Something was missing from most of last year's men's and women's Championship Tours, as some of surfing's heavyweights were sidelined by serious injuries.
Then-reigning World Champ Stephanie Gilmore missed more than half of the season, after a freesurf injury in Western Australia. Jordy Smith looked poised for another Top 10 finish, but went on to miss five events. Matt Banting was on track for Rookie of the Year before got hurt and missed six events. All three slipped down the rankings, below the cutoff to requalify.
But the performances they did put on didn't go unnoticed. All three will get a chance at redemption in 2016 as the official WSL Injury Wildcards. Before the season gets going, each opened up about returning to competition -- and having to start 2016 with lower standings.
Steph's fall down the Jeep Leaderboard was tough to watch. The nine-year veteran won her sixth World Title in 2014 and as 2015 unfolded, she looked like she was picking up right where she left off. But after her Round 1 heat at the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, Gilmore hurt herself during a freesurf. She suffered multiple hairline fractures through the fibula and tibia as well as some minor bone bruising around the knee cap, which forced her to miss more than half of the remaining events.
During her downtime Gilmore traveled, recouped, and has gotten back to her training routine.
"I've started working really hard, which is pretty easy to do when you just want to win again," Gilmore told the Gold Coast Bulletin. "I'm ready to get back to work," she continued. "I'm a competitive person and had to take a back seat and watch Carissa, Courtney, Sally and everyone else on the webcast. It wasn't easy."
Banting's injury in 2015 was quick and cunning. After bruising a bone in his knee during a freesurf, he withdrew from competition hours before his first heat at J-Bay. Just like that, his rookie year was over.
"I'll be putting myself on the rookie list," he said. "But I feel super confident knowing I did a half year last year. In the back of my mind, I know I've been there and done it all before. It's nowhere near as daunting."
Jordy Smith, the lone South African on the Championship Tour, suffered a string of injuries last year that forced him to miss five of 11 events. It all started with a shoulder injury the year before, continued with a meniscus tear and ended with a back injury at Jeffrey's Bay.
But Smith has always been a standout. After his rookie season, he finished in the Top 10 for four years -- in the years he didn't, he finished No. 11 and No. 12. In 2014, he finished in the Quarterfinals or better in five events and won at Trestles.
"During my time off this past season I surfed my absolute brains out," Smith wrote on Instagram. "It feels really incredible to be injury free and surfing at 100 percent again. I also ended up sneaking up to Mozambique with my dad @grahamcsmith. And then surfed one day of firing waves in Durban. I don't get surf surf my home break much but when the waves are pumping and your surfing with your friends it's the best feeling in the world.... Time off was well spent."
Catch Banting, Smith and Gilmore when the Roxy Pro and Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast contests kick off March 10 local time.