Tuesday, December 21, 1999
Slater is still
the master at Pipeline
The six-time world champBy Greg Ambrose
beats Mark Occhilupo for the
Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters title
Special to the Star-Bulletin
World champion surfer Mark Occhilupo was rudely awakened from his dream comeback season by a heaven-sent wave ridden magnificently by six-time world champion Kelly Slater.
In the final event yesterday of the Van's G-Shock Triple Crown of Surfing, Occhilupo sought to cap his victorious season by reprising his 1985 Pipe Masters victory that marked him as a surfing prodigy and future world champion.
But reality intruded in the form of Slater, who had something to prove to himself and the surfing world.
Slater hadn't won a World Championship Tour event since early 1998, and the Mountain Dew Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters was his last chance to demonstrate that his competitive skills hadn't diminished during this year's vacation from the tour.
In his semifinal heat with Occhilupo, better known as Occy, Slater needed a miracle to advance to the finals. Occy had played the heat perfectly, catching high-scoring tubes on the lefts at Pipeline, and using his wave priority to freeze Slater out of good waves.
With time running out, Slater launched himself into a series of high-risk, low-probability waves that pounded him for his efforts. Occy seemed to ice his victory into the next round by using his priority to take a wave at Backdoor that Slater, trailing by 8.5 points, desperately needed.
And then, as Occy paddled back out to the lineup with 30 seconds remaining, a perfect Backdoor peak, the likes of which hadn't been seen at the contest site in nearly two hours, headed straight for the disbelieving Slater. Occy watched in dismay as Slater stroked into the wave, set his rail and pulled into the pit as the lip pitched out, emerging an eternity later to cheers from the crowd.
"This was one of those contests where it felt to me that something magical was going to happen," Slater said.
Slater's path to the final heat was marked by a preponderance of unlikely outcomes. He faced his best friend and fiercest competitor, Rob Machado, in the morning's first heat, and was in dire straits after the goofy-foot Machado pulled into an unforgiving Backdoor barrel backside, only to emerge triumphantly to a perfect 10 score from the judges.
But Slater chipped away at Machado's lead, and squeaked past him into the quarter finals by 2 points.
There, he ran into a fired-up Victor Ribas of Brazil, who watched Slater score a perfect 10 for an ultra-deep Backdoor barrel, the matched and surpassed Slater's tally with several deep barrels on the lefts at Pipeline.
And once again, just when he needed a boost, Slater caught a wave that let him slip through by 2 points.
By this point, Waianae boy Sunny Garcia was on a collision course with Kauai boy Andy Irons, who had achieved the three highest total scores of the contest and was on fire. Garcia had already tied Derek Ho's record by winning his fourth Triple Crown of Surfing title with high placings in all three events, but he was determined to meet up with Slater in the final heat.
Garcia dispatched his second Irons in two days, having beaten Bruce on Sunday, and was looking ahead to Slater when Australia's Shane Wehner ambushed him in the semifinal heat with perfect positioning and great judgment in a trio of excellent, deep Pipeline barrels. Even a last-minute, full-speed tube on a set wave at Backdoor that was rewarded with a perfect 10 wasn't enough to let Garcia catch Wehner.
"It was a strange year for me," Garcia said as he watched Slater and Wehner prepare for the final heat. "I was chasing Occy all year long for the world title, but after he won, the only thing I had to redeem myself was to come home and do well in Hawaii.
"To win a fourth Triple Crown title is amazing for me. I turn 30 next month and this gives me hope that I can keep going strong and not fade away."
The final heat seemed a mismatch from the start. Slater entered the water for his sixth final heat at the Pipe Masters, a four-time Pipe Masters winner, two-time Triple Crown champion and six-time world champion. This was Wehner's best result on the World Championship Tour, and he was just happy to be surfing perfect 6-foot Pipeline barrels with only one other surfer in the water.
But he wasn't about to be intimidated by Slater's credentials. After Slater earned 6.5 points for a quick Backdoor barrel, Wehner bested him with a deep, long tube at Pipeline for 8 points. Slater seized the lead again as he scratched into a big Backdoor peak, stalled perfectly as the wave set up and then sped up as the lip pitched over, and emerged from the tube at full speed to a 9 from the judges.
Wehner responded with another deep tube at Pipeline, and took back the lead with a 7.2 score from the judges.
Unperturbed, with only 10 minutes left in the 35-minute final, Slater pulled into a megadeep Backdoor right, came flying out and gouged a turn on the shoulder of the wave to bounce off the white water as the judges punched 9.9s on their electronic scorecards.
Wehner plugged into some truly desperate, impossible left tubes, then realized that Slater had been anointed by Kanaloa, Hawaiian god of the sea, when, with 5 minutes left in the last heat of the last contest of the year, another good wave headed straight for Slater.
In a now-familiar sight, Slater fell from the sky on a late drop, set his rail as the lip threw out over his head, then emerged full blast to a perfect 10 from the judges.
His final tally of 28.9 points was the best score of the contest, and Slater had proven to himself that his competitive skills were as sharp as ever.