Nick Carroll: The Love/Hate Torment of the Freshwater Pro

24 Sep 2019 6 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: WSL/Vankirk

Photo: WSL/Vankirk


Where the hell does the pool fit in?

Nothing rips away at my pro surfing tragic’s head space like Kelly’s Pool.
I hate it, but I love it. Well maybe that’s a bit strong. I dislike the way it’s been sold to the surfing community, that “Oh look at this! But no, you can’t have it because you don’t have $50,000” sorta thing. It’s so tin-eared about how surfers relate to the sport. Like as if economic aspiration has ever been a part of actual surfing. Go to any other tour stop when the tour’s not there and you’ll see a bunch of totally normal surfers in the water; they might have paid to park, but they didn’t pay to surf.
But I very much like, possibly love, the way it puts the acid on the pros. 
Not because I want pro surfers to suffer, but because if you really believe there’s a sporting and competitive aspect to surfing — which I totally do — you want the top guns to be exposed. Examined. Forced to grapple with their strengths and weaknesses. 
And the Pool confronts them with an examination unlike anywhere else. 
It’s not big and heavy, it’s not shifty, it’s not ultra powerful. It’s worse than any of that. It’s unnaturally similar and perfectly predictable. There’s absolutely nowhere to hide.
No wonder most of the surfers don’t like it. Over the weekend, it made a lot of them look like club-contest hackers.
I was in California right before the event. “Are you going to the Ranch?” people would ask, and when they got a No, nodded sagely. Like who would choose to go to Lemoore other than someone who hadn’t? I had, last year, and felt as tortured by it as many of the pros. This time, I surfed Lowers, and came home before I could be sucked into the CT vortex.
But you gotta watch, and like many viewers after the first two days, I had the shits with it. Then I thought: well, the first two days of any CT are often lame. Just not enough on the line. Nobody loses, they just screw up, and that ain’t entertainment. “It’s sooo fantastic!” swooned the commentary crew, or words to that effect, while right there in front of them, pro after pro failed the exam.
Plus again in the case of the Pool, there’s the location. It’s as unforgiving to the eye as it is to the competitors. Every wave’s the same, and you can almost smell the poo-dust in the air. You just don’t want to be there. Not the way you want to be at Teahupoo or J-Bay or Keramas, or even Bells.
But when it turned on finals day, it turned. Took off in a way 2018 didn’t.
Ripped down to the top few, like bodies shed of excess fat, the surfers were not exposed so much as revealed as the crazily gifted wave-riders they are. The commentary and the general WSL happy clappy dreamland vibe, so fucking insanely irritating on Day One, were totally eclipsed by their failures and their brilliance.
Gabriel Medina is the best argument for the Pool. Yes he is a born competitor, yes there is extraordinary talent wedded to drive in a way we rarely see in pro surfing. But his first ride in the final round obliterated any thought that the Pool can’t produce the best. 
We’re used to surfers claiming rides like that. Anything over a 9.0, basically. The way Gabriel didn’t claim it — just strolled out of the water to switch boards, not even breathing heavily — felt uniquely intimidating, almost frightening. In that moment, his opposition on tour, a lot of ‘em anyway, must have felt the bottom fall clean out of their own surfing self-esteem. Gabriel won this world title right then, not just because he now has the points — two event wins and an excellent prospect of more to come — but because nobody will have the nerve now to stand up to him in 2019. 
Man, when JJF comes back, it’ll be worth watching.
But it wasn’t just Gabriel. The Pool’s other elevating feature is the way it seems to fit the women’s power and style so well. Lakey Peterson somehow plucking a win out of her last ride was one of the highlights of their competitive year.
Word was prior to the event that it’d be the last CT at the Pool. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that final day will have changed some minds at WSL HQ. 
What I kinda hope is that it’ll make them think different about the thing. If it can’t quite sustain a CT, it’s a lay down misere for something else. Like a top eight/top eight superstar gig. Give the stars two days’ unlimited practice time, with little prizes and such. Then a single day like yesterday’s finals. For a million bucks.

Do it. Make them suffer.

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