By Jesse Faen
Pipeline, O`ahu, Hawai`i (Friday, December 15, 2000) -- Defending five-time event and six-time world champion Kelly Slater (USA) today dominated the opening round of competition in the 30th anniversary Mountain Dew Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters. Perfect 8-10 foot conditions exploded on Pipeline's infamous reef all day, with competitors throwing caution to the wind as they committed themselves to beyond-vertical take-offs and huge, critical barrels.
Slater, 28, was virtually in a league of his own today, emerging from life-threatening tubes with the greatest of ease to beat 1998 Pipe Masters champion Jake Paterson (Aus) and Fabio Gouveia (Brz). His combined total heat score of 24.70 out-of-a possible 30-points was the day's highest, but this only paints part of the picture. His complete mastery of Pipeline is uncanny, especially considering his Florida upbringing and limited opportunities to surf such conditions.
"It's been almost a year since I've even surfed at Pipe - 11 months - and I only got here a few days ago," explained Slater afterward. "I haven't actually had a chance to surf Pipe yet. I'd paddled out maybe three times, but only caught about five waves. So when I got out there in that heat I was nervous. Just being in a contest with the waves big, and I've seen my friends take a few bad wipeouts this morning. I was a little shaky, but then I caught my first wave and felt great.
"I got my three (scoring) waves and then I just wanted to wait for a big one," he continued. "By that stage the other guys were pretty far behind (on points) and weren't going to get two waves to catch up, so I just wanted to wait for mine and let them surf their heat. It was fun out there.
"It's good that it comes to Pipe and the world title isn't on the line," he added, when asked about the possible prospect of meeting world champion elect Sunny Garcia (Haw) in a later round. "Now hopefully Sunny and I can just have a full-on surf off. That'd be great."
Garcia, 30, advanced today in second place with one great Backdoor barrel, but wildcard opponent Pancho Sullivan (Haw) managed to win the exchange, with Luke Hitchings (Aus) finishing third and being eliminated.
"I make it no secret that I'm not a Pipe specialist," said Garcia on the beach following the heat. "I'm here to surf Backdoor and any chance I get I'm going to go right. Today's all lefts with a couple of rights, so I just waited and was fortunate to get one. Hopefully the swell goes down a little bit and the north (direction) kicks in so there are more waves at Backdoor.
"Kelly's not six-time world champ for nothing," he added, in regard to Slater's performance. "Even though he's retired, he's by no means an old guy. It's what I expect from Kelly. If he went out there and surfed bad then he'd be looking like a kook, but he went out and did what he always does. I don't expect anything less."
Sullivan, who progressed through two rounds of trials competition this morning, kept his momentum going against the new world and five-time Triple Crown of Surfing champ. Widely respected for his ability at Pipe, he will now face Garcia once more in round two when the pair next meets.
"I'm really happy," said Sullivan. "I knew it was going to be a tough heat so I just had to go for it. It's always been a dream to surf in the Pipe Master. I used to watch it as a kid. I'll have to surf against Sunny again in the next round, but that's just the way it works out."
Hitchings, despite being eliminated, deserves mention for the committed performance he put in today. One late drop, in particular, had the entire beach holding their breath as he fell from the sky and somehow managed to survive the drop.
"I sort of needed to get through that heat to make the top-16, which was a goal for me this year," said a disappointed Hitchings. "I was just throwing everything at it to try and do it. I couldn't believe I made the drop on that one wave. I was so scared falling down the face. After that I had a bit of confidence and was just trying to get some more, but just couldn't. I'm pretty frustrated."
Current word number-two Luke Egan (Aus) was another eliminated in today's opening round. Up against Peterson Rosa (Brz) and trials winner Bruce Irons (Haw), the Australian was unlucky not to find more openings on his rides, while Rosa seemed to be in better rhythm, narrowly taking the match from Irons.
"I felt super cool then in the water," said Rosa. "I positioned in the right place close to Bruce (Irons). He knows the wave here. I watched Kelly's heat and then Sunny's, so I felt good and relaxed. I just tried to catch my waves, and I was lucky I did find them."
1999 world and 1985 event champ Mark Occhilupo was another to put on a fantastic show at Pipeline today. The 34-year-old completely dominated his clash with Damien Hobgood (USA) and Yuri Sodre (Brz), leaving both needing a combination of scores to catch him.
"I really like surfing Pipeline, but I haven't had a real chance to surf it yet this year," said Occhilupo. "It's great with three guys only in the water. It seemed to get smaller in our heat, and Damien and Yuri were hassling a lot, but I seemed to get the waves I needed. I was really pleased."
"No, it feels like yesterday," he answered, when asked if he could believe it's been 15-years since he won at Pipe. "Pipeline brings out the best in everyone, I think. I take my hat off to the way Kelly surfed this morning. I thought that was brilliant, and he hasn't lost anything. I hope to have a good event."
Shane Wehner (Aus) - last year's Mountain Dew Pipe Masters runner-up - also had a satisfying win today. Having been in Hawaii two weeks ago for the final World Qualifying Series (WQS) event, he flew back to Australia disappointed he hadn't earned a spot in the Pipe trials, since he no longer holds a position in the WCT. Upon returning home, however, he learned Russell Winter (UK) would not be competing due to injury, and that he was next in line to take his spot. Immediately Wehner jumped back on a flight anxious to compete.
During his slow match against fellow Australians Richie Lovett and Taj Burrow, it appeared all the travel had been in vain. He was trailing right up until the end, but then caught a beast of a wave to post a near-perfect 9.80 ride and take the win, much to the surprise of even him.
"It was probably the most bizarre heat of my life," said Wehner. "I had a hard time and an early wipeout, which rattled me a bit. Then I found myself with about five-minutes to go with no good rides. I thought to myself that this is probably my last chance in the WCT and I was going to have to walk up the beach with a total of about three points and go home. Something inside of me just said 'you're not going to let it go that easy,' so I paddled straight into the inside and caught the next set. I took the wave of the heat off Richie Lovett and it was just an incredible tube - probably the best I have had this year. I went from feeling like the bottom of the barrel to just totally high, walking up with the beach with everyone cheering.
"To get one wave like that makes it totally worth flying back from Australia," he added. "I don't care if I win or lose, I have nothing to lose. I just want to have a bit of fun. A lot of people were wondering if I could do better this year since I placed second last year, but that result was something special. If I can go well I'll be stoked."
Andy Irons (Haw) was the only surfer to score a perfect 10-point ride today, defeating Cory Lopez (USA) and together eliminating Greg Emslie (SAfr). The mammoth tube ride had everyone second-guessing if he was going to emerge safely from its clutches. He'll now face Richie Lovett in round two.
Jesse Faen Media Director, ASP Int'l
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