The sun beat down hard today on Huntington Beach, baking the growing crowds into cowering, sunscreened submission and bronzing the well-tanned to a perfect crisp. Some people sought out shade against vendor tents, under nylon umbrellas and against stairwells. But there was no escaping it; by midday, no one was safe.
Neither, of course, were the eight women remaining in the Vans US Open of Surfing. By the time the Quarterfinals were over, in fact, the rankings were in a full-blown meltdown, and the World Title race had reached a low, steady boil. But besides throwing a spanner in the works for top dogs with their sights set on that shiny Champ's cup, the contest has definitively become about something more, something deeper. Something so elusive, but fundamental to success: the hero here is self-confidence. And the queen of that today? None other than North Shore surfing royalty, Coco Ho.
Yesterday, we noted that Ho comes from a line of über-successful Hawaiian surfers -- alpha-males who form a famous clan of contest-winning and video-part-filming extroverts. That's a lei-draped cross to bear, perhaps, but also a gift of heritage and talent. Despite all that -- or maybe because of it -- Ho has never made it into the upper echelon of the Championship Tour rankings, often securing her spot on Tour by the skin of her Qualifying Series teeth.
The US Open, however, could mark the start of a new beginning. Whatever work she's doing behind the scenes, it all came to bear today. In the biggest upset of the contest -- and perhaps of the season -- Ho eliminated Tyler Wright, defeating her with a last-ditch effort to reclaim the lead under immense pressure (her dad, Michael, was hopping up and down on the pier), and priority. As a quick reminder, Wright is the reigning World Champ who arrived in HB as World No. 1, with a steely demeanor that no surfer -- or interviewer -- has been able to pierce. Wright also won here in 2014 -- and that was before she had entered the Glenn "Micro" Hall university of Title-winning.
The fact that Ho assumed her own hard-nosed demeanor, though, was not lost on her. After all, she started the US Open ranked World No. 12 -- two spots outside of re-qualification -- and so far this year, she doesn't have her QS rank to rely on for job security. "I want to find my feet on Tour and stop doing the QS," she said afterward. "We're only halfway through the year."
While Ho may be the poster child for self-confidence this week, Sage Erickson is her partner-in-neoprene. She, too, has been fueled by understated pride and determination, and is the picture of perseverance. Like Ho, Erickson has typically relied on her second-tier QS rank to re-qualify each year, but in 2014 that backup didn't pan out. After spending a year off the elite Tour, she worked her way back and has since been displaying flashes of brilliance, if not consistent success.
But today, her drive was in gear and her game face was decidedly on. Erickson simply attacked her first wave of the heat, and didn't let up. She held on to the lead for dear life until it was over, eliminating World No. 2 Sally Fitzgibbons in the process. The question now, for both Erickson and Ho, is if they can start to access their inner warriors more than once -- or at least, four more times this year.
The two other battles of the Quarterfinals were less surprising, but meaningful in their own rights. In the first matchup of the round, Brazilian-born, Kauai-reared powerhouse Tatiana Weston-Webb faced upbeat-but-deadly Frenchwoman Johanne Defay. Tatiana earned her first Championship Tour win here at last year's US Open, as just a rookie. The year before that, it was French surfer Johanne Defay. It made for a well-matched battle, in a number of ways. Both women have proven their mettle in the type of heavy, open-ocean waves in which they each cut their teeth -- Weston-Webb in Hawaii and Defay on Reunion Island. Impressively, both also became fixtures of the world's Top 10 practically upon arrival on Tour. And both have won the US Open, in back-to-back years.
As a result, their match was a heart-pounder, as they see-sawed for the lead. Both of their mothers were watching on, as well -- Johanne's from the stands and Tati's from the beach, hands clutched, knuckles white. In the end, it was the elder Weston-Webb who jumped with joy as her daughter squeaked by, but both surfers put on commendable performances on a playing field where only one can win.
The other end of the round, Quarterfinal 4, featured the least surprising thing that's happened so far: Courtney Conlogue's total domination. With three event wins this year already (Bells, Fiji and the Qualifying Series event, the Supergirl Pro), and a lifetime of experience at this break, her all-out assault over French surfer Pauline Ado was almost axiomatic. Still, at a contest in which the Championship Tour's (CT) top three-ranked women -- No. 3 Stephanie Gilmore, No. 2 Sally Fitzgibbons and No. 1 Tyler Wright had all been eliminated before her heat even began, Conlogue's feat is all the more laudable. Even better for the Santa Ana native (who arrived here at No. 4 on the rankings) is that, simply by appearing in the Semis, she'll gain ground in the Title race, which is of paramount importance to the perennial runner-up.
When Conlogue surfs again, she'll face Erickson in Semifinal 2. Ho and Weston-Webb will battle in SF1.