It was a tough start to the 2016 season for Sally Fitzgibbons, who suffered her first-ever Round 2 loss at the first event of the year, the Roxy Pro Gold Coast. The next contest, the Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach, didn't start any better. Fitzgibbons lost her Round 1 heat and was again relegated to the sudden-death Round 2, where another defeat would mean elimination and -- let's not mince words here -- an inauspicious kickoff to a Title campaign.
But what a difference a week makes. Out of nowhere, the the old, hyper-competitive Sally we all know and love was back in action. Despite her Round 1 stumble she found her mojo when it counted, serving up a walloping, Round 2 defeat to wildcard Brisa Hennessy.
Fitzgibbons' fire burned on into Round 3, where she dominated out of the gate. The risk was low, in that winners leapt directly to the Quarters while heat losers could try again in Round 4. But Fitzgibbons wasn't leaving anything to chance. This was Sally back in her winning form: Focused, aggressive, and unwilling to lose. While Alessa Quizon and Stephanie Gilmore struggled in the Bells Bowl, Fitzgibbons made the most of Rincon, squeezing a few maneuvers out of the increasingly crumbly waves.
In contrast to Fitzgibbons' slow acceleration into high gear, Stephanie Gilmore seemed to go from 90 to zero. Just over a week ago, she blew minds with her electric surfing at the Roxy Pro. But somewhere between her sunny home turf on the Gold Coast and the moody beaches of Victoria, her energy was snuffed out. Like Fitzgibbons, Gilmore lost her Round 1 heat at Bells, putting her in the same do-or-die predicament of Round 2. But instead of turning up the heat when it the pressure was on, she just barely eked out a Round 2 win in a close battle against Laura Enever. Round 3 saw the trend continue, with Gilmore barely budging for the 35-minute heat. She'll again have to fight for her competitive life in Round 4.
Along the way, Round 2 saw some personal triumphs -- both Quizon and Tour sophomore Tatiana Weston-Webb won their heats -- but it was largely a game of wave selection, where mid-range scores mattered and break knowledge were key. For Quizon, the win was an important step forward in her progression toward becoming a more formidable competitor: She fell in Round 2 at the Roxy Pro, and while her talent has never been in question, her competitive prowess has room for improvement.
Weston-Webb, of course, has been a competitive threat since she first put on a CT jersey this time last year. But managing to perform under pressure is a challenge for even the most seasoned of surfers and, like Quizon, her performance was a solid step forward in her professional development.
Given the way the first half of the Rip Curl Women's Pro has gone, there's room for more surprises moving forward. Carissa Moore potentially making the Final? Not a shocker. Gilmore breaking out of her apathy? Fans are waiting. That jolt of excitement last week was just what contests need, and there's palpable hunger for all she's got.
Catch Gilmore in Round 4, Heat 2, up against Malia Manuel.