Words by Thea McDonald-Lee
It’s oddly quiet for a World Championship day. In a few hours we’re going to crown the queen of surfing, and she’s going to be Australian. Strider Wasilewski is on the microphone and surfers are wandering back up the path from their morning session. Professional surfer Owen Wright has flown in from Oahu where the event he’s competing in is currently on hold. His little sister is Tyler Wright. She’s been winning surf events since she was 14 years old but she’s never surfed out here before.
“I came here when I was younger with my mum, sister and best friend. It was dead flat the whole time and we just hung out. Hopefully we get big waves, but I guess even if we just get fun waves it will be super rippable,” Tyler tells me with her Australian drawl. She’s a pretty excited kind of person.
Every year, 18 female surfers follow the World Championship Tour around the globe. It’s a tough feat. The events start in Australia, hop over to South America, wander through the Pacific and Europe and this year it finishes here, at Honolua Bay on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The surfer with the most points at the end of the year wins. The last two years the trophy has stayed in Hawaii. This year, it’s going home to Australia.
Two times world champion Carissa Moore is in the water. There isn’t any pressure on her to win as unfortunately the maths doesn’t work in her favour. She can’t claim the overall crown but it’s not going to stop her from taking out this event. It’s a shaky heat start and she seems nervous, taking off on a non-scoring wave with only seconds to go till a heat restart.
“When I came in my Dad said, maybe next time it would be better strategically to just wait for the restart…”
Carissa advances against Reunion Island surfer Johanne Defay, who doesn’t seem to mind too much because she’s just won the Rookie Of The Year award. “I’m already thinking about the speech I’m going to have to do, it’s going to be terrible,” she laughs in her post heat interview.
The waves are a little slow this morning. They’re good when they come but sitting here waiting for them reminds me that surfing is one of the most bizarre sports, held completely at the whims of the ever moving Mother Nature.
Quarterfinal 2 – Stephanie Gilmore and Courtney Conlogue. Even Steph said she was nervous when she saw the heat draw. Courtney has been surfing incredibly in this event. Some of the drops she took yesterday made everyone whisper to each other, this girl is going to be on the big wave tour… There’s six minutes to go and Steph has a narrow lead over Courtney, 12.56 to 12.50. Mother Nature sends a wave the Californians way and she stamps the tail on her last turn. She throws a strong fist claim at the end of the ride to signal to the judges they should be paying attention. She gets the score and suddenly Steph is out of the event.
It’s the first time Steph has ever lost at Honolua Bay and she’s clearly upset. She stays in the water for the entire next heat and later tells the commentary, “I was so bummed with myself and my surfing I was going to paddle all the way to Moloki!” It’s a silly comment about an island near by, but the tone of her voice is serious. Someone needs to remind her, you haven’t lost the world title just yet.
Sally is normally a no brainer. She surfs so incredibly well, so analytically, so judge-perfect that it’s hard to find any faults at all. But something is happening. While Sally Fitzgibbons is getting busy on the inside under priority, Bianca Buitendag is patiently waiting out the back. Bianca was raised on a famous South African right hand point break and she knows what she is doing. She surfs vertically, stomping the fins and throwing the spray.
Up on the pathway Tyler Wright and Courtney Conlogue high five – Courtney’s just made sure that Tyler is one step closer to her own chance at a world title by taking Steph out of the running. There’s no animosity between any of the girls, but there’s definitely a competitive drive in them all. After all, they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to win.
With two minutes left on the clock Sally needs an 8.97 to take the heat victory and it looks like there is a wave coming her way. Kick push, kick push, get back into position. The buzzer sounds and we are still waiting for the score and I’m reminded once again just how bizarre surfing is. What other sport do you have to wait till after the final bell to hear the results? It’s just not enough and the South African takes the victory. Sally does a Steph and doesn’t come in for her post-heat interview. It’s a devastating loss. There’s now no chance she can win the world title and I wonder how many people are going to refer to her as the perennial bridesmaid. I feel the loss too.
But surfing must move on and now the spotlight is on Tyler Wright. She’s in with a slim chance to win the world title but the funny thing is, she doesn’t care! “I don’t even know what I have to do to win a world title, for me, it’s just about surfing.” Surfing is Tyler’s creative outlet she tells me, “Because I can’t draw, I’m hopeless at drawing.” There was a lot of pressure put on Tyler as the youngest ever person to win a WCT event and we almost lost her as a competitor a couple of years ago. Too much too soon. A child prodigy with too much attention too young. But we didn’t lose Tyler. She found who she really wanted to be. And that was a surfer. Whether she found herself in a world title race or not was someone else’s idea, for her, it’s all just about surfing.
She’s up against another Californian, Lakey Peterson, who is just as hungry as Courtney. But this time it’s working in the Australian’s favour and Tyler advances through her heat. She’s the only world title contender still in the event and has to take the win for a chance at the crown.
“You know what helped me out was when Lakey got that 9, it woke me up! Once she got that I got right into the swing of things and started surfing. And that’s it, that’s all I want to do out there. It’s what I love and it’s what I’ve worked so hard to do. I want to go out in the water and be creative.”
With the quarter finals decided, the title race open only to Tyler and Steph, everyone is on edge as Tyler wins her semi final and heads straight into the last showdown. If Tyler wins the event against Carissa Moore then she will tie for WCT points with Steph and the two will have a surf-off to decide the overall winner.
A surf-off seems a little ridiculous. It would consist of three heats between Steph and Tyler with the best of three taking the win. The heats would be 30 minutes each so we’d be watching another hour and a half of surfing before a world champion is crowned. Again, I’m reminded just how bizarre surfing events are.
According to the live stream on YouTube there are 19,868 people watching as Tyler and Carissa take to the water. That may not sound like much, but for a tour that has had online spectators in the 5-10 thousands for most other events this year, 20G is a big number.
“I surf on the world tour and this is by far the best year and the most coverage the women’s tour has ever had. I haven’t actually seen the stats but I feel like it is.” Well Tyler, the stats are starting to stack up.
Nerves clearly have the better of the two girls as Tyler falls on a wave and Carissa gives up her priority on a non-scoring wave. Within the first 10 minutes Carissa has Tyler in a combo situation. She’s been surfing so powerfully this whole event we are all wondering where Tyler’s scores are. But it’s because she hasn’t got the waves yet. The heat is slow, the waves breaking only a few times and we are all at the whims of Mother Nature.
It’s a fitting way to finish. Carissa Moore takes the Honolua crown, Tyler takes runner up and Stephanie Gilmore clinches her sixth world title at exactly the same wave she won her first. There’s a little bit of magic in the air. Steph, usually so composed and always smiling, is fighting back the tears as Chelsea tries to interview her for the ASP show.
“Thanks everyone for tuning in at home. My family, my mum, my dad (at this moment she puts her face in her hands and cries a little) I’ve got the hiccup tears, my boyfriend and everybody. Thanks so much for all the support!”
Later on the podium Steph congratulates all her competitors and generously states, “I wish there was some way we could share this all. Tyler is so deserving of a world title. So is Carissa and so is Sally. But for now, it’s mine” and she flashes her Happy Gilmore Smile.
WATCH THE VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS OF STEPH GILMORE’S HISTORIC SIXTH TITLE WIN HERE: