At the end of 2019, Owen Wright, Julian Wilson, and Michel Bourez all had very good reasons to be extremely happy with their lot. They had finished 9th, 11th and 13th on the CT rankings respectively, which was enough to cement their spots for surfing's debut at the 2020 Olympics.
Now, all in the veteran phase of their careers, their performances showed they all still had the mix of power, progression, and experience to perform when it mattered. Heck, it could have even landed them a historic gold medal.
Obviously, the pandemic led to the cancellation of the CT in 2020 and the postponement of the Tokyo Games until August this year. However, after three CT events, the trio is now languishing in the bottom third of the leaderboard. Seeing one of these stalwarts ranked in the low 20s is unusual; having them all in the relegation zone is an anomaly we haven't seen in sometime.
Owen Wright may have the best case for his ranking not reflecting his form. For starters, the goofyfooter missed the Pipe event due to the birth of his second child. And despite his freesurfing clips showing him surfing with a new sharpness on shorter boards developed with the Tokyo beachbreaks in mind, the waves at both Newcastle and Narrabeen didn't play to his strengths.
He also had the highest losing heat total of the Round of 16 at Newcastle when defeated by Ryan Callinan. At Narrabeen, he was bested by Ethan Ewing, though again posting decent numbers in his Round of 32 loss. With his underlying form, and as one of the most powerful surfers on the CT, the move to Western Australia should reignite a charge up the leaderboard.
His compatriot Julian Wilson's form, though, has been more worrying. While a loss to Jack Robinson at Pipeline can be put down to an unlucky draw, the early-round losses at both Newcastle and Narrabeen were harder to justify.
Whilst Wilson has been dropping clips showing that his all-round game remains at the very pointy end of the sport, he hasn't been able to repeat that dynamism in competition. While World Title frontrunners Italo Ferreira and Gabriel Medina have looked to be freesurfing with a singlet, Julian was left stranded watching them after sluggish defeats to Adriano de Souza and Morgan Cibilic.
Like Wright, the two events in Western Australia provide good hope of a reset. Wilson recently had a Semifinal finish in 2019 and a runner-up in 2016 at Margaret River. His versatility means he is equally comfortable at Main Break, The Box, or North Point. Strickland Bay too should reward a surfer who can hit the lip, or soar above it, no matter the size. Surely, a surfer of his talent will post a result soon.
In many ways Michel Bourez has had a similar return to competition as Julian. Like Wilson, he was a former Pipe Master knocked out in the Round of 32 in Hawaii. He also failed to get past that round in Newcastle and Narrabeen. His 8.83 average heat total for 2021, with just one heat win, shows how far off the pace the Tahitian has been.
However, at the risk of repeating ourselves, his brand of power surfing, just like Wright and Wilson, is better suited to the conditions on the West Coast of Australia rather than the East Coast. He's won at Margaret River before and loves the raw intensity of the reef breaks in that patch. At 35, and never really known for his air game, it will be "The Spartan's" massive turns, big barrels, and huge spray that will get him back to the level that secured his Olympic qualification 18 months ago.
It might be the case that all three surfers have been distracted by the Olympics. The postponements and uncertainty can't have helped, and there's no doubt that the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win surfing's first Gold medal has to take up some internal bandwidth. Yet they would have all started the season aiming to make the Rip Curl WSL Finals at Trestles.
The three legends are supremely capable of achieving that, even if their collective slow start has made it a more difficult task. The next two events are crucial for the trio. Any more slip up in West, and the Olympics might soon be their only chance of success in 2021.