By Phil Jarratt
Well, there are surf contests, and then there are surf contests that reach out and take you to a whole new emotional place.
Trolling through social media last Sunday evening after returning from a lightning dash to Snapper Rocks to catch the end of the Quiksilver and Roxy Pros, I found among the usual rants from couch potato judges – “Kelly wuz robbed etc etc” – a comment from someone still reeling from Owen Wright’s fairy tale comeback. “I’ve never watched a surfing contest that made me cry before.”
Exactly. I blubbered all the way through the last 10 minutes of the final as it became apparent that defending champ Matt Wilkinson wasn’t going to catch the gentle giant who a year ago looked as though he would never lead a normal life again, let alone win a world tour event, and I was a complete mess as the hooter sounded and Wilko slid off his board to embrace his friend and rival.
Unlike my Facebook friend, this wasn’t the first time a world tour event had reduced me to tears. Not quite two years ago I was howling at the moon in the middle of the night as Mick Fanning fought for his life on the other side of the world, and Julian Wilson paddled bravely towards him to help. I shed a tear when friends and enemies of Andy Irons put everything on hold to mourn his passing.
But this was different, because just a month ago it seemed it would never happen, that the greatest comeback story in the history of surfing would never be written.
As he revealed in an emotional post-final interview, Owen Wright’s doctors warned him that the psychological scars from his horrific Pipeline head injury might render him incapable of any kind of stressful competitive situation. Having lived through hell over 15 months of recuperation, during which time he and his partner were blessed with a son, Owen had to think very seriously about where his priorities lay.
He thought it through, then he thought some more, and then he stopped thinking, put on a jersey and went surfing.
And what a joy it was to see those effortless backhand lines, those vertical hacks all linked together down the line in the perfect definition of the judging criteria’s “speed, power and flow”. From his very first heat at Snapper, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Big O was back.
Siblings Tyler (the reigning world women’s champion) and Mikey (the mulleted wildcard who is about to set the world on fire) also surfed with distinction throughout the Quiksilver and Roxy events, but they can have had no prouder moment than when they waded into Rainbow Bay to hoist their big bro – all two metres plus of him – onto their shoulders and chair him up the beach.
These were all magical moments, and if you were washing your hair last Sunday and somehow managed to miss it all, no matter what you think of pro surfing’s world tour, I urge you to go to worldsurfingleague.com and dig it out.
Sport exists to bring out the best in people, and Owen Wright’s comeback is the greatest example of this maxim that I have seen in a long, long time.
Of course it wasn’t just the Wright Family Circus. There were plenty of other highlights. Arriving at the Snapper site early on Sunday morning, my daughter Ellie and I ran into Kelly Slater and said hello. She gave him a peck on the cheek and he prompty went out and controversially went down to Brazil’s Gabby Medina after having surfed brilliantly all event. Must have been the kiss of death.
Let’s not forget Stephanie Gilmore, the smiling, gracious queen of Snapper, who is the only woman who sits behind the rock with Mick and Joel and pulls in on anything. The brilliant Santa Barbarian Lakey Peterson took her all the way to the final, but no-one can beat a fired-up Steph at home. I think Lakey will win a world title, but she might have to wait until Steph equals Layne Beachley’s seven.
And then there was the charge of the goofies, a subject dear to my heart. In addition to the aforementioned Wright, Wilko and Medina, who finished first, second and third respectively, Brazil’s Italo Ferreira and Cronulla rookie Conner O’Leary both impressed with equal fifth places.
I’ve been watching Ferreira’s low centre of gravity backhand power explosions for a couple of seasons now, but this was the first time I’d seen O’Leary, another big solid boy whose backside attack is smooth as silk.
In all, it was a great season opener, and augers well for a good tour year, despite some financial issues facing the WSL.
Call me a groupie, but I’m off to Margaret River at the weekend to catch some of the Drug Awareness Pro.