Four high-pressure heats contested with world title hopes on the line…
It’s getting real in the women’s world title race now. The opening heats for the women at J-Bay set up the quarterfinals perfectly.
Each of the high seeds made it through, which meant four high-pressure heats contested with world title hopes on the line. The atmospherics of dreamy J-Bay felt at odds with the stakes. Even the inevitable point break lulls ratcheted up the tension.
This year’s narrative was set to be a rivalry between Stephanie Gilmore and newcomer Caroline Marks.
I’ll confess I rolled my eyes a bit at the notion that we could decide the narrative back at the opening event, but having written press releases a few times in my life, you have to write something.
In any case, the Gilmore-Marks title race hasn’t really materialized, thanks to inconsistent performances from both women. Other contenders such as Carissa Moore and Sally Fitzgibbons, meanwhile, have steadily climbed the rankings.
Though this year has never been a two-woman race, the quarterfinal between Gilmore and Marks was a big heat for both of them.
For Gilmore, it was a crucial heat if she wants to chase down Carissa Moore and Sally Fitzgibbons for the world title. Gilmore has struggled to bring her best surfing to the party this year. The gorgeous style will always be there, but at crucial points she’s failed to get the scores that add up to a world title.
Marks, meanwhile, needed to win this heat to pull herself out of the two-way tie with Lakey Peterson for fifth and climb back into the title race, if she can. As the fourth-placed American in the rankings going into J-Bay, Marks also needed a good heat to keep her Olympic dreams alive.
It is always a shock to me when Steph Gilmore falls on a wave. Wait, what? How is that even possible? When Gilmore is at her best, it feels like nothing could ever go wrong.
In her heat against Marks, Gilmore fell twice on scoring waves, and quite simply, that was the game. Marks surfed as well as ever with an 8.17 and a 6.27 as her keepers but Gilmore largely defeated herself on this one.
A pair of sixes at a right-hand point is a rough day at the office for Gilmore and in a post-heat interview, she said it was a crucial heat and a tough loss. She isn’t out of the title race just yet, but losing that heat just made the whole thing much more difficult.
Of the women in these quarterfinals, Carissa Moore surfed the best. Smooth, controlled, powerful. She seemed to see what the wave was going to do before it happened. She never fell out sync, there were no frantic chases down the line to get back in the pocket.
If you didn’t see the 9.5, it’s worth finding. She slid into that cheeky barrel on the end section like it was nothing, never mind the rocks lurking just beneath the surface. Against anyone else, Johanne Defay might have had a shot at this one. She surfed well, but Moore was simply on another level. There’s not much you can do with a 17-point combo.
Thanks to the post-heat interview I learned that Moore and Defay are good friends and traveling together at J-Bay. This is fine, but it felt like waste of an interview to me. Anyone who’s spent any time around women’s sports knows the friendship stops when the competition begins. No one’s going to really spare a thought for their bestie when the world title is on the line. Moore handled it with her characteristic grace, of course. She’ll meet Marks in the semifinal, which is going to be fire.
My heart always says Malia, but my head said that certainly Sally Fitzgibbons would win this one. Not so fast. J-Bay suits Manuel’s smooth style and clean rail work. She came out firing on and scored a 7.0 on her opening wave. If her turns lacked the dynamism and power of Moore, Manuel looked poised and beautifully controlled.
Fitzgibbons answered back with fast, hammering turns. The judges rightly rewarded her tighter, more vertical turns a bit more than Manuel’s more flowing style, but the heat remained a nailbiter.
Then things got wild. Manuel fell after taking a wave on priority, leaving her with no backup score. A lull created a high-tension waiting game. Then with priority, Manuel went to go, but changed her mind. Along the way, she also prevented Fitzgibbons from taking the wave. That meant Manuel lost priority. Fitzgibbons scooped up the next one, but only managed a 6.17. Good, but not the emphatic finish she might have liked.
Point breaks are a finicky business. Long lulls. Two-wave sets alternated with five- or even ten-wave sets. Manuel quite simply got lucky. Instead of a two-wave set, the waves just kept coming. Manuel has an almost zenlike presence and it served her well here. She scrapped into the last wave of the set, waited for the white water section to clear, threw down a series of clean, arcing turns.
Just nail the close-out and win the heat: That’s it. Manuel went big on the final section, but fell on the closeout. The cameras showed her on the beach, waiting for the score to come though. It felt like forever, watching it. She got it.
A 7.03 on her final wave sends Manuel to the semi-final.
I was looking forward to the heat between Courtney Conlogue and Lakey Peterson. Both are insanely competitive and dynamic. You never really know what Conlogue, in particular, is going to do on a wave. Her opener featured an insane close-out move. The judges weren’t that into close-out moves this time around, it seems, because I expected a higher score for that one than they delivered. Conlogue took an early lead with a 7.33.
Peterson answered back in short order with a signature wave. A series of tight, vertical turns linked seamlessly. And fast. Peterson has so much speed. She’s always right on the edge of it, which is nerve-wracking to watch. I’m not sure about that head throw in the midst of the hooking turn she loves so much. An 8.57 gave her the lead and the heat looked to be a competitive one.
It took a turn when Conlogue needed a board change. If you’re going to break your board in a heat, J-Bay is a hell of a place to do it. Paddle back up to the keyhole, get to the beach, paddle back out. I thought the heat was over for Conlogue. There was no way Peterson wasn’t going to make the most of sitting alone in the lineup. But Peterson could only pick up a 4.50 during Conlogue’s board change.
Game still on.
Except Conlogue paddled back out to a flat ocean. Just then, J-Bay decided to do stupid point break things and the lull from hell began. Peterson and Conlogue sat there, bobbing up and down, staring at the horizon. Pretty much nothing happened. Finally, one wave slouched down the point. With priority, Peterson scooped it up, scored a 5.83, and that was the heat. It was all a bit of a letdown, given the dynamic styles of the two women in the water. Peterson meets Manuel in the semifinal, which will be quite the contrast in styles.
With Fitzgibbons out, Moore needs to make the final in order to take over the lead in the rankings. That means beating Marks. Based on their quarterfinal heat scores, Moore has the edge, but both women have shown that they are big-heat surfers. They bring their best when it matters, and Moore has steadily built a solid foundation for a title run.
While the narrative has focused on Gilmore and Marks, Moore is quietly waiting to pounce.
Corona Open J-Bay Women’s Quarterfinal Results:
QF 1: Caroline Marks (USA) 14.44 DEF. Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) 13.10
QF 2: Carissa Moore (HAW) 17.67 DEF. Johanne Defay (FRA) 12.50
QF 3: Malia Manuel (HAW) 14.03 DEF. Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) 13.50
QF 4: Lakey Peterson (USA) 14.40 DEF. Courtney Conlogue (USA) 11.00
Corona Open J-Bay Women’s Semifinal Matchups:
SF 1: Caroline Marks (USA) vs. Carissa Moore (HAW)
SF 2: Malia Manuel (HAW) vs. Lakey Peterson (USA)