The 2016 Qualifying Series battle was one of the most compelling in recent memory. In early December more than 30 surfers arrived at Sunset Beach with viable shots at qualifying for the 2017 Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour. When the Vans World Cup was over, six fresh faces locked in CT slots.
But there was still the matter of Pipeline, and the battle for those final CT slots that hadn't been secured. Nat Young and Miguel Pupo went into the Pipe Masters needing desperately to fend off the double-qualifying efforts of Kanoa Igarashi and Jadson Andre, who were giving chase. Igarashi had plenty of motivation, surfing for hope and honor of his good friend and Quiksilver teammate Ezekiel Lau. Lau finished the QS season No. 11, and would get the next CT slot. But given that Igarashi hadn't made it past the third round but once all season, the odds seemed long. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Seven fresh-faced rookies will now be joining the elite tour ranks next year.
The Complete Rookie Class of 2017
Hometown: Cronulla, Australia
Son of an Irish-born father and surf champion mother originally from Japan, O'Leary groomed his clean, crisp, powerful style in the same Cronulla surf that produced Mark Occhilupo. Of course Cronulla doesn't get anywhere near the media spotlight it did 30 years ago, which is why O'Leary's rise to the very top of this year's QS rankings surprised many. But it shouldn't have.
Last year he suffered a heartbreaking loss at Sunset and was bumped out of the QS Top 10. So he knows pain. But he's a blue-collar workhorse, and he turned it into a positive. "As tough as that was I did gain a lot of confidence last year getting as far as I did," he says. "I felt pretty confident I could do it again." Not surprisingly, one of his best travel mates is blue-collar giant-killer Stu Kennedy. The two are likely to be taking on the world next year. "It's going to be so fun. I can't wait."
Hometown: North Stradbroke Island, Australia
Ewing grew up the youngest of three surf-stoked boys on North Stradbroke Island, a place known for breeding humble heroes like Bede Durbidge. True to his roots, the soft spoken 18-year-old keeps his abundance of confidence well hidden. But Mick Fanning and Jack Freestone aren't fooled. They both are on the record calling Ewing, "the real deal."
Indeed, Ewing took the world by storm in 2016. A virtual unknown 12 months ago, he blipped the global radar with a QS1000 win at Burleigh Heads in January, and a runner-up finish at Tweed Heads the following week. He then annihilated the Australian Pro Junior series, nabbing four wins. Then things got real. Hoping to earn a few points for a good seed next year he accidentally caught fire in the QS10000 events. His surfing, which is a mix of Andy and every Aussie great from the past decade, charmed judges all over. He finished the season ranked No. 2, and just earned Rookie of the Year honors at the Vans Triple Crown. "This still doesn't seem real," Ewing said after the awards were handed out at Sunset. "This has been a dream season."
Hometown: Cascais, Portugal
In the last month Morais emerged out of the QS ratings abyss to the No. 3 spot on the Qualifying Series thanks to one of the most improbable runs in Hawaiian history. Sure, the Portuguese powerhouse was Rookie of the Year during the 2013 Triple Crown, but nobody would have predicted he'd finish off this season with back-to-back runner-ups at Haleiwa and Sunset Beach.
Morais has been sending warning shots for years as a CT wildcard in Portugal. His list of victims there includes Slater, Fanning and Burrow. And he's tasted success with a quarterfinals appearance. "I knew then I had nothing to lose," said Morais. "Next year's going to be tough though, because the Tour is not easy for rookies, and now I have everything to lose [laughs]."
Hometown: Bayonne, France
Nobody knows the heartache of nearly qualifying like Duru. He tied for the last qualifying spot several years ago, but lost it on a countback. He didn't take any chances this year. The even-keeled Frenchman quietly climbed the QS ranks, solidifying his CT slot with a Semifinal tear in the Hawaiian Pro. Duru may have a mellow disposition on land, but in the water, his surfing demands attention. His competitive experience and refined style could prove lethal during his rookie campaign.
"I'm not kidding when I say I think Joan has the best backhand in the world," said Connor O'Leary. "I've seen it up close and personal, and I think he's going to be lethal next year."
Hometown: Rome, Italy (Residing in France)
Rome's first surfing hero hit the world stage this year, and web traffic in Italy spiked dramatically as a result. It matters not that Leo Fioravanti has been living in France for the last eight years. Rome is where his surfing dreams were formed, and he (and his family) will forever be linked.
In France he gained a new mentor (and stepfather) in Stephen Bell, and in short order he was hanging out and traveling with Bell's star pupil, Kelly Slater. Fioravanti, who speaks five languages, was a quick study, and his transition from observer to competitor has been seamless. During his two CT wildcard showings this year, he took down reigning World Champion Adriano de Souza at Margaret River, and went 2-0 against his buddy, 11x World Champion Kelly Slater.
Hometown: Recife, Brazil
Gouveia is the son of former CT surfer Fabio Gouveia, the pride of Brazil 20 years before the Brazilian storm was on the radar. At a time when many of the country's surfers were marginalized, Fabio's refined, Curren-esque style earned high praise from his peers. Ian Gouveia is proud to be from an established surfing family. But genetics can only get you so far, because it takes fire to stand out.
Ian's got the drive. "He's one of the hardest working guys I've seen," said Morais. "And his surfing is incredible." Gouveia's approach resembles a prize fighter: tightly coiled, bobbing, weaving, until it's time to release his vicious whips and authoritative blasts. With the full spectrum of today's advanced moves in his arsenal, the stocky goofyfooter is dangerous in any condition, including the big stuff. When his top 10 rank was on the line at the Vans World Cup, Gouveia muscled through burly Sunset to secure his dream.
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Ezekiel Lau is pure Aloha. Raised in a proud Hawaiian home, "Zeke" exudes all the celebrated hallmarks of his wonderful heritage. His good looks, fierce build and intimidating power game are quite the head-fake when you realize he has the heart of a warm, fuzzy, Teddy Bear pulsing inside. He's the epitome of a peaceful warrior.
Zeke's brand of power-surfing was never a great match for the Qualifying Series schedule. While he came of age with guys like John John Florence and Kolohe Andino, it's taken him a little longer to crack the code because of his power base. But the waves (and judges) at the elite level will be much more receptive to his authoritative approach.
The transition should be a smooth one for Zeke, especially given his teammates Leonardo Fioravanti and Kanoa Igarashi will be by his side for much of the way. His father, Leonard Lau, a former football star at the University of Hawaii, is a great source of counsel as well. Zeke will take his licks, like all rookies do, but he's got all the elements an elite-tour fixture.