Eighty-six days. That's how long we haven't seen our heroes in the Top 34 surf a Championship Tour heat. That's 2,064 hours. 123,840 min…you get the picture. We've been waiting a while for the 2017 season to kick off. And indeed it did today, Round One of the Quik Pro and Round Two of the Roxy Pro ran in gorgeous, rifling Snapper Rocks righthanders.
Those 86 days also may have seemed a little longer because of what was at the end of them. There's just simply never been a group of surfers on Tour so utterly diverse, talented and able to become serious Title contenders. Ever.
It's also always a special thing watching the best surfers on the planet stand up on their very first waves of the season. Any opening day jitters, Day 1 kinks or Gold Coast cobwebs are exposed to the judges and viewers. Or, if you're like Gabriel Medina, Joel Parkinson, Julian Wilson and Owen Wright, the lack thereof.
But as far as Day 1 went, despite all of this year's Rookie Class hype, it was truly the group of World Champions on tour and serious Title contenders that took control of every heat and shined. And with nearly no exception. Those guys...and then Owen Wright's miraculous return to the CT.
For instance, while the highly anticipated rookie Zeke Lau gave it hell in his opening heat against Wiggolly Dantas and Gabriel Medina, Medina was just plain surfing in a league of his own.
A past Quik Pro champion (in 2014) and on fuego today, Medina is looking like the guy to beat at this event. Razor sharp and super crisp, on his last wave before the buzzer Medina sent spray off a backhand hack so high it may have soaked the Lord up in heaven. Yes, the Big Man had to put His robes on the line to dry after a few turns from Medina, who was flaring on the most critical pockets of each wave he rode with impeccable timing.
On a bummer-note, Medina did limp in from the heat, having strained his MCL trying an awkward backside alley-oop thing, earlier in the heat. He should, however, be good to go for Round Three.
The 2016 World Champ, John John Florence, was looking nice and limber. He had an amazing flow and pretty much skating through his heat with a barrage of explosive turn variations from giant opening carves to lay-back hacks to tight arcs. He comboed Connor O'Leary and wildcard Mikey Wright pretty quickly, though Wright had a last-ditch flash of brilliance at the end.
"I think I feel better out there now," said Florence. "There's not that pressure of winning my first world title any more. It just feels like I'm able to open up and really surf how I want to now."
In a virtual Clash of the Titans-style matchup we got to see 11x World Champion Kelly Slater and 3x world champion Mick Fanning square off -- with a deadly Jeremy Flores in the mix, too, of course.
And just when it looked like Flores, who had amazing wave selection the entire heat, had the two Champs beat, Fanning got a wave literally on the buzzer, needing a 7.04 to win, posting a 7.13.
"It's hard in these conditions," said Fanning. "It's like sometimes priority is a curse because you want to sit up the point and get those ones…but it's a confidence booster that I can keep my cool at the end. And that's how I want to keep it the whole year: Don't worry about the consequences and keep going."
As the World Champions collectively owned their heats Thursday, 2012 Champ Joel Parkinson was no exception. Parko looked as light on his feet today as he did as an 18-year-old in 3 Degrees. Surfing noticeably faster, with more maturity and more explosively than his competitors, Parko linked deep tube-rides with gorgeous arcs, wraps and even air-reverses, literally bringing the screaming crowd on the beach to their feet.
Thus with a whopping 16.86-point heat total, Parko edged out the impressive rookie Joan Duru, who was nipping at his heels.
"It really started to get good in our heat," said Parkinson. "So I was just lucky enough that it turned on as I paddled out. But, it's just so amazing, you can finish the wave and hear the cheers, sometimes even halfway through a turn you can hear the cheers; it's just unreal."
Certainly, you could hear those cheers in the prior heat, at the way Julian Wilson surfed. Compact, recoiled and looking like a true Title contender, Julian was burning 7.0 scores for high-8s, posting a 16.80 heat total, without a kink whatsoever in his repertoire.
While many of the rookies weren't able to keep up with the vets, this wasn't gospel for everyone. Specifically, Portugal's rookie Frederico Morais and North Straddie's rookie Ethan Ewing. Morais had a hell of an opener, throwing down hammers with his big ole timber legs. The only Rookie to advance to Round 3, Morais not only drew gorgeous, sweeping, arc after arc, but surfed extremely smartly, edging past an in-form Filipe Toledo.
In the last heat of Round One 18-year-old Ethan Ewing (also the reigning world Junior Champion, by the way) went blow-for-blow with Sebastian Zietz and returning CT star Owen Wright. Looking extremely comfortable with impeccable flow, Ewing posted an epic 9.10 for his very first wave on the CT, linking a variation of smooth arcs, wrap-arounds and stylish turns. While Ewing couldn't get past the in-form Wright, his debut was nothing short of remarkable.
And then of course in that same heat was Owen Wright's triumphant return to the Championship Tour. The Australian surfer sat out the entire 2016 season due to a career-threatening traumatic brain injury he suffered at Pipeline in 2015. It was so severe he had to learn to surf again when he returned to the water. Six months later, he's back, and with his impressive win over Ewing and Hawaiian powerhouse Sebastian Zietz, it's obvious that Wright's recovery is nothing short of miraculous.