NORTH SHORE, O‘ahu — A much-heralded surfing coach and one-time highly ranked competitor in his own right, Australian Russell Lewis said the only way to beat Kelly Slater was to combo him with just a few seconds left in the heat. Slater, an eight-time World Championship Tour winner, is that volatile — he can score a perfect 10 with no time remaining on the clock.
On Thursday afternoon at Pipeline, though, the leash was on the other foot for the finals of the Rip Curl Pipeline Masters.
Despite three clinching the Hawaiian Triple Crown after Taj Burrow went down in the Round of 32, Kauaian Andy Irons has been overshadowed by Slater’s amazing return over the past two years.
It was only fitting, then, that the finals of one of the most prestigeous events on the circuit featured Irons, Slater, Rob Machado and Cory Lopez.
It could be argued that Thursday, though, Irons controlled the tempo even before the first boards touched the water. He left the other competitors standing —and wondering — on the grandstand, awaiting introduction, possible peeved and out of rhythm already.
With the 4- to 6-foot Hawaiian swell beginning to lose consistency, the waves coming fewer and farther between.
Knowing that, Slater started the heat with a few quick, deep barrels — rights and lefts that combo’d the entire field, including Irons. With less than 10 minutes left in the 35-minute championship heat, Slater’s 8.5 and 9.0 seemed insurmountable.
Except, perhaps, to Irons. On the horizon, far outside, the largest set of the afternoon came rumbling towards shore. Irons took the 14-foot drop free-falling just above the reef, bottom turned with his entire frame and squeaked through the thunder and foam and reappeared far down the beach.
Needing close to a 10 to be in the running, Irons was clearly disappointed with his 8.4. As the stunned crowd looked on, Irons, upon hearing the score while paddling back out, splashed water with each stroke in disgust. And with each splash, Irons seemed to gain momentum.
With only six minutes left, Irons, needing a 9.15 to overcome Slater, found himself in perfect position as a steep, thick barrel on the inside came crashing over the shelf. He spun his board around, negotiated another steep drop and landed inside the barrel of the hissing hole before the wave spit him back out. Emerging again, Irons performed a massive cutback in front of a cheering crowd and the judges’ stand.
This time they rewarded him with a 9.8, pushing Irons just a few decimal points ahead of Slater with three minutes left. Slater now needed a 9.3 to beat his rival, and still another set was seen on the horizon.
Irons and Slater —famous for last minute heroics — paddle-battled for the looming, backdoor right-hander. Irons was deeper so Slater had to back off — no way was Irons going to give Slater a chance for the wave and make history at Pipeline with a record number of ASP wins. Not in Hawai‘i, not at Pipe, and not at the most prestigious contest of them all.
Irons dropped in too far behind the peak and with seemingly no chance to make the wave, onlookers assumed it was a defensive move to block Slater from a scoring opportunity. Then, six seconds later, Irons emerged from the barrel unscathed, 100 yards down the beach, amazing the crowds, the judges and even Slater, who was desperately seeking a perfect 10.
Instead, amidst all the screams, the judges awarded Irons that 10, forcing a combo on Slater with just a few seconds left.
In victory, Irons controlled the tempo of the heat in a manner that only true champions can, with a heck of a lot of drama crammed between each breaking wave.
Irons demonstrated a fantastic demeanor and strength in the face of defeat. The turning point came when Irons took inspiration and motivation from his disappointing 8.4 rather than discouragement. He never gave up.
For his part, Slater is just as responsible for the level of competition. The man’s talents, stature and accomplishments drive Irons to better himself and push the performance of each to levels that are almost not of this world.