NewsBurton Automotive ProOwen Wright

Prepare for Liftoff

Mitch Coleborn Progressed through his Round 5 Heat at the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro at Merewether Beach with a massive 17.70 heat total. The threats at the Qualifying Series 6,000-level event come from every tier. QS veterans like Mitch Coleborn are always ready to inflict damage. WSL / Tom Bennett

Things are about to get intense Down Under.

We're less than a month away from the Championship Tour (CT) kickoff on the Gold Coast of Australia. But before the pros get there, they have the Burton Automotive Pro and the Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro starting February 19th. The Qualifying Series (QS) events, worth 6,000 qualifying points each, are the first of four significant events (two men's, two women's) like it.

Paige Hareb Kiwi surfer Paige Hareb's runner-up finish last year in Newcastle set her up for a tearful return to the elite Championship Tour in 2018. WSL / Tom Bennett

The first of the men's event, the Burton Automotive Pro, will take place in Newcastle, a hotbed of Australian surfing that's produced legends like Mark Richards, Luke Egan and Mat Hoy. Days after it ends, QS surfers will drive two hours down the coast to compete in the QS 6,000 Vissla Sydney Surf Pro. For the women, the Newcastle contest will be followed by the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro, both of which are also worth 6,000 QS points.

Owen Wright Made his return to competitve surfing at the Maitland and Port Stephens Toyota Pro at Merewether Beach and won his opening Round heat. In 2017, Owen Wright made his stunning return to competition at the QS 6,000 event in Newcastle. Weeks later, he shocked the world by winning the Quiksilver Pro, the CT season opener. WSL / Tom Bennett

To grasp just how important these events are for a surfer's professional trajectory, consider this: last year's men's winners, Yago Dora and Jesse Mendes, will be debuting as CT rookies at the Quiksilver Pro on March 11. Dora's 2017 rampage up the QS rankings started with his victory in Newcastle. Mendes finished runner-up in that event, then went one better the next week in Sydney, vaulting him to No. 1 on the Qualifying Series rankings. He finished the year No. 2.

Jesse Mendes is the winner of the 2017 Australian Open of Surfing Jesse Mendes made back-to-back Finals appearances during these two QS 6,000 events last year, paving the way for his qualification. WSL / Tom Bennett

Among the women, last year's Final at the Newcastle event featured former CT surfer Paige Hareb, from New Zealand, vs. French CT surfer Johanne Defay. Hareb, who has spent the past few years working her way back to the elite women's CT, achieved her goal by the end of 2017, buoyed by that auspicious start. She'll be among the women's Top 17 at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast, which runs alongside the men's Quik Pro, next month.

Vahine Fierro from PYF prepping to surf in The Semifinals of the 2018 Jeep World Junior Championship of Round Four at Kiama, NSW, Australia, with Roxy coach Matthias Maallem. Vahine Fierro, the 2017 world Junior Tour champ from Tahiti, will be among the women to watch at the Grandstand Pro in Newcastle. WSL / Matt Dunbar

Back at the Burton Pro, 120 highly skilled competitors will be in the mix, including more than a dozen CT stars, so there will be no shortage of people to watch. One of them is Jackson Baker, a 20-year-old breakout star from Newcastle. It's only February, and he's claimed back-to-back QS 1,000 victories, at the Tweed and Great Lakes Pro events in the past two weeks.

Jackson Baker winning semifinal 2 at the 2018 VIssla Great Lakes Pro pres. by DBlanc. Newcastle's own Jackson Baker is coming off back-to-back wins in smaller QS events. The 20-year-old is now sitting No. 5 on the Qualifying Series, and hoping to prove that he belongs there. WSL / Ethan Smith

The draw will also feature CT stars who weren't able to requalify for the 2018 Tour, including Brazilian Jadson Andre, Italian Leonardo Fioravanti and Australian Stu Kennedy. All three will be looking to start their comeback campaigns at these events. 2018 CT rookies Griffin Colapinto, Wade Carmichael and Michael Rodrigues, meanwhile, will be looking to get warmed up and hedge their requalifying bets by double-dipping (CT surfers can requalify for the Tour each year by either making the Top 22 on the CT ranks, or the Top 10 on the QS at year's end.). Owen Wright, Matt Wilkinson, and Connor O'Leary are among the CT stars also slated to compete.

The Grandstand Sports Clinic Pro also features a few past women's CT surfers, as well as up-and-coming QS heavyweights. Among the women who didn't requalify for the CT in recent years are Oahu native Alessa Quizon, South African Bianca Buitendag, and Barbados' Chelsea Tuach. Among the emerging stars in the mix, one to watch is Tahitian Vahine Fierro, who just became the world Junior Tour winner. Another is Oahu's Brisa Hennessy, who famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective), defeated CT titan Sally Fitzgibbons at the final women's event of the year, effectively ending the latter's run for a World Title.

Josh Moniz of Hawaii wins the 2018 Volcom Pipe Pro at Pipe, Oahu, Hawaii, USA.. Hawaii's Joshua Moniz entered the big Australian events ranked No. 1 on the QS thanks to his win at the Volcom Pipe Pro, but had to head home due to illness. His absence will leave the door open wide for potential threats to his reign. WSL / Tony Heff

With a powerful cyclone swell also in the forecast, it's likely that, between QS heats, a handful of the CT stars will slip up the coast to sample what could be perfect Snapper Rocks. Those who can't will be heading to their favorite Central Coast hangouts. And throughout it all, the arcs of hundreds of surfers' 2018 seasons will begin to take shape under the Australian sun.

Watch the Burton Automotive Pro and Grandstand Sports Clinic Pro live daily on the WSL from February 19 - 25.

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