Round Two of the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro wrapped up Tuesday and it brought together the event's top seeds for the first Qualifying Series (QS) 6,000 of the 2017 season. Merewether Beach served up slightly wind-affected, two-foot waves for the second day of competition (the Anditi Women's Pro had another lay day).
One of the biggest talking points surrounding this year's event has been the highly anticipated return to competitive surfing for Championship Tour (CT) superstar Owen Wright. Wright was forced out of action in 2016 due to a traumatic injury he suffered while at Pipeline in late 2015. At the time, Wright was sitting at No. 5 on the CT rankings with a chance to make a significant run at the World Title.
It's been a long wait for Wright and his fans. Today, the wait ended with the hard-charging goofyfooter hitting the water at Merewether.
"It felt amazing to get back out there and compete -- it was really emotional," Wright said. "There is no doubt that this has been the hardest year of my life, a real rollercoaster ride. Now I'm through the bad and on the other side of it. I feel better, stronger and really excited to have this rash-shirt on and competing again."
"The love and support that people all around the world have shown me since the injury has been amazing," Wright continued. "It is so cool to see that there is so much love in this sport of surfing, it's incredible. I want everyone to know how important this support and belief in me competing again was to actually coming back."
As soon as he caught his first wave, it was as if he had never taken a break, displaying the powerful and loose surfing he's known for. Wright opted to sit on a separate peak away from the other competitors and got busy straight away, nailing both lefts and rights to post a solid heat total of 15.33, easily enough to win his first heat back.
"It felt really good to go out there and smash some waves and compete again. I'm just enjoying being here with my partner and my baby, and just soaking up this moment. I was watching everyone surf out the front and thought if I could sit up there on my own I could snag a few lefts and rights that would suit me and my height and give me a bit more room to move on the face."
The first heat of the day brought with it a massive upset as another CT heavyweight, Matt Wilkinson, was knocked out of the event in his first heat. Wilkinson was unable to find any scores of consequence and went down at the hands of Japan's Yuji Mori and Brazilian wunderkind Samuel Pupo.
"I'm really happy to make that heat," Pupo said. "The waves were pretty slow which always makes me nervous, plus I was up against Wilko, who is an amazing surfer and the event's reigning champion. That heat has given me some good confidence to keep going in this contest even if I come up against the big names."
Local hero Ryan Callinan said that competing in front of his home crowd can add pressure. In 2016, Callinan made the Quarterfinals at Merewether, which was a monkey off the back of the stylish goofyfooter, who had struggled at his home event in years past. Today, Callinan posted an excellent 18.20 heat total (out of a possible 20), the highest of the event so far. He showed a good mixture of smooth, powerful turns with some radical aerial maneuvers, to convincingly win his heat.
"I still feel pretty nervous at this event," Callinan said. "I think all of the awesome support and having people I know come to watch puts a bit of pressure on me subconsciously, but it's good. Even though I fell off [the elite Championship] Tour, the fact that I was on there for a year built my confidence and I feel like I'm surfing better than ever. Having a big score can freak you out because you know you need to back it up and not lose with a solid score. Eventually I backed it up and could relax and have fun."
Championship Tour (CT) sophomore Jack Freestone surfed a flawless heat in his 2017 return to competition. Freestone stayed patient to pick off bigger righthanders and post two excellent single-wave scores for a heat total of 16.07 points.
"It's great to get the jersey on and surf a heat," Freestone said. "I'm stoked to come away with a win because it ended up being a close heat. The waves are starting to get really good so it was fun out there. It's nice having two excellent scores because you can dictate the heat and make sure no one else gets a good wave. It becomes a bit of a game of chess."