Just a day prior to the start of the Oi Rio Pro, 11-time world champ Kelly Slater withdrew from the event with back issues. At 45 years of age, it’s certainly no shock to imagine Slater having back pain with the steady dose of travel and competition he’s experienced throughout his unparalleled career. But seeing him in a jersey at every stop on tour has been the consistent image for decades now, so it’s unusual to witness an event without him.
Except for Rio.
For one reason or another, the only three contests that Slater has missed in the past six seasons have been the Rio Pro (2012, 2016, 2017). He’s managed to make every other contest with typically stellar results.
It could simply be that Slater, who made it known at the end of 2016 that he’d be going after a world title in 2017, felt like a good result was out of the question for him at Saquarema. Rather than expend the energy required to get out there in the new beach break, he decided to heal up and shift his focus to the year’s final seven contests — a few of which are certainly his favorites.
Had he decided to give it a go despite being at less than full strength, that would have taken an opportunity from someone else. In this case, it was Bino Lopes who benefited from his decision with the injury wild card spot.
Without Slater in the field, day one was an interesting one at Saquarema. The men had some good performances throughout their first round, while the women had a much tougher time navigating what could be some very tricky and bumpy rides.
Things started on a down note for the home crowd as Nat Young just outpointed Gabriel Medina in the opening heat to earn the jump directly into round three. Young, who is trying to re-qualify and has received a wild-card entry into all four contests thus far, looked solid going right on his backhand. That forced Medina into an elimination heat against Jesse Mendes in round two.
Overall, the Brazilian men weren’t all that successful on day one. Adriano de Souza, Filipe Toledo and Ian Gouveia won their opening heats while Medina, Mendes, Lopes, Jadson Andre, Wiggolly Dantas, Yago Dora, Miguel Pupo and Caio Ibelli all went to round two.
For the women, calling their round one inconsistent would be a stretch. Things were shaky from the start as Carissa Moore and Laura Enever each managed just one scoring wave apiece in the first heat. Sage Erickson found a pair to ride and moved on as the other two were frustratingly relegated to elimination heats.
The same thing occurred just two heats later when Stephanie Gilmore advanced on only a 6.33 total. That came on just one wave, but her opponents fared far worse. Wild card Taina Hinckel had one ride for a 1.50 score and rookie Keely Andrew’s only wave netted her a 0.50 score.
Hopefully the women get improving opportunities throughout the rest of the contest.
But Slater’s absence from this event, despite its rarity, doesn’t eliminate the most prevalent story lines involving John John Florence, Jordy Smith, Owen Wright, Medina and others. However, his willingness to not compete in Rio does make me curious if there’s something more than just some back pain. Perhaps it’s just a trip he doesn’t love making and he felt like eyeing the rest of 2017 was better for his mental state than a contest he doesn’t love for a result he wasn’t optimistic about.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.