The arrivals hall at the Newcastle, Australia, airport has seen more oversized board bags on the carousel in the last week than it might see all year, as hundreds of international athletes fly in and make their way north to Merewether for the 33rd annual Surfest.
The festival is undoubtedly one of Australia's best and longest-running surf events. It is made possible by an entire city coming together all in the name of surfing. It's not only comprised of the Qualifying Series (QS) and Pro Junior events, but also a longboard qualifying event, team challenges, an Indigenous event, charity events, a schools challenge, a cadet cup and a community festival.
Aside from the vibrancy the festival brings the start of the competitive surfing year, Surfest, as a QS 6,000-level event plays a crucial role in points accumulation that can lead to Championship Tour qualification -- and serves as a solid warm-up for the early elite Championship Tour (CT) events of the season.
The list of event's past winners is about as spectacular as its World Champions honor roll: Tom Curren, Kelly Slater, Joel Parkinson, Mick Fanning, Mark Occhilupo, Glenn "Micro" Hall, Tom Carroll, Damien Hardman, Barton Lynch, Pam Burridge, Freida Zamba, Wendy Botha, Stephanie Gilmore, and Sally Fitzgibbons. They've all stood on the podium at Surfest but so far, there's been one name missing: Tyler Wright.
By the time Finals day wraps up Sunday in Australia, however, she might just have broken the spell. At the end of 2017, Wright became the WSL Championship Tour winner for the second year running, and clearly plans to keep the winning streak going. So far this week, she's been on a tear, and is up in the first heat of the Quarterfinals at the Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro, the 6,000-level women's Qualifying Series contest at Surfest.
For many Championship Tour (CT) surfers, re-qualification is as much about winning a major event as a QS event, because at year's end they can rely on their QS rankings as a back-up if their CT results don't make the cutoff line (among the women, only the CT Top 10 get through; for the men it's the Top 22). That was was the case for Reunion Island's Johanne Defay in 2017. Her win at Surfest gave her enough energy and acceleration going into the Roxy Pro Gold Coast to finish with her best-ever result. Defay started and finished 2017 with QS6,000 wins in the Hunter Region, and first place on the Qualifying Series rankings. Ultimately, Defay requalified with her CT finish, at World No. 9, but had an ace in her back pocket.
For Wright, the 2x and reigning WSL World Champ, there's no need for a Monday morning kick-start, but she has yet to add a Surfest win to her portfolio. With some incredible training -- and a second World Title under her proverbial belt, however, this could be her year.
Under the guidance of Glenn Hall, who has been coaching her for a couple of years, there was no down time for Wright over Christmas.
"I didn't really take too much of an offseason this year," Wright said. "It's kind of like my training with Micro never really ends. We've been having heaps of fun during the summer and getting ready for the season at the same time. With the swell it should be a bit of a challenge, and I'm looking forward to getting things going here in Newcastle. I'm ready to go."
After winning her second World Title in December, Wright said, "2016, I wasn't one and done. In 2015 I decided I wanted to win one [World Title] every year and I want to hold true to that. Working with Micro over the last two years has been incredible and we have a long plan, and I plan to stick to it."
Merewether Beach is really simple for swell and reactive to changing conditions throughout the day. Anything coming in south or east will produce punchy, fast beachbreak waves with multiple workable peaks up the beach. The great thing about Merewether is that it handles really big waves too. With light winds it produces impeccable, world-class waves.
Surfest concludes this week with the finals of the Burton Automotive Pro QS6,000 and Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro Sunday, February 25 local time. Watch live on WSL channels. And maybe, catch the reigning WSL World Champ launch her 2018 season with a new piece of hardware to put on her mantle.