Kanoa Igarashi saved his best for last.
The 19-year-old Huntington Beach surfer had the best day of his surfing life Monday during the final day of the Billabong Pipe Masters, the 11th and final contest of the World Surf League's World Championship Tour (WCT) at the Banzai Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu.
Though the drama of crowning a world champion was missing — Hawaii's John John Florence had already clinched the title — there was plenty of edge-of-your-beach-chair intrigue that took place, and Igarashi was in the middle of it all.
For starters, Igarashi, a rookie on the WCT and surfing in his very first Pipe Masters, reached the finals heat only to lose to Tahiti's Michel Bourez. But it was by far Igarashi's best result ever and he did some remarkable things to get there.
Igarashi had finished in equal-13th place in each of the previous nine contests, never getting past Round 3. But he beat Australia's Julian Wilson, currently ranked No. 8 in the world, to get into Round 4.
Round 4 is a three-man, non-elimination heat. The winner of the heat goes directly to the quarterfinals, while the other two are forced into an elimination Round 5 matchup.
Round 5 is the furthest Igarashi had gone this season, getting there in the very first contest of the season and finishing in equal-ninth.
One might have expected Igarashi to surf in Round 5 again at Pipe, considering his competition in Round 4 was 11-time world champion Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith, ranked No. 2 in the world.
Igarashi got his two scoring waves — a 7.00 and a 5.00 — within a minute of each other midway through the heat to take the lead, getting those waves even though he didn't have priority. As the clock wound down, Smith needed a 4.83 to beat Igarashi, while Slater was essentially out of it with two scores under 2.00.
With less than a minute remaining, Smith caught a wave, and the heat ended before the score was posted. But as Igarashi reached the shore, the judges' score was revealed — a 4.17. Igarashi had beaten Slater and Smith and reached the quarters.
In the quarters, Igarashi was matched up again with Smith, who had won his Round 5 heat over Santa Cruz's Nat Young. Reaching the quarters had guaranteed Igarashi his best finish ever in a WCT event, but there was some added drama.
The quarterfinal heat between Igarashi and Smith would have an effect on other surfers trying to qualify for next year's WCT. If Igarashi could win the heat, then his good friend and Quiksilver teammate, Zeke Lau, would qualify for next year's WCT. Additionally, Young would be knocked off the WCT.
Smith got two scoring waves in the first half of the 30-minute heat to post an 11.50, while Igarashi was still looking for his first wave. But with just less than 14 minutes remaining, Igarashi dropped into a barrel that lasted nearly six seconds. He pulled out, posed triumphantly and stirred the beach spectators into a frenzy.
Three of the five judges gave Igarashi a perfect 10.0 on the wave, the other two giving a 9.8 and 9.7 for a 9.93 score. Smith made things interesting with an 8.17 late in the heat, but Igarashi held on for the win, reaching the semis and getting his buddy Lau into the WCT.
"This is the craziest feeling," Igarashi said on the worldsurfleague.com broadcast immediately after the heat. "A couple months ago, we kind of joked around, 'what if Zeke was in that position where he was one guy out and it was up to me to get a result for him?' And that was the case. To be doing it, and to succeed, was a big step up for me. I'm stoked for myself and stoked for him and I can't wait for next year."
Igarashi, though, still had the semifinals in front of him, and he was up against none other than Slater. Slater seemed to be in control of the heat throughout, his two scores of 8.10 and 6.90 giving him a 15.00 total compared to Igarashi's two-wave score of 12.67 until the final minute.
But with just 30 seconds left in the heat and Igarashi needing an 8.33 to beat Slater, Igarashi got the wave he was looking for and rode it to an 8.83 to pull off the upset and reach the final.
The final heat against Bourez was rather anticlimactic, as the big waves disappeared. Bourez's 5.00 was the highest scoring wave of the heat and he wound up winning 7.53 to 6.17.
"This is a dream come true," Igarashi said on stage during the trophy presentation. "The one moment that really stands out to me is in the semifinals with Kelly. I kind of rubbed the heat off and he was in his rhythm. A big set came in that closed out everywhere and I thought that was going to be my last chance. Right at the end, this crazy wave out of nowhere came.
"I kind of laughed when the wave came in, I was like, 'is this really gonna happen right now?' I stalled as hard as I could and once I came out I fell into shock. Walking up the beach when they said the score I couldn't really believe it. I don't know if you guys saw me but I was blank-faced because I was shocked.
"And to be in the final with Michel was really cool and will be a moment I'll never forget."
JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.