This may sound strange, but the ankle injury Mick Fanning suffered the day after he arrived at Jeffreys Bay might just be a blessing. After all, his highly anticipated return to the scene of last year's shark encounter had global media in a frenzy.
In fact, the story of his return appeared on the front page of the New York Times website Wednesday. And while Mick's camp has been flooded with media inquiries, the whole shark thing has already taken a back seat to his damaged wheel -- which is good thing.
But by Wednesday it was time to put his ankle fears to rest, just as he did last week with the sharks. Turns out, Fanning's semi-retirement seed placed him in the very first heat of the event, and he wasted no time making every Fantasy Surfing player who ran away from him wish there was some kind of "undo" button.
The ankle looked fine. Not even J-Bay's frigid cold was affecting it. And it was damn cold.
But low temperatures are a welcome sign in these parts. If the wind is strong southwest, as it was this morning, there's always a good chance of waves, but when it gets really cold, the chances are even better. Coldness keeps the optimism up.
Mick Fanning had his hands full with Conner Coffin and Alejo Muniz joining him in his Round One match. But as soon as he stood up his smooth and flowing style was on full display. There was no nursing of the ankle. Mick flowed, taking his usual high lines across J-Bay's long walls and soaking up the speed.
Fanning handled the ensuing media attention with aplomb, confidently greeting the locals and smiling all the way through the long line of journalists waiting for him.
After that, all eyes turned to John John. The Hawaiian opened strong but left the door open, and rookie Kanoa Igarashi came sprinting through. Remarkably, the 18-year-old has won five of six Round One heats this year, including this one. He waited patiently for waves he could work with, surfed them confidently, and got the job done. It was impressive because it was cold, calculated and lethal. Plus, he'd only surfed J-Bay for the first time last week.
"I got here last Wednesday...my first time in J-Bay," said Kanoa. "On Saturday it was some of the best waves I have ever seen in my life. I just surfed as much as I could, and spent a lot of time watching surfers who have experience here. I probably learned the most about the waves from the locals. They really know how to find those speed lines, and understand exactly how the wave needs to be surfed."
That's a smart kid.
Meanwhile, there's been some talk about the second coming of Kolohe Andino, who showed maturity in his heat against Ace Buchan and Jadson Andre. Andino brought a tempered approach to the blustery conditions. With the offshore wind ripping through the line-up he rode up, along, and over the lip on numerous occasions, never getting blown off and never disappearing over the back, a mistake of which many were guilty.
"I've been here for a while, and I actually got so surfed out before the event that I had to take a few days off," said a smiling Andino after his heat victory.
What is it about a first round heat win? For some, it's not that serious as it's non-elimination, but for others it's a do-or-die heat from the get-go. In Heat 9 Jordy Smith was trailing an on-point Wiggolly Dantas, who opened up with an absolute bomb for 9.27. Smith chipped away, however, and managed to edge ahead of the Brazilian goofyfooter.
"I found this wave at the end of the heat that was a bit slow," said Smith after his heat. "But I knew it was going to hit the reef at some stage, so I just set up the inside section and did a bunch of turns right in front of the judges on the Carpark Section. I will never underestimate the value of a first round win. It can set you up for the entire event."
While so much of the media attention is pointed firmly at Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson's story has been somewhat overlooked. He must have been pretty nervous to paddle out as well, but he showed no nerves in the water, posting a reinvigorated performance and the highest score of the day. Julian has been training under Andy King, and it is clearly reflected in his approach, with big turns and no slowing down for his in-sync performance. "It feels nice to be back here," said Wilson without irony, after an 18.77 heat total.
The wind continued to howl, the rain poured down, and the crowds obstinately filled up the grandstands. Everyone wanted to watch Heat 1 of Round Two, featuring local boy Steve Sawyer against yellow jersey-adorned Matt Wilkinson. They both crumbled. The tour leader dodged a bullet, and Sawyer, who wasn't feeling well, bowed out of the event in the ugliest heat of the day.
On the flip side, we finally got to witness a single, ridiculous air, when Filipe Toledo took on Kai Otton in the late afternoon. Filipe has also never really shone at Supers, and his aerial approach seems to not quite suit the classic, corduroy lines of the best right-hand point break on the tour. He changed this. Some rasping rail turns before a big forehand punt, holding on tightly to his outside rail in the offshore wind, to a full forehand rotation into the trough in the golden light, and one the best waves that Filipe has ever surfed at Supers.
Tomorrow looks to be really good as well. Stay tuned in.