Kanoa’s heroics earn Zeke improbable inclusion for 2017

When John John Florence locked up the 2016 world title in Portugal, it seemed to render the eventual finals day at the Pipe Masters mostly ceremonial.

It turned out to be anything but.

Even though the ultimate outcome wouldn’t determine the final yellow jersey owner, it was a most exciting day of action and had a huge impact on the lives of some young surfers.

After Sebastian Zietz knocked out Frederico Morais in round three, the door was left open for a number of potential Triple Crown champions. John John Florence took advantage of that opening, though he was eliminated in the quarterfinals and is still searching for his first Pipe Masters title. However, his result was just enough to secure his third Triple Crown title, just outpacing Jordy Smith, who also fell in the quarterfinals.

And therein lies the true heart-stopping heat of the day. In the quarters, Smith took on an inspired Kanoa Igarashi, who had a lot more pressure on him than just his own ambitions. As Nat Young succeeded early on in the event, it looked like Ezekiel Lau would remain on the outside looking in as far as 2017 qualification. Young topped Jadson Andre in round two and Adriano de Souza in round three, looking pretty safe to re-qualify. It would take a career performance from Igarashi to alter that outcome.

But there was Igarashi, still making his way through the draw. He knocked off former Pipe Master Julian Wilson, then topped Kelly Slater and Smith in a three-man heat to jump into the quarterfinals. When Young was finally knocked out in round five, all of a sudden a single heat result was all that stood between Lau and 2017 Championship Tour inclusion. That heat result was on Igarashi’s shoulders.

Doing for others is a common ideal this time of year, but in an individual sport like surfing, it’s not often seen. As one of Lau’s best friends, it’s difficult to imagine the type of emotions that Igarashi must have been feeling before and during his quarterfinal, knowing that this single heat win would get Lau on tour.

He fell behind for much of the early going as Smith picked up a couple of scores, but his first attempt created a fire storm of excitement on the beach. Igarashi dropped deep into a Backdoor barrel and hid from sight. He initially appeared to be too deep, but the tube remained hollow and faked out spectators by continuing to form beautifully. Igarashi stayed behind the curtain until the last conceivable moment when he rode out leaning back with a look of both elation and determination. The Quiksilver house went nuts and the 9.93 score that came through made an impossible dream suddenly incredibly realistic.

He still needed to find a good backup because Smith was continuing to add to his total. Igarashi pulled slightly ahead with a medium wave, but he cemented his lead with three minutes remaining in another Backdoor barrel that netted an 8.10 score.

When the horn sounded, it was Lau officially into the mix and Young with the unenviable task of re-qualifying. Not only is it a huge dream come true for Lau, but it’s a very significant financial boost. He made just over $41,000 on the Qualifying Series this year. Surfing a full schedule on next year’s Championship Tour will earn him at least $100,000.

Igarashi didn’t rest on his laurels as he went on to knock off Slater in the semifinals. His confidence was obviously at a career high as he headed into his first CT final, but the entire heat was a bit of a lull in terms of waves and Michel Bourez picked up the Pipe Masters title with just a 7.53 total.

For Bourez, it’s his first CT win since the 2014 Rio Pro, and gives him a win at all three Triple Crown venues.

With next year’s lineup now set, Hawaii will have three surfers on the men’s CT: Florence, Zietz and Lau. Dusty Payne and Keanu Asing did not re-qualify, though it’s likely we’ll see them back on the CT at some point.

Florence tops the 2016 rankings, followed by Smith, Gabriel Medina, Kolohe Andino and Matt Wilkinson rounding out the top five. Bourez finishes sixth, followed by Slater, Wilson, Joel Parkinson, Filipe Toledo, de Souza, and Zietz in 12th place.

For Zietz, it’s his best ever CT finish, coming in a year when he didn’t even begin as a full-time CT member.

Even when everything seems to be all hashed out, there’s usually something fascinating that rears its head in the WSL. Now it’s on to next season and a new slate of excitement.

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David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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