The ocean has a way of sorting things out. Amidst two days of giant surf at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the 2019 Championship Tour picture got a lot more clear. The pace has been set.
Back from their respective injuries, John John Florence and Courtney Conlogue rose to the top in Torquay with their powerful, authoritative performances. Now adorned in the gold Jeep Leader Jersey, Florence finds himself back in familiar territory. Meanwhile, Conlogue shot up the rankings and now sits in 3rd -- striking distance of the pole position.
There are ample parallels when it comes to the performances put in by the two. Most apparent was that both were consistently the sharpest with their rail game -- attacking huge, cascading sections with the utmost confidence. It was the differentiating factor that served them well throughout the contest.
The motivation for Conlogue and Florence was also very much the same. Both saw their 2018 season dreams dashed by injury. For Conlogue, it was a hairline fracture in her foot before the start of the season start. For Florence, it was a knee injury sustained in Bali.
Conlogue's return to glory came last year with her breakthrough win on home turf at the U.S. Open in Huntington, where she bested the year's eventual World Champ Stephanie Gilmore in an emotional final.
"It's not been the easiest road to recovery, but I fought through it all and now I'm standing here on top of the podium. It's unbelievable," Conlogue said from the beach.
She'd go on to notch another win at the Roxy Pro France. But childhood rival Carissa Moore proved to be a nagging thorn in her side, dishing out three of her four event losses throughout her up-and-down 2018 run.
But Conlogue, the preternatural athlete, wasn't about to let that happen to her in firing Bells conditions. When the two met in a highly anticipated Quarterfinal duel, Conlogue dropped the hammer on Moore. Now the two rivals are tied for three Bells wins apiece.
Florence's return to competition was a much more closely guarded secret. Ensconced at home on the North Shore for the better part of 2018, Florence staged a quiet comeback away from prying eyes. He not only rehabbed his knee, but the time out of the spotlight also appears to have re-energized his competitive zeal.
"I didn't shape John a board for six months," explained Jon Pyzel, Florence's longtime shaper. "That's the longest I've gone in 20 years without making him a board. So when it came to start looking at 2019, we were able to start with a clean slate. The silver lining to the injury was that it was actually a really good break for him."
If this story sounds familiar, look no further than another Bells great, Mick Fanning. In 2004, Fanning suffered a horrendous injury when he tore his hamstring off the bone after a mistimed floater. The injury could have ended his career, but instead he used the setback as motivation.
The injury lit a fire under Fanning and helped drive him to win three World Titles -- and four wins at Bells. He explained that before the injury, he hadn't been home for more than a month at a time in over five years. The surf game kept him on the constant move. The injury forced him to hit pause, slow down and reexamine his priorities.
If that same kind of fire burns in Conlogue and Florence, they're going to be a hard to stop this year. Conlogue's never won a World Title, and the win at Bells puts her in perfect position to make a strong Title run this season.
For Florence, after bagging back-to-back Titles in 2016 and 2017, he had to sit and watch Gabriel Medina rise above the rest last year. While he's too humble to say such things, it clearly didn't sit well with him as he dispatched Medina in a command performance in the Quarterfinals at Bells.
Defending a World Title is no easy feat. Gilmore and Medina started the season with all the eyes and pressure on them.
Meanwhile, through the first two contests of the 2019 season, Conlogue and Florence were able to remain a little more under the radar, carrying less expectations. That's all changed now. Conlogue and Florence have set the benchmark for performing in large, powerful surf this season. Let's see who, if anyone, can match them.