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The Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach: A Brief History

The Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach contest has been running, in one form or another, for more than 50 years, making it one of the oldest surf competitions in the world. For the 2018 Rip Curl Pro and Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach, the event window opens March 28 local time and runs through April 8. Before it all kicks off, here's a brief history of the spot and its significance for pro surfing.

Ancient History
Bells Beach has been creating memories for thousands of years. The site of the Rip Curl Pro is Wadawurrung land, where the local tribe (also known as the Wathaurong) gathered to trade yarn, tools, skills and supplies. The gently sloping limestone reef, which now provides one of the most iconic platforms in professional surfing, then provided a consistent food source with low tide supplying a buffet of abalone and crayfish. Then, as now, it was a special part of the Australian coastline that drew ocean-minded people to its rocky shores.

Jordy Smith of South Africa is the 2017 Rip Curl Pro Champion with Caio Ibelli of Brazil the runner-up.  With their results Smith moves into World No. and Ibelli moves in to World No. 7 positition on the Jeep Leaderboard. The custodians of the Wadawurrung land bless the Bells trophy. WSL / Kelly Cestari

Modern History
In more recent times, the area was named after John Calvert Bell, who took up a pastoral run there in the 1840s. By the late 1930s, surfers were trudging through mud and scrub from nearby Torquay to surf the wave. In the early 1960s local surfers, led by the Olympic wrestler Joe Sweeney, hired a bulldozer and cleared a road to Bells, with Joe charging one pound per surfer to cover the cost. With Bells now open to the public, the first surfing competition ran there in 1962. It first ran in January and then moved to Easter day. Since then it has run every year, making it the world's longest continuously run surf competition.

The crowd during Round Five of the Rip Curl Pro, Bells Beach. Crowds gather on the Bells headland for the annual Rip Curl Pro. WSL / Ed Sloane

The Pilgrimage
The Easter Bells Classic quickly became a fixture on the Australian surfing calendar, with surfers from all over the country traveling down to Victoria to surf the Southern Ocean's cold, powerful swells. That journey, be it from Coolangatta or Perth, Sydney or Adelaide, became known as the pilgrimage. In the weeks before Easter, hundreds of cars loaded with stacked surfboards and packed with the nation's best talent would drive the thousands of miles to descend on Bells. It became a gathering of the surfing tribe and a month-long surfing experiment. By 1973, when it became the Rip Curl Pro and offered serious prize money, the event drew not only Australian's best surfers, but the world's, as well. The pilgrimage was now being done not just in beaten-up Fords and Holdens, but in planes from Hawaii, California and South Africa. More recently, the logistics of the pilgrimage may have changed, but Bells Beach and its magnetic pull remains stronger than ever. WSL Championship Tour (CT) rookie Griffin Colapinto [below] is the latest to make his first trip to Bells.

Iconic Moments
With more than 50 years of history at one of surfing's premier waves, it's unsurprising that the Rip Curl Pro has been the location for some of surfing's most iconic moments. It was here in 1981, in giant, 15-foot waves, that Simon Anderson unveiled the thruster to the world, pulling back the curtain on one of surfing's greatest design revolutions. His new, three-fin design (surfboards previously either had only one or two fins) had never been seen before. The thruster provided such a leap in performance and stability that it quickly became the industry standard. Since Anderson won in 1981, every surfer that has won Bells has done so on that three-fin design. Five years later, surf history unfolded again, with the 1986 Semifinal between Mark Occhilupo and Tom Curren, which is still considered among the best heats in pro surfing history. It was also here that, in 2001, Mick Fanning announced himself to the world, winning the event as an 18-year-old wildcard. "It remains one of the most special surfing competitions in the world and the one closest to my heart," Fanning told the WSL. "It's where I started my career and the place I have chosen to end it. That should tell you how much it means to me."

Slater's Sweet Start at Winkipop
3:51
Kelly Slater stayed busy during his Round One heat at Winkipop to earn an easy win.

Gail Couper's Bells Domination
Long before the storied heats between some of the men's best at Bells, there was Gail Couper, who simply dominated the waves at Bells Beach. Between 1964 and 1976, she won the event there a record 10 times, and still holds the record for the most victories at the iconic break. "It is a remarkable sporting achievement," Craig Baird, the curator of an art exhibit dedicated to iconic female Bells surfers, told Forté magazine in 2016. "Can you imagine if a jockey had won the Melbourne Cup - everyone would know their name. Gail won Bells 10 times; a fact a lot of people are unaware of." Couper, who still lives in the area, recalled her relationship on the wave for a story in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It's a strange speed, it's hard to paddle. And then other days it was just a magic place to be and you thought, 'Wow, how much fun is surfing here,' and just had to block out the fact people were up top judging you." This year, Courtney Conlogue is the defending event winner. Whether she'll be able to surf or not -- she injured herself just before the season started -- is to be determined.

