The steel cables of the hydrofoil pull the blade into place. The water in the pool calms. The machine revs. Another perfect wave is eminent. But until it's time to spin and go, it's all nerves.
There's no paddling into position. There's no worrying about what your rival is doing. There's no thought of how much time is left on the clock.
For the men and women fronting the world title race, it's not a matter of if that perfect wave will come to them, rather the question is will they flinch, or will they fly when the time does come?
"You have to perform otherwise you're out," concurred current World No. 1 Filipe Toledo during the press conference proceeding the Surf Ranch Pro. "There is no wind. There's no swell direction. There's no high tide. There's no low tide. So, there's no excuses. The only excuse is if you fall or make a mistake."
The impending contest may be the most pressure-packed contest in the history of the WSL.
The business end of the 2018 Championship Tour is upon us, and both the men and women are embroiled in tightening world title races, and the stage on which the surfers must perform is unlike any other to ever appear on a CT schedule. This circumstance presents its own unique set of challenges.
In a typical CT contest, competitors go head to head for 30 minutes, affording them the time, flexibility and creativity to find waves, build scores and manipulate a tactical advantage. That's not the case at the Surf Ranch Pro.
The format is such that in the three preliminary rounds each surfer will get three runs comprised of one left and one right. They will surf a total of six waves (three lefts and three rights). The top scoring left and right will be combined with the top scores qualifying for the Final.
Enroute to his win at the recent Tahiti Pro, World No. 2 Gabriel Medina rode eight waves in the final alone. What that means for the Surf Ranch Pro is that there is little to no room for error. Every wave counts. There will be no hail Mary sets at the buzzer. There will be no paddle battles or scraping for priority. There will be no freedom to fall and scratch back out to the lineup and try again.
"It's gonna be the most pressure everyone on tour is gonna feel," rookie Griffin Colapinto told the WSL. "You only get three waves on each side, so you know you can't fall, plus there's gonna be all those people talking and screaming. I think whoever can handle the pressure the best is gonna win. That's what it'll come down to."
"Somebody's going to set that bar at a certain point and everyone behind them and after them is going to have to match that. And that's where the pressure is going to come in," described 11-time world champion Kelly Slater. "The low seeds, that surf early on, we have the opportunity to put the pressure on everyone after us. And if a couple of us do really well, have really good, high scores on both waves, right and left, that's going to obviously put a lot of pressure on the high seeds. But the more risk people take the more likely they're going to fall off. All that risk is right in the pocket."
It's that unknown that's the catalyst for the pressure the athletes will feel.
"I think Steph is the favorite for the women. Her style of surfing fits the waves perfectly," continued Slater.
That's good news for World No. 1 Stephanie Gilmore, but problematic for World No. 2 Lakey Peterson. Needing a huge result at the Surf Ranch Pro to continue to contend for the 2018 world title, she's going to have to do something extraordinary if she is to upset Gilmore's groove. Whether it's finding the magic barrel-to-air combo, or a progressive approach to her open-faced maneuvers, Peterson has to perform.
On the men's side, Medina is the only person to win an individual event at the Surf Ranch with his victory at the Future Classic, but ratings leader Toledo is the only surfer to post a perfect 10-point score. Meanwhile, World No. 3 Julian Wilson just surfed the wave for the first time last week.
Routines will have to be well choreographed and new maneuvers unveiled for a chance to win in the pool. There's been a lot of fine-tuning going on around the League as surfers are dialing in their preferred bag of tricks. Over the last week or two we've already seen Medina and Italo Ferreira stomping backflips. Toledo and Wilson have been been seen landing big rotations right into the transition of the wave.
"You're just sitting there - it's totally flat - and then a perfect wave pops up, that you can literally do eight turns on and get barreled," rookie Caroline Marks said during a recent training session.
A common misconception is that the wave is the exact same every time. That's not true. While it very much looks the same and hits the bottom contours in the same place every time, there are subtleties that make each wave slightly unique.
For example, the first wave of the morning and the first wave after the lunch break are typically the best waves of the day because the water in the pool has had time to completely calm down.
According to WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow, that will hopefully be resolved by letting the first three sets of waves in the morning and after lunch-what he calls "burner waves"-go unridden in competition to help better calibrate the conditions.
Wind direction is another factor as the facility was designed for the local wins to blow predominantly offshore on the right, while the left is dubiously more susceptible to shifts in wind direction. Because of this, athletes will be forced to adapt and evolve.
"You're always learning," told former world champ Mick Fanning during the Founder's Cup. "You look at and you think that they're the exact same, but they're not, they're always changing that lilt bit."
"I can't get ahead of myself and predict anything," concurred Wilson after experiencing the Surf Ranch for the first time last week. "I feel like it still changes even though it's run by the machine. I think that it's prompting the surfers to look at the wave differently and explore trying something maybe they haven't tried before."
"I've found that every time I surf my best wave, it's because I surfed it based off feel. So, I'm not gonna plan too much in advance," added Marks. "I won't go into a wave thinking, ‘Okay, I've gotta do three turns before the barrel,' because I'd rather see what the wave does first, and then do whatever I'm feeling."
That's a big departure from how a surfer like Colapinto is approaching the wave. Growing up surfing Lower Trestles, one of the most dependable waves in California, he's well versed in laying down the right maneuvers in the right part of the wave.
"I have a full-blown plan for each wave. Especially on the right. The right is easier to plan. The left is actually a lot more unpredictable," said Colapinto.
A plan's all good until something changes. Striking that balance between choreography and spontaneity may be a critical factor in deciding the winners at the Surf Ranch Pro. And that's where the pressure gets heaped on.
Nobody will have the advantage of catching a better set wave or lucking into the only high-scoring wave of a heat.
Plain and simple, the Surf Ranch Pro is purely about who performs the best. Progressive performances win the day. Those that are able to put it all on the line while still staying on their feet will be the ones that stand atop the podium when the dust settles in Lemoore.
No pressure, right?