They say that good things come to those who wait. However that theory was tested to the limit at the Corona Open J-Bay. The women had last surfed a CT event at J-Bay in 2000. After that 18-year hiatus, they had to first watch the men and then wait another week for a swell. Yet when J-Bay turned on and the world's best women surfers could finally surf the world's best wave, magic really did happen. Stephanie Gilmore may have taken the win, but there was plenty of other of incredible performances over a dramatic and historic final two days of women's surfing.
"There was pressure," admitted Stephanie Gilmore after her win at the Corona Open J-Bay. "People were saying, ‘This is your place, this is your wave.'" Eventually, after what must be said was a slow start, Gilmore proved the surf fans' theory. Just like the other Cooly kids Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, Gilmore quickly developed a close affinity with J-Bay and her mix of grace, power and style perfectly suited the famous wave. "I always felt I would have a special connection here and I'm really not sure why I haven't come before," Gilmore said. "And I love it. It's such a magical place." The new found affinity netted the 6x World Champion her 29th CT win and the Jeep Leader Jersey. We are pretty sure she'll be back next year.
Ratcheting Up the Rivalry
During the event Gilmore had picked up a book detailing the history of competitive surfing at J-Bay and it was the intense rivalry between Kelly Slater and Andy Irons that resonated the most. J-Bay had hosted some of Andy and Kelly's more memorable battles and as the women's event unfolded and Gilmore faced Lakey Peterson in the Final, it was hard not to think that these two are now developing their own brand of competitive friction. The naturalfooters have won five of the six CT events on offer in 2018 and opened up a sizable gap on the rest of the field. "C'mon Steph, do you really need seven World Titles," Peterson joked at the presentation ceremony. She knows the answer all too well. She also knows that she is the only one that stands in Gilmore's path. This battle will go to the very end.
Weston-Webb Burns Bright Early
Tatiana Weston-Webb has showed incredible consistency throughout 2018 and J-Bay provided a fifth consecutive Semifinal appearance. In many of those events the Kauai-based Brasilian has been the early standout. J-Bay was no exception and Weston-Webb, despite surfing on her backhand - which is considered a disadvantage on the racey waves - was the pace setter. Her Quarterfinal performance which netted a heat total of 18.54 was the single best performance of the event. However her inability to win events is the reason she isn't currently challenging Gilmore and Peterson for the World Title. When she learns how to sustain her brilliance all the way through to the very end of an event, contention beckons.
A Welcome Wildcard Return
Until Bianca Buitendag's giant-killing performance at J-Bay, 2018 hadn't been a good year for wildcards. Now over the halfway stage on the CT calendar it is only Kobie Enright at Bells that has managed to win a single heat. The fact that Buitendag managed to make it to the Semifinals in J-Bay is made all the more remarkable given she was surfing with considerable back pain. Wildcards, hopefully, add both excitement and unpredictability to the draw and for the first time in 2018 Buitendag bought bucketloads of both. The former CT surfer showed the form that saw her finish as the World No. 4 in 2015.
The Relegation Scrap
While the top of the Jeep Leaderboard increasingly looks like a two-horse race, at the back end of the ratings there are a number of surfers fighting for their elite CT status. At J-Bay a number of the surfers turned in year-best performances to ensure they remain in the fight for an all important top 10 finish. Bronte Macaulay backed up her Quarterfinal finish in Brazil with another 5th place at J-Bay and hauled herself back into the relegation scrap. Veterans Sage Erickson and Coco Ho also logged their best results of 2018 and showed the form at J-Bay that has had them at the sport's pointy end for a decade. That trio will need to move past the Quarterfinals in future events to keep their place in 2019, but in South Africa the signs were there that a corner had been turned.