At the end of each year on the elite Championship Tour (CT), up to 10 surfers lose their spots, and are replaced by the top 10 surfers on the Qualifying Series (QS). For those who are forced to exit surfing's top tier at the hands of missing the rankings cutoff, the challenge to get back is enormous.
For as hard as it to qualify for the CT for the first time, it can be even more difficult to climb back immediately after being relegated. In recent history on the men's tour, only two surfers -- Alejo Muniz in 2015 and Dusty Payne in 2014 -- who have managed to immediately bounce back from dropping off the CT to requalify with just one year back on the QS. In 2017, Keanu Asing joined them in managing the feat.
Asing probably provides the most modern blueprint for a successful CT relaunch. The Hawaiian used his year on the QS to simplify his approach and focus on what matters to him. Free of the distractions, stress and intensity of surfing on two different tours, his year competing solely on the QS was a revelation.
"Everything I was doing worked for me to the point where I was more excited and hungry to surf than ever before" he told the WSL. "I've never been so excited to surf; it felt like the pressure was off. I also got to do a bunch of events I never got to do before."
Much is made of the drop in quality of the waves as surfers transfer from the CT destinations like Jeffreys Bay, Teahupo'o and Snapper Rocks (to name a just a few), to the beach breaks of the QS, but it seems the key is to focus on the opportunities that the QS can provide, rather than the negatives.
In this regard Miguel Pupo, who had been relegated after seven years on the CT, seems to be approaching his comeback with just the right attitude. The Brazilian wasted no time in getting straight back in the QS saddle after losing his spot for 2018; he signed up for the Seat Pro Netanya pres by Reef in Israel that started in mid-January.
"I thought it was going to be really hard to go back to smaller waves in beach breaks, but the past few days I've realized just how much I love surfing anything," he said from Tel Aviv. Pupo is also taking his mentoring role seriously, traveling with his younger brother, Samuel, and showing the next generation of Brazilian talent exactly what you need to do to get to the top. The combination netted him a fifth place in Israel. While this probably won't be a result he counts at the end of the year, the intent and attitude were all too apparent.
For 2017 rookies like Ethan Ewing and Leo Fioravanti, however, who both fell off the elite Tour at the end of this past season, they simply need to channel the success they had in 2016 when they both qualified with relative ease. In theory the added experience of a year surfing against the world's best surfers should have them better equipped. Fioravanti, the ever-positive Italian, seems ready for the challenge. "It's another chapter," he told the WSL. "I can't wait to go on new adventures, meet new friends, learn about different cultures and visit places I've never been before. The results will come if I apply myself and enjoy the experience."
For Jack Freestone and Stuart Kennedy, who just dropped off the tour after completing two consecutive seasons each on the CT, 2018 will be a crucial year if their dreams of surfing at the elite level are to continue. Kennedy was forced to withdraw from the Billabong Pipe Masters at the end of last year due to injury, returning to his wife and young family to recuperate and reset. He's just started an Olympic Training Camp at the Australia High Performance Centre, in full preparation mode for the upcoming season. As ever with Kennedy, the commitment is throttled up to 100 percent. Freestone, a new father, will also need to find a way to adjust to parenthood alongside life as a full-time QS surfer. Each will have its challenges.
However no matter what the individual circumstances, however, all these recently relegated surfers face the same task. Just how quickly they return to the CT will be mostly come down to their attitudes. They have all shown they have the talent to belong, now it comes down their ability to bounce back from the disappointment of 2017. If they succeed, they will have overcome one of competitive surfing's most difficult challenges.