You Have To Win It To Ring It
"The Bell is arguably the best trophy you can win in surfing," Kelly Slater said, after winning his third Rip Curl Pro there. And when it comes to talking about surfing trophies, no one is more qualified than the 11-time World Champion. The iconic bell-shaped prize was designed and built by Joe Sweeney (who bulldozed the original road to the break), who stipulated that you had to win it to ring it. To this day, no one else but the men and women who have won the Rip Curl Pro have ever rung the bell. The winners also receive smaller replicas of the trophy (again, made by Sweeney from 1974 up until his death in 2016), although this clearly wasn't enough for Silvana Lima. After becoming the first-ever Brazilian to win the event, in 2009, she had an image of the iconic trophy tattooed on her torso.

Smith, triumphant after winning the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. Jordy Smith is the last men's CT winner at Bells. WSL / Kelly Cestari

"No Kook Has Ever Won Bells"
"No kook has ever won Bells," Shane Dorian famously said after lifting the trophy in 1999. A look at the winner's list backs him up. The roll call of Bells' winners is a list of greats: Michael Peterson, Mark Richards, Tom Curren, Andy Irons, Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Layne Beachley, Stephanie Gilmore and Carissa Moore, are just some of the World Champions to have won here numerous times. Bells Beach not only brings the best surfers, it brings the best out of them, too. In just a few weeks, we'll have two new names to add to the iconic Bells trophy. They won't be kooks. They will become a part of history.

Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) advancing into the Quarterfinals. Stephanie Gilmore advancing to the Quarterfinals in 2015. WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

Watch the men's and women's elite Championship Tours compete live daily at the Rip Curl Pro and Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach on the WSL from March 28- April 8. Watch live on the WSL and Facebook.

PAST RIP CURL BELLS BEACH CHAMPIONS:
2017: Jordy Smith (ZAF)
2016: Matt Wilkinson (AUS)
2015: Mick Fanning (AUS)
2014: Mick Fanning (AUS)
2013: Adriano de Souza (BRA)
2012: Mick Fanning (AUS)
2011: Joel Parkinson (AUS)
2010: Kelly Slater (USA)
2009: Joel Parkinson (AUS)
2008: Kelly Slater (USA)
2007: Taj Burrow (AUS)
2006: Kelly Slater (USA)
2005: Trent Munro (AUS)
2004: Joel Parkinson (AUS)
2003: Andy Irons (HAW)
2002: Andy Irons (HAW)
2001: Mick Fanning (AUS)
2000: Sunny Garcia (HAW)
1999: Shane Dorian (HAW)
1998: Mark Occhilupo (AUS)
1997: Matt Hoy (AUS)
1996: Sunny Garcia (HAW)
1995: Sunny Garcia (HAW)
1994: Kelly Slater (USA)
1993: Damien Hardman (AUS)
1992: Richie Collins (USA)
1991: Barton Lynch (AUS)
1990: Tom Curren (USA)
1989: Martin Potter (GBR)
1988: Damien Hardman (AUS)
1987: Nick Wood (AUS)
1986: Tom Carroll (AUS)
1985: Tom Curren (AUS)
1984: Cheyne Horan (AUS)
1983: Joe Engel (AUS)
1982: Mark Richards (AUS)
1981: Simon Anderson (AUS)
1980: Mark Richards (AUS)
1979: Mark Richards (AUS)
1978: Mark Richards (AUS)
1977: Simon Anderson (AUS)
1976: Jeff Hakman (HAW)
1975: Michael Peterson (AUS)
1974: Michael Peterson (AUS)
1973: Michael Peterson (AUS)

PAST RIP CURL WOMEN'S PRO BELLS BEACH CHAMPIONS
2017: Courtney Conlogue (USA)
2016: Courtney Conlogue (USA)
2015: Carissa Moore (HAW)
2014: Carissa Moore (HAW)
2013: Carissa Moore (HAW)
2012: Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS)
2011: Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS)
2010: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS)
2009: Silvana Lima (BRA)
2008: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS)
2007: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS)
2005: Sofia Mulanovich (PER)
2001: Neridah Falconer (AUS)
2000: Megan Abubo (HAW)
1999: Layne Beachley (AUS)
1998: Layne Beachley (AUS)
1997: Lisa Andersen (USA)
1996: Pauline Menczer (AUS)
1995: Lisa Andersen (USA)
1994: Layne Beachley (AUS)
1993: Pauline Menczer (AUS)
1992: Lisa Andersen (USA)
1991: Pauline Menczer (AUS)
1990: Lisa Andersen (USA)
1989: Wendy Botha (AUS)
1988: Kim Mearig (USA)
1985: Frieda Zamba (USA)
1984: Kim Mearig (USA)
1983: Helen Lambert (AUS)
1982: Debbie Beacham (USA)
1980: Margo Oberg (USA)
1979: Lynne Boyer (USA)
1978: Margo Oberg (USA)
1977: Margo Oberg (USA)

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