The Billabong Pro Tahiti Trials are easily surfing's toughest qualifying lap. On Tuesday, 16 of the best local Tahitians battled it out with 16 international surfers today for a single wildcard spot in the main event. There were gnarled veterans, up-and-coming freesurfing freaks and some of the biggest superstars of the sport all battling in the Teahupo'o gladiator pit for a single golden ticket.
The Semifinals pitted Taumata Puhetini vs. Nathan Hedge and Koa Smith vs. Aritz Aranburu. But in the end, it came down to the two men from across the world, former Championship Tour surfers Aranburu vs. Hedge. And even then, it was close. The final score was Hedge's 13.33 to Aranburu's 13.43, making for a nail-biter of a finish. With his win, Aranburu, from Basque country, will go up against the Top 32 when the Billabong Pro Tahiti kicks off Friday.
Each CT event tends to have a Trials competition and because the prize is potentially life-changing and the chances of winning so slim, that they all tend to come with their own fair share of drama. However it's a safe bet to say that none can match the potential excitement that the Billabong Pro Tahiti Trials offer.
Here are some of the other strong contenders who were expected to put on solid performances Tuesday:
From the locals, perennial contenders Taumata Puhetini, Hira Teriinatoofa and Heiarii Williams were in the mix. The three have all surfed in the main event before and know what it takes to win the Trials. They also know that no Tahitian has ever won the Billabong Pro Tahiti (Manoa Drollet's runner-up finish in 2008 is the best result to date), and that they are the best bets for a historical local win.
On the international side Billabong provided a slew of phenomenal young talent. Jack Robinson was an obvious pick based on his past few seasons as a freesurfing standout at Chopes. Hawaiian teenagers Seth Moniz and Finn McGill, fresh from breakout Pipeline winters, were also potential standouts. Finally, 2016 CT surfer Ryan Callinan brought some experience and electricity to the mix.
However, it's the WSL's own picks that rounded out one of the most talented fields seen for any Trials event, heck, any event, full stop. There was previous Billabong Pro Tahiti winner Bruno Santos, a runner-up in Nathan Hedge, plus former Trials victor Anthony Walsh. Those three goofyfooters all have the ability and experience to have made it into the main event.
Sprinkle some CT experience in with Basque charger Aritz Aranburu (who defeated Kelly Slater here in 2009), and then add some Hawaiian magic in Mason Ho and Koa Rothman, and this isn't so much about depth of field, as a focal range extending far into the slabosphere.
It's a surfing competition that on its generated huge levels of expectation for any surf fan. The only thing guaranteed is that the eventual winner had his Billabong Pro Tahiti chances forged in hot fire. Aranburu could go all the way.