The event was last contested in 2009 and won by California big-wave powerhouse Greg Long.
“Oh my gosh, it’s one of the most special moments of my life for sure,” Florence told on-beach interviewers after getting out of the water for his last heat. “It’s only run a couple times in my life. I’m overwhelmed with adrenaline.”
For much of Hawaii’s winter surf season, it seemed like the contest wouldn’t run, as the iconic competition was called off a little more than two weeks ago when a big swell just managed to miss Waimea. But Thursday, on the 87th day of a 90-day competition window, Hawaii’s North Shore got hit with an all-time swell, allowing the best big-wave surfers in the world to showcase their craft before a packed beach.
“I’ve been surfing here for 40 years,” said Clyde Aikau, the younger brother of late legendary lifeguard Eddie Aikau, after whom the contest is named. “Today has to be one of the best, biggest days I’ve seen in 40 years.”
Sixty-six-year-old Aikau said this would be the last contest he would surf in, and he was received by roaring cheers each time he paddled back to shore.
The event, which is held to honor the spirit of Eddie Aikau, who dedicated his life to keeping others safe in the waters of Waimea Bay, held added weight this year, as the field of competitors all surfed with the memory of recently deceased big-wave surfer Brock Little fresh on their minds.
Little, who was one of the biggest figures in the history of big-wave surfing, died last week after a short battle with liver cancer.
Competitors made frequent references to Little’s fearlessness, deeming the towering swell a “Brock Swell” — waves only the bravest surfer would paddle into.
“Yeah, this is unreal,” Clark Little, Brock’s little brother, told the World Surf League (WSL). “To know my brother is watching over … he’s my hero and always will be. I’m just proud to say he was my brother.”
Perhaps nobody better exemplified the emotions hanging over the contest than Kelly Slater.
While he finished fifth in the contest, Slater surfed into one of the only barrels of the day and rode it all the way into the shoreline, breaking down in tears after he got to the beach.
“I’m a little emotional,” a shaken-up Slater told the WSL from the shore. “I just wanted to get a barrel for Brock. Losing Brock the other day was tough. You know … I just miss him so much. He was such an influence on my life.”
The road to victory for Florence wasn’t easy. While the Hawaiian dropped consistently high scores all day, he had to come from behind in the second round to overtake Australian Ross Clarke-Jones, who had the highest scoring wave of the day with a 96 on an absolute bomb in the second round.
— World Surf League (@wsl) February 25, 2016
Ultimately, however, the two-time SURFER Men’s Reader Poll winner took home the win. Afterward, Florence was just ecstatic to have been out in the incredible conditions.
“It’s just sick to be out here in a heat with only six people on the wave,” said Florence. “It’s amazing getting to surf with my heroes here.”
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