After dodging north winds all week and waiting for the conditions to align for the 2018 Billabong Pipe Masters, the elements came together for an exciting and, at times, unexpected day of competition. With a World Title on the line, the elite got down to the business end of the race.
Needing to make the Final to clinch the Title, Medina came out with all the fire and focus that's defined the second half of his season. With a large northwest swell building all morning, he had his work cutout for him in Round 3. Facing event wildcard Seth Moniz -- who's been newly announced as a 2019 CT rookie and blowing minds all winter -- it was a fierce back-and-forth duel for the entire heat.
"I knew that was going to be a hard one, it's really tricky out there," said Medina after dispatching the young Moniz, who was brimming with confidence after knocking CT veteran Owen Wright out of the contest earlier in the morning.
"Thank God for the bomb at the end," continued Medina. "It was a good heat."
Trying to keep pace with Medina, Julian Wilson was next on deck but it wasn't until the back half of the heat that he really got rolling.
Winning courtesy of a cavernous Backdoor barrel followed by classic rail work, Wilson advanced with an 8.43 heat score -- and gutted out another gritty victory as the current World No.2. His determination has defined his run at the Pipe Masters this year.
"I think making it to Finals day is pretty sick. Tomorrow could be all-time," smiled Wilson, relieved to surf another day. "I probably won't sleep much tonight, I'll be too excited to surf out there with only two guys out."
In terms of what it's going to take for him to win the Title, he's going to need Medina to slip up somewhere before the Final and then put in a career performance. A former Pipeline Master, he knows full well what it takes to win on the Banzai reef.
"I'll take my experience out here, take-off under the lip and try and give myself some chances and keep trying," explained Wilson. "That's all I was doing in that heat and it worked out. I'll keep the same formula for the rest of the event and hopefully that will keep the ball rolling."
At the start of the day Filipe Toledo, who's currently tied with Wilson at second in the world, had his work cut out for him. After a lackluster Round 1 performance, he found himself relegated to Round 2, where he was able to squeak out a win over wildcard and North Shore charger Benji Brand.
The elation didn't last long as shortly thereafter 11-time World Champ Kelly Slater won his Round 2 heat and the two were paired up against one another, news that surprised Kelly during his post-heat interview.
"To be honest, I've been kind of helping Filipe a little bit, just a few tips here and there, and I'm a little bummed I'm against him, but that's life," said Slater after his Round 2 victory. "I kind of wanted to stay out of it for another round, but it's all good, we'll have some fun."
Over the course of the last month Slater's taken time to help Toledo with his Pipe game, offering him tips about where to position himself and what waves to try and hunt down out there. But that help ended today.
Paired up in the final heat of Round 3, Toledo was unable to find his rhythm and put himself on the high-scoring rides he needed to beat Slater. Almost threading the needle on a solid Backdoor wave, had Toledo made it he may have been able to get himself in the heat, but he admitted that the wipeout he sustained trying to sneak out the doggy door at the end took it's toll on him.
"I took a really bad fall at the end of that wave. Everything flashed and then went black for a few seconds. I panicked for a little while, but it's alright. That's surfing," said Toledo, who was disappointed at falling out of the race, but took the loss in stride.
"I'm definitely proud of myself. I had an amazing year, not just in my professional life, but in every element of my life -- as a father, as a son, as a professional. It was really amazing. It's frustrating, for sure. I'm really sad at the moment, but it was an honor to surf with Kelly at heavy Pipe," continued Toledo.
Slater was also a bit disheartened by the victory, lamenting the fact that he'd beaten Toledo. He admitted that he was hoping to face Medina and potentially spoil his run.
"I wanted to help him out because he really had his back against the wall. He hasn't had very good results here, and just as a fan I wanted to see a good battle. I wanted to see a come-from-behind victory, or at least a good battle," said Slater, who was surfing with eight stitches in his hand after cutting himself on his fin surfing Velzyland last night. "I was really hoping I'd get Gabriel first early in the event, and being a low seed I knew there was a chance at it. That's just the way it goes, I felt bad."
Heading full steam into Finals Day, Medina continues to make the necessary steps to clinch his second World Title, but if we've learned anything the last few days at Pipeline, it's that you can never count Wilson out.
If Medina makes the Final, the 2018 World Title is his. If he finishes third (makes the Semis), Wilson needs to win the contest to win the Title. And if Medina gets knocked out before the Quarters, Wilson will need to make the Final at Pipe to capture the Title.
Watch the Billabong Pipe Masters live December 8-20 on Facebook.com/wsllive, Worldsurfleague.com, and the WSL App.