"All bets are off!"
Back in 2017, Sally Fitzgibbons needed only a good performance at Honolua to win the world title. She looked to have it within her grasp. Then the waves went flat. Not a bump on the horizon. For what felt like an eternity, she could only sit and watch as the clock ticked down. It started to rain. Which, go ahead and fire the writers on this film. The rain was going way too far. Tyler Wright went on to win the title that day, while Fitzgibbons was forced to settle for third in the final rankings.
Now Fitzgibbons is leading the title race, after beating Carissa Moore in the finals at the Oi Rio Pro. During her first three years on Tour, Fitzgibbons finished second twice behind Gilmore and once behind Moore. This could be the year she finally wins one — but if the first five events of this season are anything to go by, there’s a long way to go before this thing is over. Predicting the women’s world title race this year is a fool’s game.
I am not a morning person, so the vast majority of the Oi Rio Pro took place while I was hugging my pillow. I’ll confess to taking an impressionistic approach to watching heats. Basically, I watched the ones I wanted to watch. This seemed like a perfectly journalistically responsible approach to take. I considered picking one surfer at random and only watching her heats. Maybe I’ll do it that way for France. Waking up to watch sports in France while living in California is not rad, in my experience.
Women’s round three unfolded in the kind of fucked up beach break most of us would watch from the beach. I like mixed up beach break about as much as I like going left. Let’s just say, these are not my favorite conditions. After she won her round 3 heat, Strider asked Moore how she managed to find scoring waves. Moore laughed and said, I don’t know, you tell me. That was largely the story of Oi Rio: the search for scoring waves.
Moore was among the more successful at this game during round 3 and won her heat against local wildcard Taina Hinckel with a five and a six. Hinckel met Moore after winning her elimination round heat against Fitzgibbons and Nikki Van Dijk. Shoutout to the local wildcard girl! Hinckel couldn’t make much headway against Moore. Despite her self-deprecating interview, Moore seemed relatively comfortable in the wild conditions.
With so many lefts on offer, I was looking forward to seeing Caroline Marks surf frontside. I swear to you, every time I saw her on a wave, she was going right. It does make a certain amount of sense — if you know you can get the scores going backside, well, you’re going to do that in a heat. Marks went out in round 3 to Keely Andrew. It was a low-scoring heat and both women struggled to find rideable waves.
Together with Moore, Fitzgibbons and Peterson proved the standouts in round 3. With a combination of luck and skill, they managed to find scoring waves amidst the chaos. Peterson’s athleticism gave her an edge in the bumpy conditions. Her turns looked solid and she ably dispatched Macy Callaghan in lopsided heat. Defay took an early lead against Fitzgibbons, but it didn’t last long. Fitzgibbons found a tidy left that was good for a seven and change. The judges seemed inclined to reward anything resembling a legit turn out there — which given the conditions, was not wrong, necessarily.
For finals day, the contest moved down the beach. The conditions cleaned up, sure, but remained shifty. Long lulls, plenty of closeouts, plenty of backwash. The crowd on the beach really didn’t seem to care. Sun, beer — a good day out for all involved, if not the most scintillating event to watch on the internet.
After her performance in round 3, Peterson’s quarterfinal was frankly a shocker. She struggled to find anything to ride and went down to Fitzgibbons with a heat total of 1.20. A couple years back, Peterson broke her foot in the backwash at Oxnard. I couldn’t help but wonder if that injury got in her head a bit as she faced the backwash bumps and closeouts at Barrinha. She looked unusually tentative. Fitzgibbons waltzed away with an eight and a six to make the semis.
My favorite heats in women’s surfing happen between Moore and Steph Gilmore. Almost without fail, they bring out the best in each other. Their semi at Barrinha got off to a slow start. Moore took an early lead with a couple of three’s, but it would have been a surprise if those numbers had held. And sure enough they did not.
The heat got serious when Moore pulled into a nifty barrel on a set wave and managed to shimmy out of it for a 7.5. Gilmore, who’d been struggling a bit in the closeouts, needed something special. Of course, being Steph, she found it: A long barrel with a clean snap to finish it. The judges liked it. Like, really, really liked it. Gilmore grabbed a nine and took over the lead.
But Moore wasn’t done. She found another seven and with clock ticking down, Gilmore needed a six and change. A small insider at the buzzer was all Gilmore could find — and it wasn’t enough. Last year at Huntington, Moore lost after Gilmore got the score on her final wave. This time, the decision went Moore’s way. It was a characteristic heat for both of them, in some ways. Moore, rock solid, consistent. Gilmore, flairing with a big score, one of the highest of the day for the women.
Anytime Gilmore and Moore compete, it feels like a final. By comparison the semi between Fitzgibbons and Andrew felt anticlimactic. A low-scoring affair, Fitzgibbons advanced with a 7.63 — lower than Moore’s single-wave score.
I had Moore to win the final and for much of the heat, it looked like she had it. While Moore had a seven and a five in hand, Fitzgibbons unrolled a series of low-scoring waves on the inside. There was, as it turned out, a method to the madness. Fitzgibbons sold the judges on a couple of cheeky little coverups. Not quite barrels, but close enough to catch their jaded eyes. A 5.97 felt overscored, but it’s hard to argue with Fitzgibbons’s animated style. She knows how to sell it.
The heat turned on a barrel to closeout smack combination from Fitzgibbons. The barrel was neither as deep or as clean as Gilmore’s nine. It was the flying closeout banger that earned Fitzgibbons the score — and fairly, I think, though I had to watch it a couple times to decide. Thanks to an eight on that thing, Fitzgibbons won Oi Rio — and took over the lead in the world rankings. I’ll confess, I did not see that coming.
The women’s title race remains wildly dynamic. With five events completed, no one has won more than one event. Marks, Gilmore, Conlogue, Peterson, and Fitzgibbons: Each has won an event. With the exception of Gilmore, each has also gone out early at least once, if not twice in the early rounds. Marks and Peterson have two ninths; Fitzgibbons has one.
Though she hasn’t yet won an event, Moore remains the most consistent. Neither Moore nor Gilmore have finished below the quarters this year. Over on Instagram, Rabbit Bartholomew commented to Moore that she’d set herself up perfectly for a late-year run at the title. And he might just be right. If this year has shown us anything so far, though, the women’s title race is anything but predictable. Five events down, five to go.
With J-Bay up next, we head straight into Gilmore’s territory. It’s all but impossible to bet against the seven-time champ in good conditions at J-Bay. (Want a reminder? I got you.) If Gilmore wants to hold off a run up the rankings from Moore, she’ll need to win at J-Bay. The wave pool, France, and Honolua all suit Moore. And of course, there’s Fitzgibbons, sitting up there leading the whole damn thing.
All bets are off.