Since her arrival on the women's WSL Championship Tour (CT) in 2012, Malia Manuel has been a perennial powerhouse, taking down some of the top-ranked women on the roster with aggressive surfing. Yet despite some incredible performances and an uninterrupted, seven-year run on the CT so far, the Kauai native has finished in the Top 5 just once, in 2014. Last season, had it not been for a show-stopper of a knee injury at just the second event of the year, she might have punched through the phalanx of top-ranked surfers like Courtney Conlogue, Sally Fitzgibbons and Tyler Wright.
This season, however, may be her year to break through to that upper tier. After recovering for most of 2017, she returned to competition in the fall, and proved that forced time off might be just what the doctor ordered.
"I always laughed at the saying, 'Everything happens for a reason,' because I'm used to controlling a situation and focusing on making it happen," she told Surfer upon her return to competition. "Then I blew out me knee, one of my worst fears. I've never been so grateful for time out of the water and experiencing a life apart from surfing. My focus for the last 15 years was getting better at surfing.
"When that was taken away, I became more open-minded, explored the world, and grew as a person. I found inner peace from a deeper layer I never knew existed. I also meditated on bigger-picture stuff while learning from and being inspired by some special people in my life. During my time out of the water, I also finished a college certificate and traveled to a couple non-surf destinations that have been on my list. I really enjoyed this blessing in disguise while working to get healthy again."
Part of that blessing was Manuel's ability to come back stronger, and perhaps more focused, than ever. She wrapped up 2017 with three top-notch contest results -- a third at the Cascais Women's Pro, a fifth at the Roxy Pro France, and, finally, a runner-up at the Maui Women's Pro in December. Impressive stuff for someone who spent the first half of the year in physical therapy.
Close observers of Manuel's career, however, likely weren't surprised by what she accomplished before 2017 was over. She hasn't been the one taking home the World Title trophy in recent years, but her consistency, punctuated by moments of brilliance, has been admirable. Her staying power has been borne of dynamic surfing in any conditions, an aggressive training regime, and a deep inner focus that has kept her in the elite mix -- complete with ups, downs and lots of Quarterfinal finishes. Throughout her six years on the elite women's Tour, her season finishes have been consistently within the Top 10 -- which is the cutoff to requalify for the Tour without a backup rank on the Qualifying Series -- every year except 2013, when she finished at World No. 13, and 2017, when she got injured.
The injury that benched Manuel last season happened in March, before the year had barely begun in earnest. It was during the second stop on tour, the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, in her Round Four heat against Defay. It was then, seconds after the ligament ripped, that Manuel did something that may reveal her very essence: she got back on the ski... and won.
"I was just riding out of a closeout section and heard something pop in my knee," she said afterward. "I didn't really know how bad it hurt until I tried to climb on the ski. I knew my knee hurt because on a couple bumpy waves I could barely tolerate the pain, but I wanted to make sure I finished the heat completely and then get it assessed when I came in."
That kind of grit comes with high expectations. Manuel has long been thought to be the one of the women who could make the Tour's Top 5, which has been dominated by the same five women. Others -- Bianca Buitendag, Tatiana Weston-Webb, and Lakey Peterson among them -- have gotten close. But heading into 2018, Manuel just might be best poised to break up the cabal.
It's not just her recent results that bode well. Outside of competition Manuel has been embracing fresh opportunities, from a new sponsor in Lululemon, the athletic wear brand, to -- based purely on Instagram inspection -- a pro-snowboarding romantic partner. Not to mention, some side trips to hit the slopes in Canada and a spa visit in Hawaii.
This week, Manuel is kicking off the CT's Australia run with a couple of top-ranked women's Qualifying Series (QS) events -- first at the Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro in Newcastle, on the country's central coast, followed by the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro. She won the Sydney event last year, which might be a confidence boost coming into the new season. With a reset and fresh burst of momentum, Manuel will be kicking off her 2018 season right where she belongs: on top of the world -- and maybe the rankings, too.
Catch Manuel in the Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro live daily on the WSL starting February 19, followed by the Vissla Pro. The 2018 Championship Tour season kicks off March March 11- 22 with the Roxy Pro Gold Coast.