It's that time of year again, when the women's Championship Tour and men's Qualifying Series heads to Portugal for the first of a series of European events, the Cascais Women's Pro, which starts Weds., Sept. 27, and the EDP Billabong Pro Cascais 2017, which kicks off Tuesday Sept. 26. While the men will battle for a massive points payday, QS surfers vying for a spot on the 2018 Tour still have the Triple Crown of Surfing left, to make their last spring toward achieving their surfing dreams.
But for the women surfing their derrières off for a shot at winning the World Title, time is running out. After Cascais, there's just France and Maui left before one woman hoists the shiny cup above her head and steps into history. For those trying to boost their positions on Tour, the pressure might as well be the same: At one of the rankings spectrum -- where women ranked No. 1 - 10 requalify automatically -- it's about aiming for the stars. At the other, it's sheer survival. Which means that every heat at the Portuguese beach break matters. Here are a few of the women with the most to gain in Cascais, and the most to lose.
The Australian Tour veteran may not have won the Swatch Pro at Trestles earlier this month, but she left with something that, arguably, is worth even more: The No. 1 spot on the Jeep Leaderboard, and the lovely yellow jersey that goes with it. Her lead, however, is precarious. She's a mere 300 points ahead of Courtney Conlogue, who's in No. 2, and 400 ahead of Tyler Wright, the reigning World Champ, who's at No. 3. Which is all to say that the margins could hardly be narrower. If Fitzgibbons wants to finally achieve one of the few career coups that have eluded her, she'll need to go as far as possible in the Cascais event to put some numeric distance between her and the hungry pack at her heels. (Having her competitors fall out early wouldn't hurt either.) The good news for Fitzgibbons is that her track record in Cascais is muito bom. She has the highest Heat Win Percentage of any surfer on Tour, at 71 percent, which give her some confidence as she heads to the old continent.
At World No. 2, the California native is returning to Cascais in a similar spot as she was last year, when she hit the soft European sand in a neck-and-neck Title battle with eventual winner Tyler Wright. In fact, not only did Conlogue's win here in 2016 push the Title race to France, she has won the event for the past two years running. Unlike previous years, the swell forecast for Cascais next week is incredibly good, with the kind of powerful conditions in which Conlogue thrives. With the World No. 1 rank so close that she can practically feel its silky glory in her fingers, another win here would only fire her up even more. Conlogue isn't one to back down when the going gets tough. Expect her to take her stellar record here and run -- er, surf -- with it.
Oahu native Coco Ho is one of those surfers whose talent, like that of Sage Erickson, has never been in question. But while Erickson has kicked into an entirely new, more confident gear this year, Ho's competitive success is still coming in fits and starts. She hit a season best in July, when she made the Semifinals at the Vans US Open of Surfing. But at the very next event event, she lost early and left with a throwaway 13th-place finish. Heading into Cascais, Ho sits at No. 12 on the CT ranks and No. 7 -- approximately the cutoff, depending on how the women ahead of her fare -- on the QS, which puts the kind of year-end pressure on her that every surfer strives to avoid. Without the guarantee of requalification through the QS, which is how Ho has tended to keep her CT spot, she'll need to dial up her game face a few notches when she lands in Lisbon. Her record there is, unfortunately, not great. In four events surfed, she has won just six heats. Hopefully she can pull off a turnaround under the Portuguese sun, and jump a few spots up, into safer rankings terrain.
French surfer Pauline Ado is having a remarkably better second half of the season than her first. After a string of non-stop 13th-place finishes, turned a corner in Huntington Beach, where she finished in fifth place. At the very next event, at Trestles, she left with a 9th-place finish, but her confidence was still in an upswing. Now, heading into Cascais, Ado is ranked No. 14 on the CT and No. 16 on the QS -- effectively, survival mode for the rest of the year. But Portugal could be just what the doctor ordered (along with other well-known curatives like fish, wine, and a stiff Atlantic wind). With a mere .18 HWP her track record isn't anything to email home about. But European beachies are her home turf, which could inspire a better run here. She'll be surfing the very first heat of the event, against Californians Erickson and Lakey Peterson in Round One, which could push her to take home field advantage.
Catch Ado, Ho, and the rest of the Top 17 live daily at the Cascais Women's Pro from Weds., Sept. 27 to Oct. 5, as well as daily replays following live action, on the WSL.