Friday afternoon. A hundred degrees in the shade. Not a breath of wind. Game time. After a week of training and early-round action, for the top seeds of the Surf Park Pro the moment had arrived. And Gabriel Medina did not disappoint. Surfing in the day's final group, he asserted himself immediately as a clear favorite to win the contest.
On an innovative opening wave, Medina neglected the final barrel section of the left, instead opting to loft the only Kerrupt flip of the contest, and he even said he was going to do it before he paddled out. That ride, on the differentiating left, netted him a 9.30, the highest score yet to rise out of the basin.
Medina then followed it up with an 8.40 on his final right to launch himself into the number one seed with a combined score of 17.50 - another event-topping feat - being the only rider with a total above 16.00 thus far.
"I think it's a tricky wave, but when you have a lot of sessions practicing you feel comfortable. I'm feeling good," said Medina. "The wave is always going to be there, that's an advantage, so I'm stoked."
The Slater-deemed favorite to win, Filipe Toledo, struggled to find his form on the lefts but ended the day with a statement-making air on the end section of his final right-handed wave.
"Watch, he's going to do an air," said Medina, watching from the shoreline.
Sure enough, Toledo vaulted the biggest, cleanest, and best alley-oop of the day, riding away with a 9.17 in his pocket. That pressure performance, and only the second 9+ of the contest, secured him a number four seed going into Saturday.
"You can see everyone surf, what the scores are doing, what the judges are looking for, and what line is scoring the most," said Toledo about being the last surfer of the day to compete. "I'm really to be happy in the top eight right now. It feels good, I feel comfortable about it. One more wave, one more chance tomorrow."
World number three, Julian Wilson, surfed two solid waves netting him a pair of 7s and dropping him into the six seed.
"I actually played nine holes of golf yesterday to kill some time," said Wilson. "It's my first taste of it, it's exciting."
But today's fireworks weren't all about the grand finale, as there was plenty of pop to kick off the day.
The California contingent struck first. Back-to-back U.S. Open champ Kanoa Igarashi dropped the first hammer. Concluding his round with a calculated 8.93 on the right, he immediately took over 11-time world champ Kelly Slater who was previously at the top of the event rankings, and Igarashi stayed in the top seed until Gabe's fire.
"I have friends that compete in these event formats and you think about your run weeks in advance, I already knew what I was going to do three weeks ago," admitted Igarashi. "I've been training for these runs and I have A,B,C,D, up to about ten runs in my mind. It's all a numbers game."
"I really wanted to get ahead of Kelly, that was one of my own little goals," he added.
Just like this year's US Open, it was Griffin Colapinto that was hot on Igarashi's heals. His right-hander came in a tenth of a point under the Japanese surfer's score at 8.87, he finished the round with a 14.54 and a 10th seed at the end of the day.
While only the the top eight advance to the final, sitting on a high eight going into Saturday is like getting dealt an ace at the blackjack table. A strong position to be in.
"I wanted to push as hard as I could on the rights, and then the lefts, it's harder for me to go big because I'm on my backside, so I just wanted to finish the wave," said Colapinto. "Tomorrow I'll get one more wave on each side and just be going for it again."
Watching from the wings was Jake Patterson. The former world tour competitor, and coach to both Colapinto and Igarashi, was satisfied with his surfers' performances.
"You can't win it today ... but you can definitely make it harder on yourself on Saturday," noted Patterson, pointing to the fact that all surfers will only have one more left and one more right to try and make the 8-man final.
Keeping the California vibes strong, Kolohe Andino responded immediately. A pair of mid-range 7s allowed him to slide into second on the leaderboard for the moment. He finished in fifth seed at day's end.
"I watched Griffin and Kanoa's waves. I definitely have my run dialed, but it looks like they did too," said Andino. "I've been up here with Griffin and we've been getting psyched on going big in the beginning and big in the end."
After the initial flurry of scores it took a few waves for things to shift again. Jordy Smith followed the same path as Andino, tallying a pair of 7-point rides and ending the day in the seven spot.
Then big 6'3" Owen Wright got his turn to manhandle the wave. Straight out of the gates he went to work on the left. A series of powerful, full-finned turns, combined with a few progressive flourishes got him the first and only 8-point ride of the day, and it helped vault him into third.
"It's crazy how similar this competition is to our practice sessions. In our practice session a lot of guys weren't making them [the left], and the same here today, so it's pretty similar," said Wright. "I feel like I have a pretty good mindset of handling that pressure and I'm just stoked to have the opportunity. Sometimes in the ocean you just don't get it, so to be given that I'm taking all the positives. I'm just loving it."
Watch live tomorrow starting at 8 am. PDT on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook. All surfers have now completed their first two Runs of the Qualifying Round. They will surf in their final Qualifying Run tomorrow, with Finals day on Sunday.