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What to watch for heading into the 2015 WSL World Championship Tour

It’s almost March and that can only mean one thing. No, not March Madness—it’s the start of the World of Surf League at the Quicksilver Pro Gold Coast. Instead of 68 teams vying for an NCAA Championship, you get the world’s top 34 surfers competing in some of the best waves around the globe.

  • MORE EDGE: A Day in the Life: Pro surfer Gabriel Medina​

If the name WSL doesn’t ring any bells, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Since 1983 the governing body of professional surfing has been known as the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). No longer. ASP CEO Paul Speaker announced the new moniker this past September:

“At the start of the 2015 season, we will change our name to the World Surf League (WSL). We’re making this change because we believe the new name is easier to understand, and gets us on a better track to serve our fans, athletes and partners, and to grow the great sport of professional surfing worldwide.”

No matter the name, let’s just hope this year’s tour can match last season’s excitement—capped off by Gabriel Medina clinching the world title at Pipeline amid a mob of Brazilian fans. But Pipe is over nine months away, so here’s what you should keep an eye on as the best surfers in the world get ready for the Gold Coast and the 2015 Men's Championship Tour.

1. Can Medina do it again?

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​Kelly Slater was the last surfer to claim back-to-back world titles (2010, 2011). Medina appears the likely heir to the throne. In December, Medina became the second youngest surfer to win a world title at 20 years old. The youngest? Who else—Slater in 1991.

Medina is looking to add to his collection and give Brazil even more reason to celebrate. Though better known for his forehand aerial moves, Medina arrived on the Gold Coast last year and proved he’s just as skilled on his backhand—taking down Joel Parkinson on the long right point break waves at Snapper Rocks to win the Quicksilver Pro. It was a harbinger of what was to come. Medina won two more events (Figi and Teahupoo) and edged out another Australian, Mick Fanning, for the world title. Can the Brazilian wunderkind deal with the new pressure of being the world champ? We’ll find out when he starts his title defense on the Gold Coast when the waiting period begins on Feb. 28. 

2. Can the 11-time champ make it a dozen?

The last three seasons have ended the same way for Kelly Slater. Each time he’s arrived in Hawaii with a chance at the world title. And each time he’s had to watch another surfer—Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, Gabriel Medina—hoist the trophy. At 43, Slater has proven this sport is no longer reserved for the young. Yet with no event wins last season, can Slater still compete against surfers half his age? The last time Slater won on the Gold Coast, he also claimed the world title. If the king can duplicate his success at Snapper Rocks, he might have the chance to wear the crown once again in Hawaii.  

3. Will the rookies pose a threat?

The start of a new season on tour is kind of the like the beginning of a new school year. The pros return after a few months away and there are always new some faces added to the class. But on the WSL there is no orientation. Last season, both rookies failed to re-qualify. This year’s batch of five rookies—Matt Banting (AUS), WiggollyDantas (BRA), Italo Ferreira (BRA), KeanuAsing (HAW), and Ricardo Christie(NZL)—will have a similar trial by fire at Snapper.

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​​Take Banting—the 20-year-old from Port Macquarie, Australia qualified first from the QS. His reward? He faces Mick Fanning, the three-time world champ and last year’s runner up, in the first round. But Banting is accustomed to dueling against his idols. Growing up he had a poster of Slater on his bedroom wall and owned all his videos. When he was nine, Banting even dressed up as Slater for a school research assignment about his favorite athlete. Seven years later, he was surfing against Slater after the 16-year-old received a wildcard into the Quicksilver Pro Gold Coast 2011. Banting will use that experience to help him navigate his inaugural year on tour. “Coming from the junior ranks you’re used winning so much,” he says. “When you get to this level you can get a couple results here and there, but you also can get smashed. The main thing is to keep your confidence up and enjoy it all. I’m finally here. It’s my dream.”

“When you get to this level you can get a couple results here and there, but you also can get smashed. The main thing is to keep your confidence up and enjoy it all. I’m finally here. It’s my dream.”​—Matt Banting

4. Which other surfers will emerge from the pack?

Last season Michel Bourez, or “The Spartan” as he’s known, received attention for more than his physique. The 29-year-old Tahitian made his sixth campaign his best yet. He leveraged his barrel riding and powerful carving style to win two events and finish fifth in the final standings.

This season, expect Julian Wilson to redeem himself after ending 2014 with a disappointing ranking of 14th. Wilson finished the year on a high note though after winning the Pipe Masters and the Triple of Crown of Surfing in Hawaii. He’ll once again look to show that he’s amongst the tour’s elite with a strong performance at Snapper.

5. Predictions for the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast:

Winner:Joel Parkinson

After falling short to Medina by .06 points in last year’s final, Parko—a two-time Quiksilver Pro champ (2002 and 2009)—will do better this time around. He’ll use his local knowledge at Snapper to take the win.

Dark horse:Kolohe Andino

The 20-year-old from San Clemente, Calif., who many had pegged as American’s next best title contender after Slater, found the learning curve much steeper than he expected after qualifying for the 2012 WCT. “My first two and a quarter years on tour I was really frustrated with my results,” Andino says. “I just wanted to be up with all my peers. I was bummed and not excited really.” But after breaking through last season with a second place finish in Brazil and ending the year ranked 11th, Andino seems poised to climb into the Top 10 and maybe even the Top 5. He also has momentum coming off a win earlier this month at the Australian Open of Surfing. “You’re going to go through peaks and valleys,” says Andino. “And you’ve got to try to milk the peaks.”

Make sure to tune in to the live webcast to watch Andino, Parkinson and the rest of the Top 34 in action on the Gold Coast.