In one week, the Championship Tour (CT) will move from the wild reefs of Australia to the beach break of Saquarema for the Oi Rio Women's Pro. With a tight race brewing on the women's Championship Tour (CT) there are a handful of key players to watch at Stop No. 4. Here are some of the more pressing questions that will soon be answered in Brazil.
In to Win?
Will she or won't she? That is the question facing fans when it comes to Stephanie Gilmore this year, as the Queen could be making a run for her seventh World Title. For some context: Only one woman, Australian Layne Beachley, has won seven Championships. Lisa Andersen, a hero of women's surf in the 2000s, came close, with four. But no one else has been arm's length from Layne's record -- until now.
Gilmore is well positioned to do it. She currently sits in No. 1 on the Jeep Leaderboard, retaining the yellow jersey for herself after sharing it briefly with Sally Fitzgibbons back in Australia. But her lead right now is tentative at best: Heading into Rio, which kicks off May 9, she's just 2,800 points ahead of Fitzgibbons, who is on a tear this year, and more fit than ever. And despite a win, a runner-up finish and a third place so far this season, Gilmore has had a few close calls (Exhibit A: Round Four at Bells, where she won by just .60 of a point). When she's confident and focused, Gilmore has been known to be untouchable, and could blaze her way to Title No. 7. What remains to be seen is how ready she is to strike a fateful match and unleash her competitive fire.
This is Silvana Lima's third time qualifying for the CT. That means that she has trained for months on end, ground it out on the Qualifying Series, and willed herself to the elite stage three more times than some surfers ever will. And yet, now that she's back on Tour, her results haven't approached the type of jaw-dropping skill and surprise of which she's capable, above and below the lip. So far this year, she's had two 13th-place finishes and a ninth, and currently sits at No. 14 on the Jeep Leaderboard, well below the cutoff for qualification at the end of the year. If she wants to stay on Tour -- not to mention take some point-scoring pressure off -- Lima needs to unleash her formidable talent, and fast.
Saquarema could be just the place. Not only will she be able to draft on the lofty winds of Brazilian pride, but she'll likely be able to fly high over the punchy beach break, no matter what it delivers. It's still early in the year, but just one solid finish for the powerhouse could kickstart a rankings comeback.
Sitting in fifth place on the Jeep Leaderboard, Lakey Peterson is in a familiar place: Solidly among the Tour's top surfers, but just outside the tight circle of World Title talk. Which is to say, hovering at the edge of greatness. Back this year after a debilitating ankle injury, Peterson has had flashes of utter brilliance, like this 10-point ride at Snapper Rocks, the first event of the year. At that contest, she essentially put on a tour de force performance, particularly impressive considering that she missed five events last year. She went on to finish as runner-up at Snapper, just behind Gilmore.
At the next two events in Australia, Peterson's results see-sawed: At Margaret River, the very next event, she finished in 13th place. At Bells, the last of the three events Down Under, she bounced back, finishing in third place. The good news heading into Rio is that Peterson's powerful, kinetic surfing is well-suited to Saquarema. One more top-shelf contest result could not only bump her up the rankings and into the Title talk, but also boost her momentum at a critical juncture in the year.
It's no secret that Courtney Conlogue wants a World Title, and wants one badly. For the past two years in a row, she came so close that she could almost taste the glory, but came up short both times. So when the 2017 season kicked off, it was anyone's guess as to whether that kind of repeated close call would push her to the next level, or potentially set her back.
The answer could be both. She opened at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast with a surprising 9th-place finish, winning her Round One heat but faltering in both heats that followed. At Margaret River she loosened up, winning all her heats until Sage Erickson, a fellow Californian, took her down in the Quarters. It was a huge coup for Erickson, who has been searching for consistency on Tour (see below), and a curve ball for Conlogue. But at Bells, the next event, Conlogue seemed to shed whatever was holding her back and surged to the top. It was her second consecutive Bells win, and an endorsement of the techniques she's developing with her new coach, Luke Egan.
A solid follow-up in the Oi Rio Women's Pro could throw some additional tinder on her slow-burning flame, and up the ante of what will likely be another Title run. A poor result, however, could unravel some of her progress and pile on more pressure to earn points later in the year.
Of her four years so far on the Championship Tour (not including this season), Erickson has requalified for the Tour with her CT rank -- that is, rank in the Top 10 or better -- in just one of them, in 2016. She has had flashes of brilliance, like taking down Courtney Conlogue last month at Margaret River, where she finished in the Semifinals, and made another Semi last year, at Trestles. Like all the surfers at this elite level, the talent has always been there. The shift for Erickson, perhaps, has been a fresh outlook.
Which is why another 9th-place finish would only set back her budding momentum. Heading into Rio, she sits at No. 10 on the Jeep Leaderboard -- right on the line of requalification safety and peril when the year ends. Yes, we're only three events in, with seven more to go. Yet, no matter where a surfer is in the rankings this is crucial building time: Building confidence, building momentum, and building a healthy base of points. In post-heat interviews, Erickson's faith, in both the universe and in herself, shines through. Hopefully in Rio she can carry her success forward and let her talent do the same.