If there were any doubts left as to whether Stephanie Gilmore planned to chase a seventh World Title this year, she vanquished them from the sultry beaches of Saquarema Wednesday at the Oi Rio Women's Pro. The competitive juice that seemed to be missing for much of last year has been coursing through her veins so far in 2018, sending her to a triumphant win here, for her second win of the season, and stitching the Jeep Leader's jersey even more tightly to her back.
In defeating Californian Lakey Peterson, who arrived in Rio ranked World No. 2, the two women effectively kept pace with each other in the unpredictable beachbreak of Itaúna, setting up what may become a World Title battle of two. Unlike Gilmore, Peterson has yet to win a Title -- but it's most definitely her plan this season. Before she even surfed a heat at the 2018 Roxy Pro Gold Coast, the first event of the year, which she won, her energy was different and her game face was undeniable. Maybe it was having taken the life-step of getting engaged; maybe it was the fact that, after seven years on Tour, she was ready to step up and have the hardware to show for her incredible talent. Or maybe, it was just the first time her confidence matched her surfing.
The first Semifinal pitted two Australians against each other: Gilmore, the Tour titan, vs. Nikki Van Dijk, who's currently World No. 8, and only recently starting to find real traction with CT results. Far from an imbalanced battle however, Van Dijk's increasing confidence and comfort at the break shined through -- as did the time she spent on Tuesday alternately watching and surfing Itaúna, which boasted massive closeouts, powerful swell a lot of current, and resembled the North Shore more than the playful waves that rolled in for finals day.
About halfway through, though, Gilmore's competitive fire roared into gear, and she not only took over the lead, but held it until she had secured her spot in the Final.
The second Semifinal pitted another pair of well-matched surfers, in Peterson and Brasilian-Kauaian Tatiana Weston-Webb. While neither woman has achieved the kind of multi-year dominance of women like Gilmore, Sally Fitzgibbons or Carissa Moore, both are poised to occupy those top-ranked spots for years to come. Peterson's breakthough came, of course, at the first event, when she won in the first-ever heats at macking Kirra Point. Weston-Webb's ambition, meanwhile, has never been a secret, but her results have been less consistent than her self-belief.
But by the time their battle came to a close, it was Peterson who clutched the win. She had found a 6.17, which was enough to tip the scales in her favor, by less than one point. While she won't head to Bali with the yellow Jeep Leader's jersey, she essentially consolidated her position on the rankings here in Rio, keeping pace with Gilmore.
Elsewhere in the draw, the end of their roads in Rio seemed almost too fast; Out of nowhere Silvana Lima, who had been earning some of the biggest scores of the contest, was out of contention. Fitzgibbons, who was quietly working her way through the heats, fell to Gilmore in their Quarterfinal matchup. And while she eventually let the camera turn to her and talked through her heat, the pain of the loss burned in her eyes.
Tucked between the intense battles (well, between the women's Round 3 and Quarterfinals), men's Round 4 ran, too. Along with further culling the field, it was also the time that Filipe Toledo chose to unleash some of his signature brilliance. With one of the biggest backside he earned a perfect 10 -- the first of the event.
With big swell predicted here for Friday, just about everyone in town will likely be toasting the big performances. Because it's not Rio without caipirinhas, music, and -- for Gilmore, at least -- the warm glow of being on her way, maybe, to making history.
The Top 17 women on the WSL Championship Tour will compete next at the Corona Bali Pro, live on the WSL May 27 - June 9.