The World Surf League (WSL) Qualifying Series (QS) events, the Port Stephens and Maitland Toyota Pro and the Taggart Women's Pro get underway today at Merewether Beach as part of Surfest 2016.

Both events are WSL QS6000 rated which means they are the biggest events so far on the 2016 WSL calendar. This rating means there is big points and prize money up for grabs, which helps to attract some of the biggest names in surfing.

A number of the WSL Championship Tour (CT) competitors see the event as the perfect way to warm up for their 2016 competitive campaigns.

When it comes to big names in surfing, none come much bigger than Six times World Champion Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) who will be competing at Merewether for the fourth time. For Gilmore, who suffered a Knee injury in early 2015, this will be only the second time competing since April last year.

"Last year was good, it was tough dealing with the injury but it was cool to be able to do a few things outside of surfing," Gilmore said. "It's been so long I hope I remember how to compete. That's why this event is so important for me, it's a really good way to dust the cobwebs of and get back in the competitive zone."

Current Women's World No. 3 Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) has been coming to Surfest for over a decade. She cites the amazing surf culture of Newcastle and friendly vibe of the town for her constantly returning.

"I've been competing at Surfest since I was eleven," Fitzgibbons said. "I used to do junior events right through to the QS and I love it. It's so great the surf community that exists here in Newcastle, it's really welcoming and unlike anywhere else I've been. It's a really great event."

For young Australian Jack Freestone (AUS), finishing runner-up at the 2015 Port Stephens and Maitland Toyota Pro gave him the perfect start to a year that would see him reach his dream of qualifying for the CT. Now he's back and keen to go one step further at this year's event.

"Finishing runner-up last year was so good but I hope I can go one better this year," Freestone said. "This is my fourth year in Newcastle and it's nice to be here with less pressure, now that I'm not after qualifying points I can relax and just have fun. I think people do their best surfing when they're having fun."

Philippa Anderson is the highest seeded local female surfer. With aspirations of one day making it to the elite Championship Tour, Anderson loves the experience of mixing it with the world's best at her home break.

"It's pretty amazing surfing an event at home with the likes of Steph and Sally," Anderson said. "This year I really want to smash the QS and try and make it on to the CT. I'm confident at my home break in all conditions so hopefully that can transition into a good result."

Another rookie on the 2016 CT is young Californian sensation Kanoa Igarashi (USA). Although he is only 18 this will be Igarashi's fourth year competing at Surfest.

"I love coming back to Newcastle each year," Igarashi said. "The waves are really fun and I've done well here before so I've got good memories from here. I'm really excited for the CT this year and I can't think of a better event to warm up at than the Port Stephens and Maitland Toyota Pro."

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