The cool thing about the Olympics or the Super Bowl or March Madness is that you don’t have to really know the sport you’re watching in any serious capacity to enjoy the show. It’s a grand finale, winner-takes-all, gladiator-style contest. Previous results mean nothing. You sit down, you watch, and you can see a champion crowned.
Add to that list the World Surf League (WSL). Since 1983, back when it was called the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP), pro surfing has been based on a total points system. And while that’s probably the fairest method to reflect the surfing someone does across a grueling season, packed international travel, it’s not exactly the most dynamic. To the point where it was quite common to see a champion crowned without having to win a single heat in the final event of the year. The WSL had counteracted this by putting the Pipeline Masters event, the #1 “bragging rights” contest in all of surfing, at the end of the tour, but the point remained — it wasn’t a structure that really allowed for casual fandom.
2021’s final — almost certain to be held Tuesday, September 14th at Lower Trestles in Southern California and streamed live on the World Surf League site and its YouTube channel — is a sort of hybrid. It honors the work of the #1 seed with a stairstep format of heats that all take place in a single day (both the men’s final and the women’s). It’s a bold setup that flings the door open to the casual fan who might just want to sit down and tune in to this one event.
As you can see, the whole structure is easy enough to understand. And the event itself is full of cool subplots that make for good viewing, even for the pro-surfing newcomer. Here are two of my favorites:
- Gabriel Medina is rich, successful, handsome, and surfs like he sorta hates the waves (but in a cool way). You can find articles about him potentially feuding or having a rivalry with most of the best surfers alive AND he’s having his dominance this season challenged via a format that he’s not particularly thrilled to be the test balloon for. Meaning that someone is going to face Medina, a famously chippy surfer, at a time when he has a very specific chip on his shoulder and is also supremely eager to win a championship. It’s all going to happen on a wave that favors his style nicely but his likely competition, Italo Ferreira, is also Brazilian and knows his surfing better than anyone else on the tour. Jesus, you couldn’t pay me to miss that.
- Steph Gilmore is in the running for the most “household name” surfer in this final event, because of her generation-spanning dominance. She won her first world title in 2007 and her seventh (!!!) in 2018. That’s… bananas. But to win the final at this event, she’d have to systematically take down three surfers (two of which are ranked higher than her at the moment) and then beat Carissa Moore, who has four world titles of her own since 2011 and just won gold at the Olympics. Could Steph pull off a series of upsets? Yes — she arguably understands how to surf with high stakes better than anyone. Will any of the field make it easy? F*ck no.
To preview the finale — stream it here throughout the day Tuesday, Spetember 14th — I spoke with the WSL’s Head of Competition, Jessi Miley-Dyer. Check out the following trailer for the event and see my full conversation Miley-Dyer below:
First and foremost, I want the newbie surf fan to understand that you guys have really in many ways created a prizefight environment where it’s a true five-way duel. As in five men and women step into the water; one man and one woman walk away champions.
It’s never been done that way in the WSL. Can you add some context there?
Winning in the water is… It’s such a big moment. And that’s for sure what we’re trying to do with this one-day event. Is to have a world champ and especially to have the men’s and women’s together. It has become hard to kind of understand how we’ve crowned world champions in the past, because of what we’ve had previously — these situations where someone’s reaching the pinnacle of their career and becoming the world champion, but they’re on the beach during the finals of the last event of the season.
This is a prizefight, as you say, winner takes all, that you’ve got to have that experience of winning in the water and kind of testing yourself against the other competitors on the biggest stage.
I think that’s so cool and I think it’ll do exactly what you want, which is bring surfing to a new audience and make it clear to people what the stakes are in every single moment and not have someone walk away and go, “Yeah, I just won this contest, but I actually, I was behind on points so the champion was crowned three weeks ago and… whatever.”
Before we get to the plot lines of the contest, the WSL did something that not everyone knows about that is incredibly progressive — creating equal prize purses across genders. This felt like a proactive decision more than a reactive decision, at least from the outside in. Especially in a sport where, whether or not the biggest sponsorship deals have historically gone to women, women have been used to market the sport over the decades in ways that are both positive and exploitive. So anything less than financial equity feels egregious.
Can you speak about that and how powerful that is and how much support it got across both men and women among the top pros?
It sounds really corny, but you can’t even overstate how powerful and symbolic those kinds of decisions are. I look at other sports here in America and I watch soccer, and those women still striving to be paid the same. And so for surfing and for us as the WSL to publicly put up a really strong message out there — that we value the men’s and women’s competitors equally — it’s a really important one for us. And one that was hugely well received.
I had so many people in tears on the day, because they just didn’t think that they would see something like that happen. It’s amazing for the WSL. To have them stand next to each other at Trestles and be equals as world champions — it’s huge for us. I’m hoping that it’s one of those goosebumps moments for the next generation of young women who have been watching what we’ve doing in the sport because they’re going to see a really… what’s the word? It’s a really obvious visual of the two of them standing next to each other at the pinnacle of surfing.
I remember when that decision came down, that it had very vocal support from everyone and just has been so powerful and such a great way to show that surfing is progressive. There’s also been a lot more visibility with the Black surf movement — with a recent piece in the New York Times and a huge paddle out coming up. How do you see surfing evolving next?
Something that I’m going to spend a lot of time doing, particularly as we come into 2022, is that we are regionalizing the first tier of qualification. By doing that, we’re hoping to open up access to different communities for the pro tour.
