One of our own is surfing for the world championship this week. Conner Coffin, born and raised on the coast of Santa Barbara, is in the finals of the World Surf League’s (WSL) 2021 campaign.
Known for his smooth and powerful surfing, Coffin is very much in the mix for glory in this year’s new, five-person, one-day-only, winner-take-all final event. The trophy is the most prestigious award in all of surfing, a goal Coffin has been working toward since he was a towheaded grom with a bowl cut hustling for scraps at Rincon. “It’s surreal, for sure,” buzzed Conner last week from his home on the South Coast, “I’m just pumped for the opportunity. It feels really good to be here.”
After COVID threw a curveball into the last part of the WSL’s contest schedule, a decision was made to cancel the annual tour stop in Tahiti and conclude the season here in California at one of Orange County’s holy lands of surf — Lower Trestles in San Clemente. The move marked the third time this year an event was taken off the schedule due to COVID, the other two coming in South Africa and Portugal. The end result is that the typically 10-stop tour has become a seven-stop affair.
The cancellations have not been without controversy. Only heightening this criticism is the WSL’s new format for crowning a champion. Historically, a winner has been named in both the men’s and women’s divisions based on their combined performance from every event on the tour. This year, however, the cumulative performances from the season only matter in that they decide who will be competing in the finals and how those surfers will be seeded. Only the top five from the season make the final event, which is run as a winner-take-all playoff with one-on-one knockout rounds along the way.
Coffin, who placed in the Top 10 six different times this season, has the No. 4 seed in the men’s draw. If he wins four consecutive matchups (the first starting with No. 5 seed Morgan Cibilic from Australia, and the last coming against the current No. 1–ranked men’s surfer in the world, Gabriel Medina from Brazil), he goes home world champion. “It’s a little weird because now the champion will be based on whoever is the best surfer of the day instead of whoever was the best surfer of the year,” explained Coffin. “But I also think it’s a really exciting way to do things. Gabriel has smoked everyone all year, but now he has to beat us one more time and all in one day. Anything could happen out there.”
Coffin cemented his place in the season finale with a quarterfinals showing at the Corona Open in Mexico last month. Thus far, his best result all season — which is also the best finish of his six-year WSL career — was a runner-up finish at the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic in Australia back in mid-April. If the 28-year-old regular foot wins at Trestles this month, he will not only stand atop the podium of a WSL event for the first time but also win a world championship in the process.
Not only is this a recipe for serious high-stakes surfing, but it also represents a very clear path for Coffin to turn a long-simmering fantasy into a hard-won reality. Regardless of outcome, the event should make for some excellent athletic theater. After all, any time a person has a legitimate chance to realize one of his or her childhood dreams, we should all be paying attention. The opportunity alone is an invocation to hope.
And, speaking of hope, there is legitimate south swell in the forecast for the contest’s waiting period, which runs September 9-17. Whatever day the waves are best, the champion will be crowned. The bigger the surf is, the better for Coffin and his personal brand of power-based surfing. “I wish I could do a couple big airs,” he said, alluding to the fact that his more classical approach to wave riding doesn’t feature as many high-flying aerial antics as his fellow competitors.
“But I think I’ll just stick with what got me here in the first place and see how it goes,” he said. “No matter what, it’s going to be a great experience. I mean, getting to surf Lowers with only one other guy — that never sucks.”
411 | The World Surf League Finals sponsored by Rip Curl is on call for September 9-17 at Lower Trestles in San Clemente. For more info or to tune in to the live webcast, go to worldsurfleague.com.