PORTUGAL. THE MAN.
Kai Otton was in a portaloo in the dunes behind the surfers area, experiencing his first moment of silent contemplation after his unlikely win here in Portugal today, when the portable shitter started rocking violently, predictably, Huntington style. Outside Kolohe Andino was providing the shove, his youthful exuberance at Kai’s win a barometer of the Aussie journeyman’s popularity on Tour and a reflection of exactly what this win meant. After seven years as the World Tour’s resident hard-luck story, he’d split the pack and stormed a win on a day when the focus was on pretty much everyone but him.
The day had begun with the only thing illuminating the pre-dawn dark being the silver flash of the world title trophy. ASP Tour Manager Renato Hickel was carrying the silverware through the car park at Supertubos, half expecting that it would be Mick Fanning who would be carrying it back out later that afternoon. Renato had done the sums on a golden calculator. They’d be checked three times. There would be no repeat of 2011. They’re very careful about those things these days. Paul Speaker, the new ASP CEO, had been in attendance yesterday meeting with the kings of Portuguese commerce who were very keen to embrace the new leader of the free surfing world and shower him in gifts of canned fish. Representing just about the only region of the surfing world that is actually surging ahead, they had his ear. Portugal needs to be part of the “big vision.” Professional surfing needs to be here.
All the doom and gloom about how underwhelming the surf had been this week was washed away this morning when the dawn revealed a clean, new swell and some sandy tombs for the early heats. There were 12 guys left in the event, four of those still with world title chances and one, Mick Fanning, with a real chance to clinch it today. There was certainly a different air about Mick. Yesterday he’d had one heat with a 16-year-old; today he’d have to clean up the rest of the field if he was going to end it here in Portugal. He kept space. He studied the lineup like a hawk with coach Phil McNamara. One good day in the office and the title was his. You’ve been able to set your watch by Mick’s surfing over the past month, and when he paddled out against Kai Otton in the Quarterfinals today you were already mapping out his side of the draw and working out who else he was going to walk over.
Otto had already done Mick a favor by taking out John John in the previous heat, a point Parko noted as he watched it go down. A world title is as much about allies in the draw as it is about your own surfing. It all seemed to be falling into place.
Kai Otton, however, has had enough. For seven years he’s been a whipping boy to guys like Mick and Joel; Joel especially, who over a two-season stretch beat him eight times straight. But this was not Kai Otton who paddled out against Mick in the Quarters, at least not the Kai Otton you think you know. The high tide had backfilled the break by this stage and slowed the sets. Mick waited. Mick fell. Meanwhile Kai made hay, caught a bunch of waves, then let nature do the rest. Mick looked nervy as he chased down a score that never looked like it was coming. The hooter went and suddenly the title was going to Pipe. He charged up the beach and into a buzzing surfer’s area, no one knowing what to say or even game enough to make eye contact. Mick marched off and walked into the sand dunes to find some space, Taylor Knox following to provide perspective. Meanwhile, somewhere back in California, sitting in the lotus position, maybe in an oxygen tent, Kelly Slater afforded himself a wry smile. He was going to have to win Pipe to win the title, but Kelly Slater would like those odds. Actually, he’d probably prefer it that way.
Mick’s loss also gave fresh hope to Parko. He was a longshot for the world title, and an even longer longshot after drawing Julian Wilson in the Quarters. Over the past six weeks Jules has become the prototype of the future Tour surfer. He’s got everything—power, progression, pitbull—and that’s before you even put him in an ad campaign or throw him into a sea of teenage Portuguese girls. What happened against Parko, however, was uncanny. The heat had ended, and here was Julian on the beach waiting for the judges to drop a score for a wave he’d caught in the dying seconds, a wave he needed for the win. He stopped and stared straight at the judges. Parko, meanwhile, experienced a silent outbreak in the lineup, sure his world title was gone. When the score came in .18 short of what he needed Julian turned and threw out, “How many times are they going to put him through heats!?” Loud enough for it to spill over into the webcast. A replay of all the scoring waves of that heat however, was telling. It was certainly not as clear-cut as Julian had thought. The last turn—a reverse-fall-to-claim—proved critical. Judging is relative, never absolute, and there was a circle completing here today after Julian had won last years event on an almost identically close call that had gone his way against Gabe Medina. JW needn’t worry. He’ll have bigger fish to fry next year and it would be surprising if he can’t assemble some kind of legitimate world title campaign in 2014. The signs are there right now.
But enough talk of the stars. We need to talk about Kai Otton. I once drove down to Kai’s house at Tathra—eight hours south of Sydney—with him shortly after he’d qualified for the World Tour in 2007. At that stage he was driving a 1986 red Toyota Seca, “The Red Rocket”, a right royal piece of shit. He was driving back to his ancestral hometown to celebrate with his mates and also upgrade his wheels to something more fitting of a World Tour surfer—a clapped out old Mercedes with enough miles on the clock to have taken it to the moon and back. It was a status thing more than a functional ride. But in the years since his fortunes have wavered from mediocre to occasionally depressing. It’s got little to do with his surfing, which is an angular and spirited mix of tuberiding and big, spidery turns. It’s had more to do with some rolling bad luck and a glass that’s remained half empty as a result. A saying developed that, “Only Otto could lose like that.” He started finding ways to beat himself. He’d lose with 10s. He became George Costanza. But after seven years surfing to save his skin, something has clicked this year. Otto, 33, found out he’s going to be a dad. From that point he’s been a new man. He’s donned the foil helmet and the head noise has stopped, and he’s suddenly not on Tour to improve Mick and Joel’s stats…he’s there to win, and today in Portugal, Kai Otton manned right up. It was glorious to watch.
Nat Young will win an event some time soon. Two finals in a rookie year hint at something great. That backhand reo alone will reduce guys to sashimi, and he’s got a cool head on his shoulders to go with it. Only that today, ironically, it was Kai who had the coolest head. This was the feel-good win of the season, and it consigned the world title to the back pages.
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