Neale Wilkinson, Matt’s Dad, has one of those electric power scooter things. Early this arvo, he was zooming around the bottom Bells carpark like a magnificent white-bearded king. After a few minutes of high-fiving various well-wishers, he parked it in some empty space behind the main stage, and wandered off to watch his son collect his second $100,000 in three weeks.
Sitting there all alone, with its “Wilko-1” plate, weirdly rickety yet functional, that scooter seemed to symbolize everything about what got Matt into this amazing situation. Wilko’s life has been defined by transport — particularly the old van in which he and Neale used to drive up and down the Australian east coast, hunting waves and grommet contests.
During those trips, he began the backside style odyssey that’s now hurled him into an extraordinary, almost unprecedented lead on the world tour rankings. “We went to all these different waves, a lot of right pointbreaks, and I guess I began to learn more about backside surfing that way,” he said.Bloody hell, it’s paying off.Wilko took risks all day today, and fell a lot in the process, but in the final, he clamped down with a nerveless and confident performance. He took the lead, stretched it, then defended it like a Samurai.The kill moment came with around 17 minutes left. Wilko had priority, and Jordy Smith was sliding around underneath him, trying to talk him into a wave. In an earlier heat, I reckon Wilko might have fallen for it. At this critical point, as a potentially good wave loomed, he did precisely the opposite.
Let Matt describe it. “I was in a really good position to see what was happening with that wave. It had a really good steep fast first section, but a bit on the end that was gonna throw and roll down. I thought, I’m not gonna get an eight on this; if Jordy thinks he can, I’ll let him go. If he does, I’ll still have priority.”
Jordy went, the wave shut him out, and that was more or less that.
Big Smith was, I dunno, philosophical. He was burned and cold after all the duckdiving (if you add his free-surf this morning, he surfed that big fat mess five times today). If he’d won, it would have been a triumph of fortune over weariness.
Still, it’s better than you did at Snapper, we suggested. “Ha, yeah,” he said. “Zero to hero. Well, almost-hero.”
The whole day evolved in fascinating fashion, from drizzle and onshores at dawn, to sun and relative calm by the finale. All the way, a combo swell of significant proportions (the commentary team called it six to eight feet, Barton Lynch reckoned it was ten foot plus, and I wouldn’t disagree with him) pushed and pumped, turning the lineup into cappuccino every ten minutes.
It gave the crowd — who’d bravely begun lining up for tickets in the rain at 6:20am — something to cheer about. Though sometimes they seemed unsure who to cheer for. While Mick Fanning is a familiar name and an “Aussie sporting legend” etc, where’s the other familiars, Kelly and Taj and Joel? And who are these other cats? Conner? Italo? It’s amazing how swiftly things are moving, now the shift of names and generations has truly begun.
Mick, for instance. Put in possibly the most dazzling single ride of the contest to open against Conner; then was suddenly fragile as you’ll rarely have seen him. A board snapped and the replacement was short and wouldn’t drive him. He went to the lip on the inside and let it go over and over, looking physically uncertain of the landing.
Contrast that with Italo’s fiery attack, or Michel Bourez’s unflinching power. Or Matt’s two wins after years of — as he put it — “trying to win everywhere, for ever.”
There’ll be a lot of talk about world championships now for Wilko. He seemed a bit dazed by the Bell to bother looking too far ahead today … which might be the wisest way to approach it. Very few world title campaigns begin in such spectacular fashion, and it’s not always pretty how they end. The last time someone did this up front double-win thing was Joel Parkinson in 2009. You may remember that year. Not long afterward, Parko tore his left ankle up doing an air in Bali, and never converted his lead to the world title that hung before him at the time like some terrible glorious Grail, receding with every event. Instead he ended up crying on Mick’s shoulder in the Pipe lineup as his best mate took the crown.
That’s what a lead like this can do. Guard it carefully, Wilko, and with glee, while it lasts.
By Nick Carroll