Maybe it was because the sun finally came out. Maybe it was because of the at-capacity crowd, sitting cheek-to-cheek on the small bank at Lowers, ready with enthusiastic cheers or collective cringes. Or maybe it was that, with just three more Championship Tour events left on their schedule, there's simply nothing left to lose.
Whatever was fueling the performances at Thursday's Swatch Pro, a handful of women had some of the best heats of the year today at Trestles. And in the wake of the carnage was a shakeup at the top of the rankings that will impact the 2017 Title race.
Sally Fitzgibbons was one of the contenders -- arriving here at World No. 2 -- who lost her chance to capitalize on the hastily reordered terrain.
"The door cracks open and you just want to walk through it," she said. Instead, however, she went down in the Quarters to another woman who can practically taste the Championship trophy, too: Courtney Conlogue, current World No. 3.
Theirs, in fact, was one of the slower heats of the day, following a series of battles in which some eager faces broke through, and some reigning queens were dethroned -- at least for the remainder of the event. The first heat of the day, Round Four Heat 1, pitted two titans, 6x World Champ Stephanie Gilmore and reigning World Champ Tyler Wright, against each other in a battle royale. Gilmore, who has had a sleeper of a season (Relatively speaking, that is. She arrived in San Clemente at No. 4), seemed to wake up at just the right moment, attacking the slopey righthander with the full force of her experience, style and will to win. And win she did: Just as she was hitting her stride, racking up back-to-back nine-pointers, Wright appeared to back off in a shocker of a heat.
True to form, the reigning Champ laughed it off -- she and Gilmore are longtime friends, and being on top has a way of softening the blows. But less fun will be handing over her Jeep Leaders' jersey if the points stack up against her by the contest's end.
From there, though, the level of competition kept going up and it was in the Quarterfinals where the neoprene met the road, so to speak. Gilmore was the first to suffer a blow of her own -- but not for lack of trying, or excitement. In QF1, she faced Wednesday's happiest surfer in the world, Silvana Lima, who has already shattered her own ceiling of achievement for the season so far at Trestles. But today, that fire only burned brighter, as she and Gilmore put on a gleeful show of boosts, hacks and spins that had the crowd -- and the judges -- bowled over. In a series of jaw-dropping exchanges, they pushed each other harder and higher, until Gilmore finally couldn't catch up to Lima's impressive lead.
For Gilmore, it was an unfortunate setback in what could have been her breakthrough in the Title race. But for Lima, it was a godsend of an inspired performance that confirms what everyone has already known for years: that she has the power, the grit and explosive style to take on the best of them -- if not the consistency. And today, she proved it when it counted.
Next, Lakey Peterson and Carissa Moore put on a show of their own, stacking up an impressive series of 9-pointers with single-minded competitiveness that was practically palpable. More specifically, though, it was Peterson's show: When she hit the lineup it wasn't long before she announced herself -- and completely dominated. She was attacking the righthander with no holds barred, stabbing and hacking with power and drive for a pair of 9-point scores that left her opponent chasing scores to catch up. Moore threw a few of her own impressive hacks, plus a blow-tail reverse among other flashes of style and skill, but it was Peterson who simply conquered.
With speed, precision and palpable determination, Peterson, who is now a San Clemente local, was in the driver's seat for the duration of their 30-minute match. Currently ranked World No. 10, she has something to fight for: Indeed, her spot on the 2018 Tour hangs in the balance (No. 10 is the cutoff for requalification through the Championship Tour rankings). But if she keeps surfing like this, she won't need to worry when the season comes to a close.
The last two heats of the Quarters had neither the power of the waves earlier, nor the fireworks to go with them, but they were statement-making nonetheless. There was Courtney Conlogue's solid win over Fitzgibbons, which positions the former to maybe -- possibly -- retrieve the Jeep Leaders' jersey by the end of the event. And Australian Tour sophomore Keely Andrew put an end to Sage Erickson's freight train of success with a landmark achievement of her own. Not only will Andrew be in the Semifinals for the first time all year but she also earned the highest score of her CT career so far -- a combined 18.47 for the win.
Swatch Pro Round 4 Results:
Heat 1: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) 18.90 def. Tyler Wright (AUS) 8.83
Heat 2: Lakey Peterson (USA) 14.17 def. Johanne Defay (FRA) 11.84
Heat 3: Courtney Conlogue (USA) 16.63 def. Nikki Van Dijk (AUS) 14.13
Heat 4: Keely Andrew (AUS) 14.40 def. Pauline Ado (FRA) 14.03
Swatch Pro Quarterfinal Results:
QF 1: Silvana Lima (BRA) 17.36 def. Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) 16.30
QF 2: Lakey Peterson (USA) 19.57 def. Carissa Moore (HAW) 18.00
QF 3: Courtney Conlogue (USA) def. Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS)
QF 4: Keely Andrew (AUS) 18.47 def. Sage Erickson (USA) 10.83
Swatch Pro Semifinal Match-Ups:
SF 1: Silvana Lima (BRA) vs. Lakey Peterson (USA)
SF 2: Courtney Conlogue (USA) vs. Keely Andrew (AUS)