The ASP's Brazilian Threat
Poor Gabriel Medina's stepfather, Charlie. Over the course of an exhausting day that saw 15 heats of the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Australia (and three heats of the Roxy Pro) decided along Snapper's ever-shifting sand bank, the head of Medina's support crew was ever-shifting himself, and it was agony to watch. With a balled fist ground under his chin, supported by a forearm wrapped grimly around his own chest, Charlie spent every heat looking like the weight of an entire surf-mad nation was resting on his shoulders. Also, like he'd eaten a bad piece of fish.
But it wasn't his shoulders supporting the hopes of his native Brazil. That responsibility fell to 20-year-old Gabriel, who looked decidedly more stoic. Over the last 10 years, only four surfers have won the WCT Gold Coast event: Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson and Taj Burrow. On March 11, in temperamental 6-foot Snapper, Medina took down Fanning, Burrow, and Parkinson en route to becoming the event's first Brazilian champion.
"It's the best day of my life, for sure," Medina said to ASP commentator Rosie Hodge after being chaired up the beach. "It's an honor just to be competing against these guys. Mick was champ last year, Parko was champ as well, Taj -- all these guys I watch on videos ... It's weird, today I beat them."
The grim scowl on Charlie's face was symbolic of just how much the Brazilians want 2014 to be their year. And while it's a little early to assign any story lines, let's give credit where it's due: the Brazilians were the story of the first event, at least.
Medina was one of three Brazilians in the quarterfinal, where he was joined by Miguel Pupo and Adriano De Souza. Pupo ruined the ASP's preferred feel-good story by scuttling Owen Wright's comeback in Round 3 before taking out Josh Kerr en route to a quarterfinal loss to Parkinson. And De Souza, who's scrappy style remains divisive among surf fans for its less-than-graceful opportunism, did what he seems to always do lately: beat 11-time world champ Kelly Slater. In head-to-head competition, De Souza has beat Slater five consecutive times over the last four years.
De Souza was gracious in victory, as he's been at pains to be since the two had their altercation in the water at the 2011 Hurley Pro. "I just want to say I respect so much Kelly Slater, and this is nothing compared to what he's done in the sport," he told Hodge.
Slater, for his part, gave De Souza tepid credit for being "on the better end of the sets" in their quarterfinal matchup. Somewhere in the competitors area, Charlie stared daggers into the South Pacific Ocean.
There was a time when national rivalries in surfing had a nasty jingoistic edge to them, and being in the wrong place in the wrong country could result in a beat down on the beach. Those days may be mostly behind us, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a congratulatory air hanging over much of the event's final after Parkinson opened with a nine-point ride just two minutes in. It was, after all, a very similar wave to the one Parko took De Souza down with early in their semifinal, sending the elder Brazilian scurrying for unmade barrel after unmade barrel. As Surfing Life's Wade Davis pointed out, the Snapper Boardriders Club erupted in a riotous and very public display of the kind of relief poor Charlie refused to allow himself all day long.
To be fair, Gabriel didn't give him much reason to relax. He led for less than two minutes at the 26-minute mark of the final before Parko backed up the nine with a 6.83 and then a 7.27, at which point it looked like the Brazilian effort was going to end with a tidy "Good on ya, mate," before the Aussies celebrated yet another Quik Pro title. And then, with seven-and-a-half minutes remaining, Medina strung together an 8.50 and a 7.83 to squeak into the lead by a mere .06 of a point.
Parko, needing a 7.33, had his shot with just under two minutes on the clock. It had all the makings necessary to wrestle the lead back, but he came unstuck on the final floater. Maybe it was just the setting sun, or maybe it was the fact that he was surfing his fourth heat in nine hours, but it looked to all the world like Parko was simply out of gas. As the scores dropped, Gabriel made his way to the beach slowly, clearly overcome with the sort of emotions old Charlie managed to keep at bay even as he met his stepson at the water's edge.
You'd have to be grasping pretty hard for metaphors to see Parko's failure to reassert himself as symbolic of some larger changing of the guard. The sweep of surfing history doesn't play out in one heat, and it's not visible from the perspective of a single event, let alone the first event of the season. If anything, the biggest lesson from 10 days on the Gold Coast is that very little has changed since last year; the old guys remain lethal with their combination of big-boy power and wizened tactics, the young guys are as likely to take themselves out of a heat through inexperience as they are to slack jaws with green-boned maneuvers, and the "new ASP" is pretty much the same as it ever was.
Still, if you're looking for something symbolic to glean from the proceedings, you could do worse than to hang your hat on this: As Gabriel accepted his trophy before a crowd that was vocally more Brazilian than Australian, he thanked first and foremost his stepdad, Charlie. The webcast cut to the old man as he visibly fought tears back and, for the first time all day, let a huge smile break across his face. There's your barometer for Brazilian performance so far this year, people, and he likes what he sees.
A Brazilian is your Quik Pro champion. A Brazilian leads the WCT standings. A Brazilian appears to have Kelly Slater's number. Of course, it's early days, but so far those days belong to Brazil.