BY CHRIS TAKAHASHI | STAFF WRITER
When Michel Bourez of Tahiti upset local favorite John John Florence in the quarterfinals of the Billabong Pipeline Masters in Memory of Andy Irons, the floodgates opened for Bourez to make his push to the top of the podium. Clinching victory in the final event of the World Surf League (WSL) season, Bourez posted scores in the excellent range consistently throughout the competition, besting contest heavyweights such as Florence, Jordy Smith, and seven-time Pipeline Masters champion Kelly Slater. It was the first Pipeline Masters win for the 30 year-old surfer from Tahiti and the third WSL victory of his surfing career.
The final day of competition wrapped up Monday at the world famous Banzai Pipeline in pristine four to six foot surf. Because of the swell angle, the better scoring waves were on hand at Backdoor, defined as the “right” breaking wave at Pipeline. With consecutive lay days marked by poor conditions, contest organizers were ecstatic when the morning hours revealed highly contestable conditions.
The competition was punctuated by the unlikely finish of two underdog surfers complete with the accompanying drama of WSL qualification scenarios. For runner-up finisher and WSL rookie Kanoa Igarashi, his performance at the Pipeline Masters was impressive given that it was his first time competing in the event. The 19 year-old surfer from Huntington Beach, Calif. exceeded even his own expectations, beating Slater in the final minute of their semifinal matchup.
Interviewed by WSL commentator Joe Turpel after his dramatic triumph in the semifinal against Slater, Igarashi stated, “I kind of rubbed the heat off and he [Slater] was in his rhythm. A big set came in that closed out everywhere and I thought that was going to be my last chance. Right at the end, this crazy wave out of nowhere came in. I laughed because I did not believe it. I stalled as hard as I could and once I came out I fell into shock.”
Florence capped off his impressive 2016 campaign with a Triple Crown title after his efforts in the three-contest series that culminates with the Pipeline Masters. It was the third Triple Crown title for Florence. His first place finish at Haleʻiwa, 17th place finish at Sunset Beach, and fifth place finish at the Pipeline Masters helped him move past top contenders Smith and Frederico Morais.
Florence finished the year with what many have deemed a nearly perfect season. The 24 year-old from Pūpūkea won the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event at Waimea Bay, the WSL championship, and the Triple Crown title. Only the Pipeline Masters title has continued to thwart the young surfing phenom.
In a fairly underwhelming final heat in which the surf nearly went flat with exactly zero waves scored in the “good” category (above a 6.0 on a 1-10.0 scale), Bourez struck first blood against Igarashi in his opening wave. In the 35 minute final heat, Igarashi paddled into his first wave with about five minutes left on the clock. It was too little too late. Bourez led the entire heat and solidified his victory with a wave in the dying minutes to claim the win.
Though he fell to Bourez in the final, Igarashi stepped up in a big way for fellow Quiksilver team rider and WSL aspirant Ezekiel Lau. At the conclusion of the World Qualifying Series (WQS) season, Lau sat at number 11 in the rankings, one spot away from qualification on the prestigious WSL. Igarashi, on the other hand, was comfortably placed within the top ten on the WQS which guaranteed qualification on the WSL. His WSL ranking heading into the Pipeline Masters was 24, two spots away from double qualifying with a year-end finish in the top 22 on the WSL. For Lau to qualify for the world tour, he needed Igarashi to make at least the semifinals of the event, an accomplishment that has eluded him throughout his rookie year. Before the Pipeline Masters, Igarashi’s highest finish in a WSL contest was ninth.
With Igarashi’s meteoric rise to the finals, a common theme appeared: to the victor go the spoils. Besides helping out Lau qualify for the tour, Igarashi also paved the way for Florence to win the Triple Crown title after he beat Jordy Smith in a dramatic quarterfinal heat. Smith lost to Florence by a mere 200 points in the Triple Crown hunt.
As Igarashi surged through to the finals, fellow WSL surfer Nat Young watched his own ranking slip and chances for requalification disappear. Young, a stylish goofyfooter from Santa Cruz, Calif. narrowly missed out on his chance for requalification after falling to Jordy Smith in round five.
In another heartbreaking scenario, ‘Ewa Beach’s own Keanu Asing lost to Igarashi in round two, meaning the surfer from O’ahu failed to requalify for the WSL. Asing had placed first in the Quiksilver Pro France this past October but his season was marred by a string of 25th place finishes. Asing needed a high finish in the Pipeline Masters to propel him into the top 22 of the WSL for a bid at requalification.
Bourez can now add his name to a celebrated list of surfers that have won the prestigious event. The Pipeline Masters is the longest running surf contest held on American soil, dating back to a 1971 inaugural victory by Californian Jeff Hackman. With a Pipeline Masters under his belt, Bourez joins only two other surfers in history – Derek Ho and Andy Irons – to have placed first in all three events of the Triple Crown series held on the North Shore of O’ahu.
“I still don’t believe it. I’m just happy to be here,” said a cheerful Bourez to the media after his Pipeline Masters win. “I’m just going to regroup and have a really big party tonight. I’m super tired but the year’s over now. This is huge for me.”