Kauli Vaast and Leila Riccobuano were victorious today at the Papara Pro Junior Tahiti, each taking home their very first professional wins over formidable Hawaii finalists. The event will count toward regional rankings for the Hawaii/Tahiti Nui region - the ultimate goal being a slot into the 2018 World Junior Championships. The win also bodes well momentum-wise for the pair as they head into the Men's and Women's Papara Pro QS 1,000, which begin tomorrow.
Kauli and Leila both displayed smart surfing from start to finish and confident approaches in the shifting lineup, powering through ten hours of competition in three-to-four foot surf at Papara. A Tahitian standout, Kauli had to dramatically change his approach to succeed at the beach break, since his home break of Teahupo‘o features heaving barrels over razor-sharp reef. His versatility - from powerful turns to progressive airs - is what landed him today's win.
"Feels good because the conditions were hard and I am happy to win," he said. "I live in Teahupo‘o so I surf only the reef, so when I came here it was not like Teahupo‘o, it's hard and I'm happy to win on this beach break. When I started the contest I was thinking, ‘I just want to pass my first heat,' and when I came in the Final I was like, ‘okay I just want to surf,' and I got two good waves and I won. I work really hard with my dad, he helps me surf everywhere, Hira (Teriinatoofa) also coaches me sometimes here. Thank you to my sponsor and my family and everyone for this contest."
The Men's Final opened with the second-highest score of the heat, a 7.75 from Kauli, who unleashed a series of maneuvers on his backhand and claimed an early lead. But with a flurry of waves gracing the lineup, there was plenty of scoring opportunities for the other three finalists and Noah Hill opened his campaign with his two best rides of the 25-minute heat, a 5.50 and 6.65. Noah, the 2016 Papara Pro Junior Tahiti winner, tallied up scores and battled Kauli for first. The two international surfers traded waves for the first half of the heat until eventual runner-up Wyatt McHale asserted his dominance by jumping from fourth to second after backing up his 6.25 with a 5.95.
"Kauli was just smashing it the whole time and I saw that I was in fourth, but second wasn't that far away," he said. "So at the end I figured I might as well go for second and bump up a few points, so that's what I did and I got a few little ones." Wyatt is coming off a final appearance at the Sunset Pro Junior, the first regional junior event of the year, and talked about his goals for 2018.
"I'm definitely pretty stoked, obviously the goal is to win but runner up is good," he continued. "To follow that up with my fourth place at Sunset, I'm pretty stoked to be consistent and hopefully get one more good result before the end of the year. I definitely want to qualify for World Juniors and if I could win the region that would be awesome too, but my main goal is World Juniors."
The Final was extremely close and Wyatt took second place by only five-hundredths of a point from Noah. In similar fashion, the American earned third place by less than half of a point over fourth place finisher Sage Tutterow, who maintained a solid rhythm throughout the Final and surfed a total of nine waves with a combined heat total of 11.90. After today's excellent placing, the Kauai native now sits among the top five on the regional rankings, with Wyatt claiming the top spot.
In the Women's division, it was an all-Hawaii Final featuring Leila Riccobuano, Gabriela Bryan, Luana Coelho Silva and Keala Tomoda-Bannert. In an impressive display of power and commitment, the surfers unleashed their best and went head-to-head for the win, with Gabriela posting a near-perfect 9.0 and Luana in the lead for majority of the heat. But Leila tallied two strong scores - a 7.35 and 6.50 - to victory, the first of her entire surfing career.
"Oh my goodness, I've never won a Menehune or anything until today and I am so excited and so happy," she said. "It took hard work, and I didn't have the best first or second heat, but I kind of pulled it together. It was so stressful, I was so happy it was an all-Hawaii Final because they're all my friends and we hang out all the time and it was really fun."
Leila earned runner-up at the Papara Pro Junior last year and bettered her regional standings with today's win to take the No. 2 spot behind Gabriela.
"I'm staying with Gabi, which is kind of funny," she continued. "I was so stressed out during the Final, I knew I had like a couple seconds left to get one more score because since she had a 9 she just needed to get another one and I don't know how I did it, but I did it."
Gabriela held onto priority for a good portion of the Final and with five minutes on the clock, nailed three beautiful turns on her forehand for a 9.0 - the best score of the day - and the lead.
"I was in fourth before that and it was very slow so I knew all I had to do was wait because I couldn't get a good score on a small wave," she said. "So it came, I got a 9 and then I knew that I had to back it and I just ran out of time."
Gabriela hopes to carry her confidence into the Papara Pro Vahine Open Tahiti QS 1,000 and has been training hard in all conditions to prepare for the year.
"I've been working really hard and training a lot and just practicing in all conditions because if you can get high scores in any waves you'll be better off in contests," she continued. "Hopefully at the Turtle Bay Resort Pro Junior I can claim the regional title for the Junior division and go to Worlds, that would be really awesome. So heading into that final Pro Junior of the year, my goal is to obviously win and come out on top for the overall rankings."