With the start of the Championship Tour set to kick off in Hawaii in December, we're taking a look at eight of the toughest competitors on Tour. To be the best you gotta beat the best, and these are the dreaded heat draws.
The numbers don't lie. Since 2014, Gabriel Medina had made four Billabong Pipe Masters Finals, won two of them, as well as clinched two World Titles at Ehukai Beach Park.
Now, we can talk about the two-decade-long run of success that has made Kelly Slater the best surfer at Pipe. It's also right to discuss the affinity that John John Florence has with the wave that soundtracks his sleep. Yet when the Championship Tour season kicks off this December a very good argument can be made that no man is harder to beat at Pipe right now than Medina.
He has won an astounding 70-percent of his heats at Pipe, the highest percentage of any active surfer on Tour. He first made his rookie appearance at Pipe in 2011, having already won two CTs since coming on Tour mid-year. That he made the Quarterfinals as a spindly 17-year-old, defeating Shane Dorian on the way, might have been a signpost.
However, the surf world was more myopic back in those days and the signs weren't being heeded. Brazilians were stereotyped as beachbreak specialists and portrayed as unable, or even more damaging, unwilling to step up at surfing's most fearsome testing ground.
Gabe's average results at Pipeline in 2012 and 2013 didn't give reason to challenge those lazy assumptions. But at the 2014 Pipe Masters, in a series of clutch 30-minute heats in big Pipe, he obliterated those stereotypes.
Each win had piled more pressure on Mick Fanning, the only other surfer left in contention for the World Title, until he buckled in Round 5. Medina had won his, and Brazil's, first Title. And he still had enough desire to make to the Final and log a 10. It ultimately took a near-perfect heat score by Julian Wilson to deny him a Pipe Masters victory. It's worth mentioning, Gabe was just 20 at the time.
That was a performance that set the template for Medina's subsequent Pipe success. His instinctive tube riding ability, mastery of the lineup and out-and-out bravery is perhaps matched only by a handful of elite Pipe performers. Yet none of his peers' packages come iced in competitive desire like the Brazilian's.
The Greek poet Archilochus wrote that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. At Pipe, Medina is the fox. He has different strategies for different problems. He is comfortable with nuance and can live with contradictions. Or, in other words, he will do whatever it takes to win at Pipe.
In 2015, on the way to another Final, he defeated Fanning and ended the Australian's World Title hopes courtesy a huge 360 aerial. Purists derided the decision. That was a hedgehog way of thinking. Traditionally, Pipe had only been won by getting barreled. Medina thoroughly outfoxed them.
In 2017, he used his priority to drop in on Slater, who was scorching through a perfect Backdoor screamer. It was a ten-pointer for the GOAT, until Medina's timely intervention (see at the 9.00 minute mark below) made it a zero.
In 2019, it was another drop-in, this time without priority, that was another kick to the surfing applecart. Holding a substantial lead over Caio Ibelli, Gabby knew his second-highest score was enough to win the heat and knowingly interfered with Ibelli's final wave to make that happen.
It was a brazen yet strategic move to keep Ibelli from scoring a 5.67 or higher. World Champion and commentator Barton Lynch said at the time, "This might be one of the cleverest tactical maneuvers we've seen in the history of the sport."
However, yet again, these examples simply lure us all into Medina's foxhole. It's sometimes easier to concentrate on the controversial priority tricks and drops-ins. Sure, they've won him a few heats, but the vast majority have been secured by paddling out and throwing himself over the ledge.
There is no better example than the 2018 event. In the Quarterfinals, where a win would clinch his second World Title and a loss would lose it, his opponent, Conner Coffin, jumped out to an early lead. Medina didn't flinch. He quickly bagged a near-perfect 9.43 for a deep Pipe tube and lofty frontside air.
In a heartbeat, he then locked into a gapping Backdoor cavern. Pulling into the tube without grabbing rail, he pumped and drove through the pit, eventually getting spit out down the beach near Off The Wall. The judges awarded him with the only 10-point ride of the 2018 Pipe Masters. That win secured him the Title. He kept his focus to clock two more heats and he then had his first Pipe Masters trophy too.
"I think winning Pipe is the hardest one to win. You have to be good at Backdoor and Pipe at the same time. Just getting barreled is not enough. You have to be deep, you have to get the best ones," Medina said afterward. "It's great to have this opportunity and put my name alongside all the other Pipe heroes."
This year, whoever wants to put their name on the famous trophy will have to do one of the most difficult tasks in surfing; beat Gabriel Medina at Pipeline.