A blanket of clouds hung over the Gold Coast Thursday morning and the sultry, Coolangatta air slowed foot traffic down to a leisurely pace. But just off Marine Parade, inside the cavernous Quiksilver Boardriders Club, the mood was electric.
There, a handful of the world's best surfers gathered to mark the start of the 2018 WSL Championship Tour (CT) season. Tanned, rested and ready to start anew, WSL World Champs John John Florence and Tyler Wright, along with six-time Champ Stephanie Gilmore, 2014 Champ Gabriel Medina and World No. 18, Kanoa Igarashi were upbeat, and bullish about the new season.
"The first event of the year is always exciting," Wright said. "There are definitely nerves, but they're good nerves. A lot of us have either done Newcastle or Manly [the women's Qualifying Series events last month) so we're ready to go here at the Roxy Pro, and most of those nerves have settled.
"The forecast is looking good so we might get some good waves, maybe even a few behind the rock at Snapper. I'm pumped to see how everything unfolds and see how everyone is looking after the offseason."
The offseason, all around, allowed time for decompressing, fine-tuning and upping fitness. Medina, who made an incredible late-season push last year after a slow start, spent New Year's traveling with friends, taking in Brazilian coastal spots Bahia, Florianópolis and Rio de Janeiro. But then -- unsurprisingly -- he got right back to competition mode. He did a trip to Hawaii and California, and worked on refining his above-the-lip arsenal of maneuvers.
"I've just been surfing a lot," said Medina, "and working on what I like to do. Airs, turns -- I always try to get better on these things, and focus on what I already know."
The Brazilian, who's a goofyfooter, also worked on his backhand (for waves that break to the surfer's right, in his case). That alone should give Medina's rival, John John Florence, pause. At contest breaks like South Africa's Jeffreys Bay, with its endless right-hand point break, is a place where Medina could wreak innovative havoc, in the way that Brazilian Filipe Toledo did in 2017.
"He really pushed me at the end of the year, there," Florence said. "There was so much pressure, it was cool to [see that]." Indeed, despite Medina's slow start, he won back-to-back events in October and jumped up to No. 2. Florence ultimately defended his Title, but it was close. And Medina has just one aim in mind for 2018.
"I've had a good off-season and I'm ready for Snapper to start," he said. "The World Title is always the goal."
Gilmore, meanwhile -- who lives up the hill from Snapper Rocks, home of the Roxy Pro -- will likely be chasing her seventh World Title this year, a feat that would tie her with Australian Layne Beachley for the most wins by any CT woman. But Thursday, Gilmore was simply upbeat about a new season and starting out on home turf, where she won last year.
"To be able to spend the first event at home, just 300 meters from my house is fantastic," she said. "I put a lot of my success on Tour down to the fact that I have this event at home and the longer I'm on Tour, the more I appreciate how lucky I am.
"The start of every season feels a little different," she said. "This year, particularly with Mick [Fanning] retiring it feels different, but this is what happens, and I've always had a good perspective on where I am in life and right now I just love being on Tour. I've just decided to be a traveling gypsy and enjoy it -- obviously you miss things at home and your friends, but right now I feel like I could do the Tour for a long time."
Of the group assembled at Boardriders Thursday, Igarashi was perhaps the one without Title ambitions, just yet. Last year, his second one on Tour, he struggled through mostly 13th- and 15th-place finishes, until the end of the year, when suddenly he broke through with back-to-back third-places. The Californian, who returns now with two CT seasons under his belt, used his offseason in part to reflect on what he wants, and where he's going.
"I want to stay in the moment," he said. "It's scary to think that it's my third year already, I freaked out the other day thinking about it. So when I realized that, I decided I want to really soak it up. I've been so worried about my results, and so worried about this Tour, which is the best thing in the world, this year I want to just enjoy. I have been, but I have a new perspective.
"During this offseason, I think I've improved more than I ever have," he continued. "I feel like I've dissected a lot of things. In my first year I learned a bunch. Last year I was digesting it, and kind of over-thought it. And finally, this year, I think I can put it together."