"Ryan Callinan just seems so clear in his mind where he wants to go this year,'' WSL commentator Ronnie Blakey observed in the early rounds of the Margaret River Pro. "More and more he's looking like a top 10 surfer."
Blakey's observation proved astute. Callinan's Quarterfinal finish in Margaret River moved him up to the World No. 7. Heading into the Oi Rio Pro the 27-year-old is surfing with such confidence and consistency that you'd back him to keep that position, at least, all the way through the end of the season.
Such has been the huge strides he's made, it's incredible to think that it was only 12 months ago that Callinan was surfing on the QS, unsure of just how ready he was to return to the CT. His rookie year in 2016 had been blighted by a personal trauma, his father died early in the season, but also by mistakes.
Unforced errors both in his surfing and his heat strategy were costing him dearly. As he fell down the rankings he was also continually matched with the top seeds early and despite showing flashes of brilliance, his relegation was inevitable.
"I'm way more consistent than I was two years ago," Callinan told the WSL. "I'm putting together heats well. I really think if I put myself on the bigger and best waves, it allows me to open up and I feel I can perform and get those excellent scores. That's a big difference from the first time round."
It was well documented that Callinan's competitive world changed in Europe last year. After securing his CT spot with a QS 10,000 win in Ericeira, he then made the Final of the Quiksilver Pro France as a wildcard, followed by solid performances in both Portugal and Pipeline. Those three CT events, surfed without any pressure, gave a solid platform for his permanent return in 2019.
Apart from that experience, which helped cement his belief that he "belonged" on the CT, Callinan has also changed his mental approach compared to that trying rookie year.
"The old school approach of doing whatever it takes, and paddling over people and pushing the line in terms of hassling doesn't work for everyone and Ryan is a case in point," said his coach Richard Marsh.
"We worked together on ways to stand his ground and compete at the right time to the right level and right intensity, but also be true to himself," the coach and former top 16 surfer continued. "Ryan wants his surfing to do the talking. That's his thing. It's a different head space than some surfers operate in, but it has been working for him."
That is inarguable. After a poor start on the Gold Coast the Novocastrian made the Semifinals at Bells, before consolidating with a 9th in Bali and the Quarterfinal finish in Margaret River. It's worth noting his best finish in 2016 was 9th. Such has been the improvement it has only been the best surfers that have taken him out. His four defeats in 2019 have come at the hands of Filipe Toledo (twice), Julian Wilson and Jordy Smith.
The challenge now going into Brazil is to not only maintain his incredible start, but step up his performance levels so that he is regularly beating the world's best surfers. Having learned his lessons from his first year on the CT, that now seems well within his grasp.
Watch the Oi Rio Pro live June 20-28 on Worldsurfleague.com, App and Facebook.