World No. 1 Gabriel Medina did exactly what he needed to do on the opening day of the Billabong Pipe Masters. He won the heat and put fellow Title contenders Julian Wilson and Filipe Toledo on notice that he's come to Hawaii with one thing on his mind: A second World Title.
In blustery conditions, a steep north swell pushed the surf into the 6-8 ft. range, providing the opportunities to both find the odd diamond-in-the-rough barrel, as well as take to the air.
"That was a tough heat because the waves are kind of messy and it's really windy out there, but I'm happy to make it through," said Medina after dispatching Connor O'Leary and Benji Brand to Round 2. "I got a couple fun waves even though it was hard. I'm feeling good."
Focused and dialed into exactly what he has to do, Medina launched a couple of impressive airs, as well as found a bit of tube time. Appreciative of the win, he was clear that it's just the first step towards clinching the Title.
"I want to make the Final, I know I need to do that, so I'll keep focusing on my mission and hopefully I can reach it. The good thing is I'm feeling good," said Medina.
Prior to Medina, World No. 2 Toledo was upset by Matt Wilkinson, who's career on Tour rests on his result at Pipe. Several minutes into the heat, a rain squall roughed up the conditions, making it especially challenging. Toledo never appeared to find his rhythm, only posting a pair of two-point rides for a combined heat score of 5.04. He will now face Brand in Round 2 in an elimination heat.
Wilson put in a considerably more steely performance in the next heat. Wildcard Seth Moniz is surfing in the Pipe Masters as a replacement for John John Florence and although still struggling with a knee injury, Wilson trailed him for much of the heat. With four minutes remaining, Wilson clicked into a wave at Backdoor, conjuring a 5.57 thanks to a series of turns. It was enough to turn the heat and advance him into Round 3.
"I think when the waves are good and you have a good heat it feels good, but I think those ones you have to grind through mean a lot," said Wilson. "To dig deep and get a win, it feels good."
Medina took to the water after Wilson, who made point of keeping his eyes trained on the Pipe lineup.
"I'm a massive surf fan, so I'll watch the best surfers as much as I can. I'll definitely see how Medina approaches his heat," said Wilson. "It's tricky out there, but I think going frontside into the wind will give him more opportunity."
The day got underway with the return of 11x World Champion Kelly Slater making his return to competition. Struggling with a foot injury throughout the year, the last time Slater donned a jersey was his third-place finish at the Surf Ranch Pro back in September.
Facing Jordy Smith and Frederico Morais in the first heat of the Pipe Masters, Smith found a 7-point ride in the opening minutes of the heat. Trailing him, Slater made a strong comeback bid, finding an 8.00 for a Backdoor tube but it wasn't enough to keep him out of Round 2.
"I thought it would be exciting to be here with the World Title going down, just to kind of be amongst it and see what happens," said Slater about his motivation for returning to competition at Pipeline. "Whether I get a heat with one of those guys it doesn't really matter, it's more the chance to surf Pipeline without anybody out. It's so dog eat dog out there on a normal day."
Familiar with the pressure of a World Title race at Pipe, Slater sees his role this year as that of a potential spoiler.
"I'd love to surf against those guys," he explained. "It would either be Gabriel early, where it would matter, so those other guys could have a shot. Or if he didn't lose early and I can be one those guys in the Final and factor in for Julian or Filipe, I think that would be pretty exciting. I think Julian probably has the most pressure really. Filipe, I don't think anyone has huge expectations for him. He hasn't had a big performance at Pipeline yet, Julian has. Gabriel, I think early on he has the most pressure because he has to get to a certain point, but I think he'll relax."
If Medina was feeling any pressure, he certainly didn't show it today. He appeared to be a man in firm control of his destiny.
In the race for the 2018 Vans Triple Crown, Joel Parkinson posted an 8.33, and was the only surfer in the Top 3 on the Triple Crown leaderboard to advance directly into Round 3. Jesse Mendes and Ezekiel Lau were both relegated to Round 2, where they'll face elimination from the Pipe Masters if they can't come up with a win. Smith and defending Triple Crown champ Griffin Colapinto were the only other surfers in the Top 10 on the Triple Crown leaderboard to advance into Round 3.
Parko's result today pushed him into the No.1 spot on the Vans Triple Crown rankings.
Watch the Billabong Pipe Masters live December 8-20 on Facebook.com/wsllive, Worldsurfleague.com, and the WSL App.