Energy was high this morning in anticipation of the third and final Australian event of the 2018 WSL Championship Tour season at the Margaret River Pro.
Six-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore, recent Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach winner Italo Ferreira, defending event champ Sally Fitzgibbons, rookie prodigy Caroline Marks, local expert Bronte Macaulay and two-time World Champ John John Florence all gathered at the event site this morning to discuss their goals heading into the latter part of the Australian leg. The waiting period for this year's Margaret River Pro kicks off April 11, with the possibility of running at Main Break, North Point or the Box -- just up the street.
Despite the chill in the air, the sun was shining and spirits are high -- including those of John John Florence, who went next-level at this event last year. At that contest, in perfect conditions, his surfing at Main Break was beyond anything we've seen before. The Hawaiian took the win against Kolohe Andino during the Final with a 19.27 heat total (out of a possible 20). Florence has long been known as something special but last year at the Margaret River Pro, he looked flat-out unstoppable (indeed, he went on to win his second, consecutive World Title).
"This is one of my favorite places on Tour," said Florence. "No matter what, there is always something to surf -- whether it's Main Break, North Point or the Box. Last year the waves were perfect. It was offshore and you could gather a lot of speed. It feels like snowboarding with that big open face. It's pretty rare to get a heat like the one I got last year -- where you're not worried about the competition at all because you're having so much fun."
If conditions line up, Florence will be looking to regain some of that momentum, and kick start a 2018 Title campaign, after a rough start to the season. He's arriving in Western Australia ranked World No. 26, which should give him ample motivation at Margaret River.
Caroline Marks, who is the youngest rookie to join the Tour, is currently ranked No. 3 in the world. And the 16-year-old is not slowing down. Hailing from Florida, this is the first time that Marks has surfed many of the Australian breaks on Tour but judging from her ranking, you wouldn't be able to tell. Looking out at Main Break this morning, she was calm and confident.
"The waves have been incredible," said Marks. "I'm loving it here. Coming off the last few events, I know what I'm capable of but I'm also trying not to put too much pressure on myself this year. It's been a great ride and I definitely don't want to slow down. I want to take it all the way. I'm trying to enjoy every moment."
Bronte Macaulay grew up just down the street from North Point and has been surfing the Main Break at Margaret River since she was little. Despite having a rough start to the season, rankings-wise (she's currently ranked No. 17 on the Jeep Leaderboard) there is still plenty of time for her to turn things around -- and what better place to do it than her hometown?
"I've had a pretty rough start this year," said Macaulay. "So I'm really excited for this event. It's nice to be home and to be surrounded by family and friends. Despite growing up here, I don't think it's given me much of an edge over the other surfers. Most of them have been coming for a few years now, and Sally has won heaps. It's just a really pretty part of Australia. It's a really rugged and scenic coastline."
Italo Ferreira, meanwhile, is fresh off the biggest result of his career; a win at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach. After defeating the event superstar and recent retiree Mick Fanning, Ferreira's confidence is soaring higher than ever. The Brazilian will be wearing the Jeep Leaders' jersey for the first time at this event and hoping to hold on to it for as long as possible.
"This all feels like a dream," he said. "To have the Jeep Leader jersey, it's the best feeling in the world. The World Title is a goal of mine but I also know that's still far off and it's the hardest thing in the world to stay on top. I'm just focusing on staying relaxed and enjoying every moment."
Sally Fitzgibbons is coming into this event as the defending event champion. Her performance here last year shot her to the top of the rankings as she defeated Tyler Wright in the Final and jumped into World Title contention. The Australian thrives in the unruly surf on offer at Margaret River and is unfazed by the ever-changing conditions.
"It's unfortunate but I injured my right foot when I was training at Snapper right before the first event," said Fitzgibbons. "It's just a really long healing process. I've got the boot on so I can walk around. I'm working with a lot of great doctors and they've developed a great system which has still allowed me to surf and compete. I'm working through it. I love it here. I've been coming here for a long time. I'm carrying all the confidence from last year and I'm hoping to take it all the way again. There's so many different elements that go into your surfing here -- you feel it in and out of the water. You never know what's going to happen next."
Despite her recent injury, Fitzgibbons will be surfing through it at this week's event.
Stephanie Gilmore was also on site Tuesday. The six-time World Champ is currently in possession of the Jeep Leaders' Jersey, having won the Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach last week. Although she's mastered most of the breaks on the WSL Championship Tour (CT) circuit, Margaret River is the one event that the Australian has yet to win.
"It's incredible how many years you can be on Tour and still be learning about how to surf a heat," explained Gilmore. "Margaret River is one of the events that I haven't won yet so I'm hoping I can take it all the way. When you're inspired and having fun, people can see that in your surfing. Margaret River is just one of those spots that you can't perfect."
Check back for the call Tuesday local time, and watch daily on the WSL and Facebook between April 11-22.