All eyes are on 20-year-old Gabriel Medina. They've been on him before, such as when he won two events in his rookie season in 2012, but not like this. After his surprise victory at the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast, he's very quickly become a marked man.
As the second event of the 2014 ASP World Tour season, the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, gets under way, Medina will attempt to steady himself and bear down in untested water. The return to Western Australia's Margaret River, a tricky offshore reef that holds surf anywhere from 4-15 feet, marks the first time in more than a decade that the break has been upgraded from a qualifying series event to a bona fide world tour stop. Obviously this makes it difficult to surmise who's favored in West Oz's oft powerful and temperamental conditions, but you can find Medina's name in every conversation.
Hawaii's John John Florence won the WQS version of the contest in 2012, while last year Australia's Josh Kerr finished second to Dusty Payne (who did not make the ASP Top 34 this year). Logic would dictate Florence and Kerr would have a fair bit of confidence coming off of those results. Taj Burrow will also be surfing with something to prove, and for the first time in more than 10 years, he'll enjoy home-court advantage. Of course, there's also Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and all the usual suspects to consider. All have their various motivations for "needing" a result in West Oz.
But back to Medina. In October 2012, the Brazilian prodigy surfed a contentious Round 4 heat against Slater at the Quiksilver Pro France. The waves were big and messy at La Graviere, and Medina harassed Slater to no end, much as his Brazilian compatriot, Adriano De Souza, had done in Puerto Rico two years prior. Medina paddled underneath Slater on one of the best waves and was called for an interference. On the sand, Slater, then 40, confronted Medina and gave him a serious tongue-lashing. Medina's tactics had taken both of them out of the heat and had handed it to Kieren Perrow (the third surfer in their three-man heat). One might expect a high school-aged kid to apologetically back down to a forcefully delivered lecture from the 11-time world champion, but Medina stood tall. He looked Slater straight in the eye and calmly said three words: "It's a competition."
Medina's philosophy is simple: Win by any means necessary. That's a wonderful thing for pro surfing. Why? Because pro surfing is at its best when it has a great antagonist. Andy Irons battling Slater in the early- to mid-2000s was the stuff of a legend. Competitive surfing's worldwide popularity blossomed as a result of their intense disdain for each other. Rivalries drive sport, and there's nothing even remotely like that in surfing today. There are no heroes or villains.
Slater's the undisputed king, and save for Medina and De Souza, nobody's figured out how to push his buttons. Fanning and Parkinson may be our last two ASP world champions, but when was the last time either of them got a little chippy?
In his native Brazil, Medina's profile is quickly rising, but in the major surf markets of the United States and Australia, he's far from the golden boy. He gets far less exposure than his peers on tour such as Florence, Andino, Wilson, Owen Wright or Jordy Smith. Yet he's won more big league events than all of them. He doesn't star in Kai Neville's hipster surf flicks or show up in an overwhelming amount of editorial features (save his recent first-place finish in Surfer magazine's "Hot 100," which ranks the top junior surfers in the world). He's not even in the top 10 of Transworld Business's Exposure-Meter.
But Medina doesn't seem to care. For him they're all irrelevant distractions. It's inconsequential if he's not deemed cool by the establishment, or blows off interviews, or is known as a hassle during heats. And it's simplistic to ascribe his popularity problem to cultural differences. His problem is that he wants to win, sometimes too much, and in surfing, that's not always that cool. He's not on tour to make friends. He travels with his family and close friends from back home, and he's insulated from the malarky of the tour scene. He's there's to do one thing, and he's eyeing the lineup at Margaret River with all the best intentions.