If Wednesday and Thursday were pressure cookers in paradise, Friday the Maui Women's Pro delivered a tropical delight of a cap not only to the competition, but to the 2017 women's season overall. And it was hardly a shocker that Stephanie Gilmore was the preeminent emcee. The Australian was enthralled from the very start, tearing apart the endless, righthand faces with every ounce of the incredible skill, strategy and style that have won her six World Titles already.
While there was no World Title on the line when she paddled out this morning, there was still some surfing to do. Gilmore faced good friend -- and newly minted 2x World Champ -- Tyler Wright in Semifinal 1, the first heat of the day. Already, she had put her cards on the table, telling Wright Thursday that it was game on (with a wink, of course). And while the two shouted and laughed their way through the 35-minute match, when the set waves came no one was more serious than Gilmore, who earned a 9.77 on her way to the heat win.
"The was one of the funnest, most enjoyable heats I've ever had," Wright said afterward. "There was definitely some heckling back and forth. ... It was a nice way to end the year for me."
Gilmore volleyed the compliment right back. "Just for the confidence and everything," she said. "I always have such great surfs against Tyler. She always pushes me and makes me feel so nervous...I had to win that one."
But Gilmore's work wasn't done yet. Next up, in a somewhat more muted battle against Kauaian Malia Manuel in the Final, she had to stay focused literally to the last seconds to take the win. Manuel, who was sidelined with injury this season for four events, didn't let her opponent's wildfire of a winning affair here burn her own ambitions. Instead, the Kauaian played a cool, patient game, and even could have turned the heat if she hadn't fallen on her final wave.
In the end, however, Honolua Bay belonged to Gilmore. And while Manuel will hop to her home island with a second-place finish, both her and Gilmore's success in Maui signal what might be ahead for 2018. Gilmore's win bumped her all the way up to No. 2 on the rankings -- just out of clutching distance from another World Title. Manuel's runner-up in the contest was her best result of 2017. Fully healed and fired up, she could be the latest threat on the Championship Tour to ascend next season.
"When I came back [from injury], I tried to not have too high of expectations so I would not be disappointed," Manuel said. "But, this is a great stepping stone. I wish this year wasn't over already."
Friday was also momentous for one other woman on the Tour, who has been far from the upper echelon of the Jeep Leaderboard: Bronte Macaulay made her first CT Semifinal. A sophomore on the elite Tour, Macaulay has struggled to find a competitive foothold there, requalifying instead with her solid Qualifying Series rank for the past two years. But ending the season with a huge personal coup bodes well. Her success on this lush, wave-rich isle should boost her confidence that she belongs among the world's best.
In the end, the Maui Women's Pro was a perfect ending to a roller-coaster of a Championship Tour season. Regardless of how each woman did here in her heats, there's time now to start to dream all over again.
Maui Women's Pro Final Results:
1 - Stephanie Gilmore (AUS)
2 - Malia Manuel (HAW)
Maui Women's Pro Semifinal Results:
SF 1: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) 15.87 def. Tyler Wright (AUS) 14.43
SF 2: Malia Manuel (HAW) 16.10 def. Bronte Macaulay (AUS) 10.00
Top 5 on the WSL Women's Jeep Leaderboard (after Maui Women's Pro):
1: Tyler Wright (AUS)
2: Stephanie Gilmore (AUS)
3: Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS)
4: Courtney Conlogue (USA)
5: Carissa Moore (HAW)