After four days of waiting, the Maui Women's Pro kicked off Wednesday at Honolua Bay, where glassy conditions and a dull, gray sky belied the do-or-die stakes at hand.
But for the five women vying for the 2017 World Title, there is nothing remotely relaxing about this event, and their fates began to shake out as early as Round Two. In the most dramatic moment not only of the day, but perhaps the entire 2017 season, Sally Fitzgibbons was eliminated from the event -- and eventually from the Title race altogether -- in a one-two punch that will likely leave deep emotional bruises. Fitzgibbons, who has already been runner-up for the Title three times in her career, arrived in Maui ranked World No. 1. Sure, she had a pack of four surfers chasing her down, but when dawn broke this morning, every fiber of her being was poised to clutch the coveted winner's cup.
Things, however, changed quickly. First, Fitzgibbons lost her Round One heat, placing third behind wildcard Brisa Hennessy and Silvana Lima. Next, in her Round Two heat, instead of redemption she found a raw deal. In perhaps the biggest upset of the entire season, Hennessy again took down Fitzgibbons, effectively shredding her stronghold on the Title. As she floated in the lineup after her heat, back turned to the cliffs, the skies opened and a heavy rain fell across the bay, as if on cue.
Just one round later, Tyler Wright, the current World No. 2 and reigning Champ, rang the death knell for Fitzgibbons' dream. Despite sporting a bulky knee brace, Wright surged to a Round Three win with a searing final salvo that sent her straight to the Quarters -- and eliminated her closest rival from the race.
As Fitzgibbons and her family, which travels with her on Tour, likely began to digest what unfolded here, other surfers in the scrum were sailing through their heats. Stephanie Gilmore, who arrived on Maui ranked No. 5, the furthest from the Title, was on fire. It's like she's kept her competitive mojo bottled up for months, and decided to channel it all into Honolua's long, seductive faces. Gilmore opened her Round One heat with a 9.57, immediately setting the tone. She went on to lavish the wave with her high-scoring love in Round Three, when she again came in hot with a 9.07 to start.
Which is all to say that the Title field is narrower, but far from foregone. By the end of Round Three, the four remaining Title contenders -- Gilmore, Wright, Carissa Moore and Courtney Conlogue -- are all still in the race. Moore, who won her third World Title here, opened her arms, and legendary skill, to the wave like a comfortable, salty homecoming. Nevertheless, she lost her grip on her Round Three heat. Both she and Conlogue have now been relegated to the do-or-die Round Four, they're still very much in the game.
With incredible conditions all day, the contenders weren't the only ones savoring each set. For some of the lower-tier competitors, the contest -- the last of the season for the elite Championship Tour (CT) -- is a bit of a tropical victory lap after a long season that has spanned multiple continents. Malia Manuel won both her Round One and Round Three heats, launching her to the Quarterfinals, while Lakey Peterson threw down some solid performances, squeezing the life out of a wave that breaks for days.
Round Four will kick off the action when the contest resumes. Tune in Thursday at 7:30 a.m. local time for the next call, and possible finals day.