. After factoring in the Fiji Pro results, Florence and Smith have both dropped out of the Top 10.
As a point of comparison, last year's Champion Gabriel Medina (BRA) was able to throw away both of his 13th-place finishes, leaving him with a ninth-place finish as his lowest of the year.
The next event on the schedule is the J-Bay Open the seventh of 11 men's CT events, marking the start of the season's back half. In other words, the stakes are only getting higher.
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