It was only four days ago that a handful of the WSL's top Championship Tour (CT) surfers were testing their mettle at the Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California -- more than 100 miles from the nearest beach.
But Friday in Saquarema, a beach town in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, the surfers were back in their natural element for the Oi Rio Women's Pro. Which is to say, dependent on swell, tide, and waves that had just enough juice to be contestable. That meant that, after just three heats of the women's Round 1, with the tide filling in and the swell dropping, WSL commissioners called a hold until 3 p.m. and finished the round beneath a setting sun.
While the halves of the round ran at opposite ends of the day, one thing was consistent: The top-ranked women came out on top. From six-time World Champ Stephanie Gilmore to two-time, reigning World Champ Tyler Wright, Friday was a run of pure domination from the Tour heavyweights. Of the six winners of today's heats, only one -- Sally Fitzgibbons -- is ranked below World No. 6 (she currently sits at No. 10, thanks to a rough go at the Bells contest), and despite the tricky lineup, she was ecstatic.
"It was awesome to start the morning in heat one," Fitzgibbons said. "It is a little slow but it definitely has got some scoring potential. Although it is low scores, it is still super exciting because you do not know what is going to happen next."
In fact, it was the waves that were the most unpredictable, while the surfers with great expectations on their shoulders all rose to the occasion. After Fitzgibbons got off to her solid start, it was Wright's turn to make lemonade out of limãos, winning her heat with a meager 7.53 combine score. Next up, it was Gilmore's turn to tear the beach break to bits. She opened with a 5.10 that just barely carried her to the heat win over Malia Manuel and wildcard Taís Almeida. Gilmore arrived in Brasil with the Jeep Leader's yellow jersey on her back, and is pushing hard to keep it.
In the afternoon heats, it was three-time World Champ and current World No. 3 Carissa Moore, World No. 2 Lakey Peterson and World No. 4 Tatiana Weston-Webb who took down their opponents and surfed straight to Round 3. Peterson was back to the kind of form that won her the first event of the season, at Snapper Rocks in March, while both Moore and Weston-Webb pushed to keep ahead of the pack.
For Weston-Webb, who recently announced that she would be switching allegiance (surf-wise) from Hawaii to Brazil, there was extra pressure of a hometown crowd. Along with her Brasilian roots (her mother, Tanira, is from Brasil, while her father is American. Weston-Webb grew up on Kauai.), she had additional fame here from her TV show, on Canal Off, and her pro-surfer boyfriend, Brasilian CT surfer Jesse Mendes. Her Round 1 heat at the Oi Rio Women's Pro was the last one of the day, and she wrestled the win from French surfer Johanne Defay and Australian Keely Andrew.
On a day with few options, knowing the lineup was key. "I got really lucky with Keely's and Johanne's positioning," she said afterward. "I think they messed up a few times and sat too far in for the wave I got wide, which was my best wave of the heat."
Before she and the other victors of the day hit the water again, elimination Round 2 will run, thinning the field. The next call is Saturday, May 12, at 6:40 a.m. BRT.