"The women belong at Teahupo’o. The progression was significant compared to a year ago and it’s a joy to see that unfold in real time."
Wind raged across the lineup as Caroline Marks won the Shiseido Tahiti Pro ahead of Caity Simmers on Wednesday. It was not the most exciting heat you’ll ever see, and it would be a mistake to judge the women’s contest by the final.
In fact, the women made a strong case that they belong at Teahupo’o. There’s still have work to do, sure. But the progression looked significant compared to a year ago and it’s a joy to see that unfold in real time.
Let’s dispense with the Steph Gilmore question straight away. Somehow Steph made it through to the quarterfinals at Teahupo’o, but it was clear she had little interest in being there. Steph brought the fire to win last year’s world title, but she’s seemed unmoored this year, and has rarely shown her best surfing. It’ll always be a mark against Steph that she hasn’t made the same push to decode barreling lefts that her competitors have.
Until now, she never needed to. Before its return to the women’s calendar in 2022, Teahupo’o last appeared in 2006. Steph’s first year on Tour came the following year in 2007. It’s worth lingering for a hot minute on Steph’s rookie year. Out of eight events, she won four — and she won the world title. Then Steph was world champion for the next three years in a row.
Each year’s world tour calendar featured enough rights — and Steph typically won them all — to secure her the title. Sometimes natural talent is both a blessing and a curse. When it all comes so easily, learning something new can feel like an insurmountable obstacle. Barreling lefts have turned out to be Steph’s curse. Caroline had no trouble sending her home in the quarters.
On paper, the quarterfinal between Vahine Fierro and Carissa looked like one of the best heats of the day. The ocean had other ideas. Carissa blew a take-off on a possible score early on, but in truth neither of them found much to ride. Vahine has a smooth grace in the barrel but could only muster a 6.83 and a 2.00. Vahine rightly won it, but it was a low-scoring heat all around from two surfers who had more to give.
Like several of the women in the draw, Tati has significantly improved her surfing in left barrels. Until now, she hasn’t shown much affinity for it, and I’ll confess to having images of her straightening out at Pipe etched in my mind. A first sign of the change came in the form of a pre-comp clip where she pulled into a solid one and rode it out.
Despite her progress, Tati narrowly lost to a hard-charging Tyler Wright. Their quarterfinal was one of the closest heats of the day, and the split between Tati’s 6.93 and Tyler’s 7.17 may well keep Tati up at night for a while. To my eye Tyler deserved the score and her seven was one of the better barrels of the day from a regular foot.
The heat between Molly Picklum and Caity was a straight-up huck fest. It was hilariously low scoring for the intensity they brought to it. Molly and Caity just fully went for it without any signs of fear. Reef? What reef? There they were, just pulling into close-outs like it was no big thing. Love that for them.
Molly had the highest scoring wave of this one, but Caity took the win by a narrow margin. It could easily have gone either way, and these two promise to make women’s surfing fun to watch for a lot of years to come.
Tyler has also done her homework, and she was a back-up score away from winning her semifinal against Caroline. With a heavy sideshore wind on it, the conditions favored the goofyfoots going front side. Still, Tyler managed to put up another high score with a 7.67. It wasn’t a long tube ride, by any means, but I don’t think she could have ridden it much better. After a smooth drop, she grabbed rail, set her line, and rode it out. I’ll forgive the claim, if you will.
By far the best wave the day belongs to Caity. It came just inside the 8 minute mark of her semifinal against Vahine. The first wave of the heat went to Caity, who dropped in for a quick tube and turn. 6.50. Vahine pulled into a sweet one, stalled, and came out for a high seven. She held a slim lead for much of the heat. For a while, the ocean seemed to go flat. As the clock ticked down, it looked like Vahine had it won. Caity needed a mid-4 to advance.
If you watch nothing else from this finals day, watch this wave from Caity. It shows plainly her unique intuition. It’s as though Caity feels a rhythm on that wave that few others can perceive. It reminded me of Steph’s front side barrel at Keramas a few years back, where she had that beautiful dancing two-step into the barrel. No one can teach that kind of feel for how the ocean moves.
Setting it up, Caity takes off from deep. The wave sections ahead of her, but she smoothly bottom turns around it. Remember now, she’s surfing backside. Caity throws a quick midface turn to line up the barrel. Then she grabs rail and pulls in.
Shooting through the crumbling lip, she makes a clean exit. She almost looks surprised that she made it. But she still remembers to throw in a quick down carve to finish it. The judges gave it a 9.23. I’m not sure what else they wanted there. Just give her the ten, you nerds!
After that drama, the final did not have much to offer. A gale blew through and turned the lineup into victory at sea. I’m not sure why they didn’t go on hold. I suppose they were afraid we’d all leave and do something else, as though people who watch surf contests have anything else to do. Spoiler! We don’t.
Buffeted by the wind-driven bumps swarming the lineup, Caroline won it with a five and a three. The conditions gave this heat a “what could have been” sort of vibe. In better conditions, it might have been a real one between Caroline and Caity.
There simply wasn’t much to do here — though Caity earned some serious core points for sending it hard and getting munched on one of the bigger sets of the heat.
Throughout finals day, Caroline skillfully threaded the wind-warped tubes on offer. She looks smooth and comfortable out there. Caroline’s a bit less deep in the tube than Vahine, who has the timing at Teahupo’o on lock. No doubt Caroline will be spending more time in Tahiti ahead of the Olympics.
With her second win of the season, Caroline finishes her comeback year third in the world ahead of the final at Trestles. She should be proud of that. It’s not easy to step away, reset, and return to the top level the way she has.
Unlike the men’s side, there were no changes to the top five. Carissa held her narrow lead over Tyler in second. Caroline sits third followed by Molly and Caity. The women’s finals will open with a heat between Caity and Molly. Really, I’m not sure we could ask for more out of this absurd format. That heat will be scrap. The winner meets Caroline. If anyone wants to make a run up the draw, they’ve got a very tough climb.
It’s perhaps fitting that Carissa and Caity sit at either end of the draw. In her first year on Tour in 2010, Carissa won two events and finished third overall. At the time, she was compared to Kelly and Dane for her progression, poise, and inventive surfing. Surfing her first year, Caity has also won two events, and currently sits fifth overall. She’s regularly compared to Dane and John John.
In the current moment, they sit at opposite ends of their careers. Caity combines flashes of sheer brilliance with youthful inconsistency. Carissa meanwhile steady refines her prodigious talent and has seemed to find inspiration rather than fear in the performances of younger surfers like Caity and Molly. Caity has everything ahead of her — both the good and the bad.
The meeting of these two generations promises to push them both. And along the way, they’ll surely raise the level of women’s surfing still further. Already, two years of women’s contests at Teahupo’o have shown us glimmerings of what’s to come. Ten years from now, it may all look entirely different. It’s sure to be one hell of a ride.