What will happen now is that you can compete within your region no matter where you are and you will be able to stay close to home and not spend so much money having to travel internationally. There’s obviously COVID, which has made travel harder, but we know that when you’re coming from different places, it could be hard to get visas. There are all sorts of logistical kinds of pieces to international travel.
So what we’re doing now is, each region will have an allocation of men and women who will compete locally — whether or not it’s in your own country or the region more broadly. You will then be able to qualify into The Challenger Series, which is the new tier that we’ve created. And that’s how you’ll go on to the Championship Tour. The idea that you can stay close to home, live in your community, and then give it a crack to be out there in the Championship Tour.
I love that.
It’s really cool.
So moving onto the finale event, what big storylines do you see coming into this event for the newcomer — the new fan, who maybe doesn’t understand all the context and history, but wants to know some of those exciting stories that help them get invested?
When I’m looking at the one-day event and all of the kind of excitement around it, I really find… To be honest, I like your wording of this being a prizefight. The fact that we have the regular season, number one at the very top, waiting to be challenged for the world title, is something that I really get antsy about to watch because it’s going to be such an amazing moment. And everyone understands in pro sports, the idea of a challenger facing the leader.
When we’re looking at people in the first match in the men’s and women’s, we have Stephanie Gilmore who’s our most successful woman. We also have a rookie, Morgan Cibilic, and the fact that they going to have the chance to win their way through to get the right to challenge for the world title, I think is something that’s really cool for us.
Obviously, you mentioned Steph and just the endurance of excellence, the consistency of excellence. It’s amazing. Are there any other athletes that you want to preview for people?
We have Clarissa Moore and Italo Ferreira who are coming off their Olympic gold medals. So they’ll be here competing for the world title, and that’s a cool one for us. They’re also the defending world champions. And it was a proud moment too, for the WSL to see our champions take gold at the Olympics. It was an amazing achievement for them.
With Steph… It sounds crazy, but I think, to be honest, someone like Steph is most definitely the underdog to be winning the world title. The two in the yellow at the very top of a ladder, Gabriel and Clarissa, I think they’re very tough matchups.
Speak real quickly about Clarissa’s style on the wave.
Clarissa is an amazingly powerful surfer but technically, just very precise as well. And she really made a name for herself when she was younger by pushing all the boundaries of progression in women’s surfing. I remember watching her, I’ll date myself with my age, but I remember watching her as a 12-year-old and seeing her doing aerials and things, and I’ve never seen a young girl doing maneuvers like that before. So she’s always been at the very top of progression of the sport. And I think that as we come into a wave like Lowers [Lower Trsetles], for her to have that in her arsenal and her kind of little bag of tricks that she’ll pull out is something that’s immensely valuable on a day like that.
I’ve surfed Lowers a fair few times and I usually go out on days where people like your top five are not going to be there. I went out before a tour stop with Kelly Slater a couple of years ago and it’s a hyper-competitive environment. The waves were firing. I was out there with Kelly and Bethany Hamilton and just being amazed by them and never actually catching any waves, it’s such a fired-up environment. But speak to people about that wave and what that wave presents for people and what they can maybe see or expect to see. It’s not Tahiti, which is so monstrously heavy; it’s not Hawaii, where it’s a barrel wave all the time; but it’s… There’s a lot that people can do on Lowers — it’s an open door for linked maneuvers. Can you speak to that a little?
Lower Trestles is the most high-performance wave in California. It’s an A-frame peak, so a lot of people favor going right but, my other thing is that, when we look at Lowers, it’s just one of those canvases where people feel like they can do any turn that they want, and that’s why coming into the event, it’s really exciting because you kind of have the option to do all the big tricks. You have options to do air, you have options to carve. And it’s one of those waves where we’re not going to see big crazy barrels, like Tahiti, but what we are going to see is definitely high-performance surfing and it’s quite a long line too. So, you’ll definitely have… I think definitely we’ll see people kind of having to pull out the variety of the maneuvers as well.
Right, it’s a wave people will surf through to the end and link maneuvers together.
Totally. If you want to be the world champ you really going to have to surf that wave perfectly.
This exact finals lineup gives you some of the best aerialists in the world, do you… First of all, can you speak to people to help them understand how going into the air has revolutionized surfing and really shifted the entire, really the perspective of the sport, which I’m sure you grew up watching certain surfers who were power surfers and that has been decentralized as people who have gone into the air, but also just preview some of the aggression and some of the aerial moves that people might be taking a shot at?
Aerials have definitely changed surfing for sure, and the level of skill that people are bringing to some of these maneuvers, particularly the full rotation. We see someone like Italo Ferreira. He just… to have so much speed and power that is needed to launch yourself so high up… It’s kind of crazy, to be honest. And one of the things with the aerials, in particular, the men are doing is that the level of risk that is there, not only injuring yourself if you fall a little bit funny on the landing, but it also puts your entire ride at risk, which is why when people pull such huge ones off and then continue to ride down the line, it becomes these amazing kind of moments in sport because they’re basically… You only get as many waves as the ocean decides to give you or allows you at the time, so if you see someone just drive down the line like in lunatic and launch themselves 10 foot, 15 foot into the air, it’s like, “Oh, if I make it, it’s going to be a huge score but if I miss I’m in danger of losing the heat.” We’ve seen a couple of the men as well in the past very occasionally do a backflip. Gabriel did it quite famously in Brazil a few years ago. So it definitely is exciting to see the guys that really push it.