I asked Soli Bailey to tell me a joke while I was drinking a cup of coffee and I almost did a spit take. Something about a bird and a windscreen and nevertheless, I loved it. And, like the punchline, I didn't see Soli coming with that one. But perhaps that's exactly how Soli operates. Quiet, unassuming, then, BAM where'd that come from?
Not far off from how the 6'1" 21-year-old kid from Bryon Bay won the 2017 Volcom Pipe Pro... even though for the past seven years only three rulers of Pipeline -- Jamie O'Brien, John John Florence and Kelly Slater -- rotated that honor... Even though he'd advanced past all of them into the Final and still no one was really putting all their chips on him to win... Even though Soli won every single heat he surfed throughout the entire event…
Then, BAM -- 3,000 points and the VPP Spartan trophy under his arm.
"The Volcom Pipe Pro is definitely an event that I'll never forget, but it's only 3,000 points," said Soli. "I feel like that is still a bare minimum result to hold on to if you want to qualify. So I'm just trying to keep my head clear and focused on competing smart. It's a long year, so I'm not getting ahead of myself. But it's definitely a good way to kick off the season."
That may be true, but if you're wondering where the hell this kid came from, well… he's kinda been around the whole time. He's been hiding in plain sight, right under our noses. Maybe you weren't aware that he almost qualified for the CT in 2015, finishing 18th in the world on the Qualifying Series (QS) at just 19 years old.
He came pretty close last year as well, finishing at No. 30 on the QS. But even heading into those first couple of years of grinding on the QS, he'd already had a very successful pro junior career, winning the WSL Australasia Junior Title in 2014.
But, let's back up a bit. Solamon Storm Bailey -- Soli, for short -- grew up in Byron Bay, Australia, surfing the numerous pointbreaks and fun beachies in the surrounding area. Local heroes from his neck of the woods include Slater's mid-'90s tour rival, Danny Wills, as well as Kieron Perrow and Jeremy Biles.
While Soli didn't have a ton of superstar competitors his age at home, he went through the amateur ranks competing against peers like Matt Banting, Noa Deane, Creed McTaggart and Cooper Chapman.
And like many others from his generation, Soli grew up emulating Andy Irons' style of surfing. He's still a huge Dane Reynolds fan. Trilogy III is still his favorite surf flick, Step Brothers is still his favorite flick-flick. But, he doesn't watch too much TV.
Soli's also of indigenous Australian decent, a heritage of which he's quite proud. Around the same time that he graduated from the Junior Tour to the big boys' QS, he actually won the 2015 Australian Indigenous Championships.
Jumping back to how Soli has snuck up on the surf world. Again, this fact has to do with his unassuming personality and approach.
"Soli is just a super cool kid, really respectful," said Torrey Meister, Soli's fellow QS competitor and O'Neill teammate. "He's one of those guys that can do it all. Like, he's surfed Jaws before, he's really good in gnarly slabs, he just won the Volcom Pipe Pro. Even in little waves he grinds and makes heats. He's definitely someone I see making the tour."
Indeed, in recent years Soli has been making heats in events that count. He made three Quarterfinals in QS 10,000 and QS 6,000-point events the year he finished 18th, and had a similar go last year nabbing two 5ths and a 9th in 10,000-point comps. This is the consistency Soli seems to find, even if it's toward the back end of the season.
"My turning points for both of those years ['15 and ‘16] were late in the season so I guess that's why I didn't qualify. My charge came too late," said Soli. "But my goal this year was to start full-charge instead of chasing my tail. I'm hoping to keep the momentum through the entire year."
A win at Pipe beating out a handful of Pipe Masters is what you can rightfully call "full-charge."
"He's the real deal for sure," continued Meister. "He's definitely one of those guys that surfs even better when the waves get good, too. Because there's some guys who don't, they're just better in smaller waves. But when the waves get good, Soli elevates."
And that right there -- Soli "elevating" when the waves get bigger and better -- may be the one thing, besides his consistency, that people have overlooked. Until now.
"Soli's a big dude. He's a huge human, so when the waves get bigger, it definitely fits his body," laughed QS competitor and friend, Ian Crane. "I mean, he won the Pipe contest, so he's good at getting barreled, that's for sure. But Soli's just a mellow dude that likes to surf and it looks like he's figuring out how to win contests, too. He's a good guy to be around."
I asked Soli if he agrees with his peers' sentiments about his apparent "cruisey vibe."
"Yeah I probably am quiet and mellow. I'm social, but I like my own space and time. I guess I have traveled the last couple of years on the QS with and without a partner, depending on where it is. I like mixing it up."
Certainly, Soli has a long road ahead of him toward his ultimate end-goal of making the world tour. And maybe the young man might even slip back into that space he enjoys called No One Saw Him Coming. The 6K events have already begun in Australia, the CT season will blast off in a couple of weeks and maybe that Pipe-hype will wear off and Soli will be secretly advancing heats as he so often does. But as demonstrated earlier, Soli's actually a pretty funny guy. And if his biggest gag becomes qualifying without anyone noticing, then he'll be the one who gets the last laugh.