OAHU, Hawaii -- The final minute of Heat 15 in Round 3 of the Billabong Pipeline Masters was as intense as competitive surfing gets. Joel Parkinson, needing to advance to Round 4 to keep his world title hopes alive, found himself searching for a 6.54 -- a reasonable task considering the flawless 8- to 10-foot surf detonating on the reef all day. But as a set stacked up out the back, the seconds were ticking down, and it wasn't clear that Parkinson would even get a chance. Meanwhile, Mick Fanning -- the current World No. 1 -- was just paddling out for his heat. He had a front-row seat of the only surfer left who could steal the world title from him.
With fewer than 10 seconds to spare, Parkinson scratched into the only wave available. No one will ever know if it would offer the barrel ride he needed; the 28-year-old Australian got hung up in the lip and dived, head-first, to second place on the year. Looking back, it's an apt metaphor for a disappointing season.
Less than a month into the 2009 ASP World Tour, it appeared a foregone conclusion that it was Parkinson's year. He stormed through the Quiksilver Pro in cyclonic Snapper Rocks surf and then made short work of the field at the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. With two events down and two first-place finishes, Parkinson was in the driver's seat. After fourth-place finishes in 2007 and 2008, he was finally going to win a title.
Defending world champion Kelly Slater had been flogged by two wild cards in a row. Parkinson's good mate and 2007 champ Fanning found himself on the outside looking in with a third and a fifth. Meanwhile, Parkinson -- who was marked for greatness by Australia's surfing community as a junior surfer years ago -- looked unstoppable.
"I kept telling myself after the Gold Coast, it is not a sprint, it is a marathon," Parkinson said after Bell Beach. "I have got to be here for the long haul. I am just going keep on the same program, trying to be more prepared, giving my all and hopefully I will take some confidence out of these two events."
Parkinson missed a beat in the dredging left-hand barrels at the Billabong Pro Tahiti and finished ninth, but regained form with a third in Brazil and another win at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. With three wins in five events, Parkinson had his competition by the throat.
Slater, who knows a thing or two about having his competition by the throat, marveled after Jeffreys, "I'm going to probably have to win three straight now to get back in this thing."
The six-week break between the Billabong Pro South Africa and the Hurley Lowers Pro marks the halfway point in the season and is meant to be a lull in the action, but this year it was the determining factor. During a routine, sponsor-funded photo trip to Bali, Indonesia, Parkinson came down wrong from a fairly standard air. His ankle buckled and news of a very bad sprain quickly spread through the World Tour ranks. Meanwhile, something in Fanning clicked.
Parkinson limped to three consecutive 17th-place finishes while Fanning pounced like a lion on a wounded gazelle. He won three of the next four events, overtaking the ratings lead and ensuring that the world title race would come down to the Pipeline Masters for the first time since 2003.
"It's what you always dream of as a kid," said Fanning after his win at the Rip Curl Search in Portugal. "I'm going to go home and relax for a couple of weeks and get ready for Pipe. Hopefully we get some big barrels like we did here and we have a real showdown."
"Big barrels" is putting it mildly, and a "real showdown" is what the surfing world got. Conditions Saturday at Pipeline were simply as good as they get, and with thousands of spectators lining the beach, it seemed the whole world realized that Parkinson's heat could be the defining one of the year. There were no shortage of Australian flags waving in the crowd, and as Parkinson plunged toward the bottom of his final wave, it was tough to tell which were louder: the groans for Parkinson or the cheers for Fanning.
Even as Fanning's heat got underway, he paddled directly to Parkinson, who was still recovering from a gnarly wipeout and the realization that his season was over. Fanning threw an arm around his friend's shoulders and they shared a moment -- in full view of the world and practically alone in the storied waters of the Pipeline lineup.
Forty minutes later, Fanning emerged from the water having lost to Dean Morrison, but having won the 2009 ASP World Championship. One of the first guys to the water's edge to offer a shoulder as Fanning was carried up the beach? Joel Parkinson.