“Parko and Kelly are the showmen, they'll go in expression sessions and freesurf and entertain a crowd all day if they feel like it. Mick turns up early, puts on the Mick Fanning Show, gets one he's happy with, then comes in and takes that last wave into his heats. Andy is the mystery man. He'll almost always stay out of sight until it's time to go, then he'll paddle out and open with an eight or better every time. And C.J., well, C.J. is the wild card. The dark horse. And he may well be the only surfer in the 44 who isn't intimidated by Andy, Mick, or Joel.”
It might've only have been one opinion expressed over dinner in a tiny pub atop the hill at Lavers Hill, two hours southwest of Bells Beach, but it was backed by 30 years of intense observation of the Rip Curl Pro. Doug “Claw” Warbrick, cofounder of the company sponsoring surfing's greatest gathering, was throwing down his views on the best five surfers in the world in 2003, four of whom would be surfing in the semifinals come the following morning. The room was his because everyone knew he was spot on, the only thing he wasn't game to pick was a winner.
Early on, the smart money had to be with Slater. His first- and third-round performances were nothing short of extraordinary. Carving 360s (three on one wave), giant air-to-fakies, double grabs at will, and the usual razor-edged rail work. He finished ninth in the world in his comeback year even though his head never seemed in it. At the Rip Curl pro he looked sharp, focused, and most importantly, hungry–in other words, back to his absolute best. When Kelly unexpectedly went down to Mark Occhilupo in a round four, rip-affected shorebreak down at Johanna, he looked to the sky and sprayed the heavens with a mouthful of foul agony. Over-amped on small insiders was his error, leaving sets wide open for Occy to capitalize on.[IMAGE 1]
Occ seemed almost blissfully unaware of his achievement in ending Kelly's roll. “I can't believe I won with such numb toes,” he told the press afterward. “Look at them, they're almost purple!” People laughed, but the image of Slater cussin' hung thick in the air. Unsettling yet telling to the rest of the 44–don't look over your shoulder in 2003, 'cause that's precisely the moment the greatest surfing competitor of all time will take you.
With Kelly out of this one, it was all Claw's top four. Each ruled their way to the semis. Andy, Parko, Mick, and C.J. had not just outsurfed their opposition, but they also put on one the most astonishing displays of high performance seen in or out of competition for the year 2003. The old argument that freesurfing is home to the most radical approach to riding waves is no more. The Rip Curl Pro provided a shining example that the best surfing in the world is being done in 'CT heats.
Against this grain, the first semi was a washout. Fanning chose the wrong board, and Andy cleaned him out. C.J. came out hard against Parko and almost looked to have him, but when the Queenslander got the wave of the heat he didn't waste it. Six hard-off-the-bottom, full-rail-through-the-lip carves with the unstoppable flow of a flooded river.
The final was the ultimate face-off. The 2002 world title runner-up versus the world champ. The waves were four to six feet. An offshore massaged lumps from the rip. A minute's silence for Anzac Day. Claw had said the night before that Andy always opened his heats with an 8.0 or better–he kicked off the final with a 9.8, a vicious hack attack complete with a barrel ride, effectively shutting down Parko and ensuring back-to-back Bells wins. As an unusually subdued Irons held the winner's bell aloft and its piercing toll echoed through the surrounding dunes, an obvious intensity pimpled his skin. Event number two was gone, there were only 48 pooints between first and third on the ratings, Slater was back, and the new guard had fired. The race for the crown was officially on.–Blako