There are good days and bad days at every job. But for pro surfers, a bad day at work can spell disaster for a season and, at this point in the year, for World Title hopes.
So far this year, reigning World Champion Gabriel Medina (BRA) and 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater (USA) have had a lot of bad days during contests. And while they're not the only ones, they're among the most prominent on the Championship Tour (CT). Their subpar performances have not only pushed them down the Jeep Leaderboard (Slater jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 after J-Bay; Medina is at No. 15), but also underscored the real drama of individual sports: A few mistakes can have a huge impact on an entire season.
For Medina, his rough go of things is all the more striking because it comes on the heels of his historic, career-making run at the Title in 2014. On that road to victory, he won three events -- including the Billabong Pro Tahiti -- finished runner-up at the prestigious Billabong Pipe Masters and became the first Brazilian World Champion. To say that he skyrocketed to fame in Brazil would be an understatement.
This year, in contrast, he kicked off the season with three 13th-place finishes and a 25th-place finish. But his rocky road may also be part of an important process as a pro surfer.
You learn more when you lose. -- Medina
"I've been learning a lot lately, with my wins and with my losses, and I think you learn more when you lose and you try to fix what you did wrong," Medina said. "When things aren't going right you try to see what's happening with yourself and I try to get better. I try to work harder and make every turn matter."
That ability to manage the tougher days of Tour life has been evident so far at the 2015 Billabong Pro Tahiti, in which Medina was visibly in form and fired up in Round 3. He went wave-for-wave with Hawaiian phenom John John Florence in what has been called a superheat for its massive scores and intensity of competition.
Slater, meanwhile, has more than two decades of Tour experience and, with 11 World Titles, is the winningest surfer in history. This year, however, has been a different story. Up until the contest at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, Slater had two 13th places and two ninth places.
At some point you need Tour life to be fresh again. -- Slater
"I probably lack some inspiration," he said. "Being on Tour for so long, at some point you need it to be fresh again and being in this position is kind of fresh. Even the last few years I haven't won the Title I've been right there with a shot so this is different for me. Trailing and trying to get myself even in the conversation. I feel like I'm getting to see it from a different point of view right now."
And yet, both Medina and Slater continue show flashes of brilliance. So far at the Billabong Pro Tahiti, Medina has already earned four scores in the nine-point range (where 10 is a perfect score). Before J-Bay, he was hovering just above the cutoff to requalify for the 2016 Tour. But he finished in the Quarterfinals there, which bumped him up five spots on the Jeep rankings.
Slater, who has yet to compete in Round 3 in Tahiti, has tallied at least one ride in the nine-point range in each of the last five events and scored a perfect 10 at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro in April.
"I've had some really high-scoring heats, I just haven't had them in succession," Slater said. "I'm in a position now to where it's rewarding if I get some good results."
After finishing 13th in Rio, Slater's signature skills were in full effect at the next event, in Fiji, where he scored more than 18 points total in two of his heats (20 is a perfect heat). Medina began to bounce back at J-Bay. After finishing 13th in Fiji, he posted a near-perfect 19.07 heat total in the next contest, at Jeffreys Bay. Their respective abilities to manage the ups and downs of a competitive career is, as Medina described, a learning curve.
For Slater, however, the challenge is to not to manage just his competitive mindset, but his myriad business interests, too. At 43, his life beyond the Tour has become increasingly busy with responsibilities outside of surfing that include his new brand Outerknown, partnering with brands including PB Teens and Firewire, and his relationships with a worldwide network of friends and colleagues.
"There's still confidence in there but I'm having trouble getting the consistency," he said. "And to be honest keeping my thinking, my brain, out of [surfing]. It comes down to things in your life, the deeper stories of your relationships, your work and all those things. If those things are all in your mind and not dealt with then you're not able to just go out there and flow and that's been part of the problem for me.
"More than anything I've just been scattered and away from focusing on the Tour and making that priority No. 1. That makes it hard to go out and turn those heats that aren't going your way."
The two struggling Champs have a long way to go in terms of turning their respective seasons around. After competition concludes in Tahiti there are only four contests left in the Championship Tour season. And even in Teahupo'o is a long, uphill battle: Slater has to win his Round 3 heat against Sebastian Zietz (HAW) to avoid a 13th-place finish. Medina has two people between him and a direct leap to the Quarterfinals: Bruno Santos (BRA), who won the event in 2008 as a wildcard and who defeated world No. 1 Adriano de Souza (BRA) in Round 3, and dark-horse rookie Italo Ferreira, who has been turning heads all season.
No matter what happens in Tahiti, Slater and Medina both have a lot of bad days to make up for it they hope to be Title contenders once again. The question is whether they can bounce back in time to have enough good days to get there.
Catch Slater, Medina and the remaining competitors at the Billabong Pro Tahiti LIVE here and on the WSL app through August 25.