In a sport where even the playing field is in constant flux, event wildcards are an extra spike of excitement in what's already a heady mix of potent players. Saturday, just one day before the 2018 WSL Championship Tour (CT) season, the competitors in the Quiksilver and Roxy Pro Gold Coast trials were drafting off an even higher level of energy, as the beach buzzed like the first day of school after summer break.
But amid that ambitious pack of people who paddled out in the rain -- all competing for a prestigious wildcard spot in the main events -- it was Bianca Buitendag, the South African former CT surfer, and Leonardo Fioravanti, the Italian former CT surfer, who had the winning blend, in spades. Both won their respective trials events in solid, head-high waves to score the coveted contest entries. When the Roxy Pro kicks off, Buitendag will compete in the third heat of Round 1, going up against reigning World Champ Tyler Wright and Malia Manuel.
And she'll have her work cut out for her: Wright previously won the Roxy Pro Gold Coast in 2016, and has been on a heavy training routine with her coach, Glenn "Micro" Hall, throughout the offseason. Manuel, meanwhile, was on a solid upswing at the end of last season, coming back from an injury with a notably sharpened focus.
For Buitendag, the return to the CT fold, if only for one event (for now), is a homecoming after a handful of years on the CT, and falling off the roster. She first qualified in 2008, and finished in the Top 10 until 2016, when she lost her spot. Last year, she competed as a wild card in six events, maintaining a steady presence on the big stage.
"[The Roxy Pro] is probably my favorite event in the world and the surf forecast looks good," Buitendag said. "I can't wait for tomorrow."
For Fioravanti, surfing at Snapper is something of a shot at redemption. In 2017, the upbeat Italian arrived as a rookie on the CT amid fanfare and high hopes, but struggled to get the results he needed to stay there. In the past, surfing as a wildcard on home turf in France, he had defeated some of the CT's high-profile heavyweights including, famously, his friend and mentor Kelly Slater. When the Quik Pro kicks off, he'll face another set of titans, going up against Brazilians Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira in Round 1, Heat 5.
"This means so much to me," Fioravanti said after his win. "This is our first event without Pierre [Agnes, Quiksilver CEO, who passed away last month] and I wanted to be here for him. I know that he would be proud of me today."