Taro Watanabe and Izzi Gomez claimed their respective maiden Qualifying Series (QS) wins in the SLO CAL Open at Morro Bay, a men's and women's QS 1,000, with clutch performances on finals day. Inconsistent, four-to-six foot surf powered its way into the Morro Rock lineup to test competitors' patience and ability but Watanabe and Gomez rose to the challenge, taking down formidable fields en route to their first-ever WSL victories.
A whirlwind event for Gomez ended in glory after winning her first QS heat in the Quarterfinals Saturday and carrying that momentum into unstoppable form on finals day. The 20-year-old had to overcome event threat Makena Burke in the Semifinals before facing one of 2020's breakthrough talents Sawyer Lindblad who was in search of back-to-back wins to start her year. Gomez thrived under pressure, making comeback wins in both her bouts today, and shut the door on Lindblad with a 7.00 (out of a possible 20) using her experience as a five-time SUP World Champion to her advantage - finally translating that success to professional surfing. (Full interview in video)
"I'm baffled (laughs), I never expected this and it's incredible to win with my brother and mom here," said Gomez. "I'm in shock right now but paddling back out with about a minute and a half left I saw Sawyer (Lindblad) on the inside looking for a score and I just thought 'please don't get a wave.' I just can't even believe this happened."
Watanabe overcame one of the toughest roads to the Finals imaginable with veteran talents in each of his head-to-head heats starting in the Quarterfinals that ultimately led to his maiden QS victory. The 17-year-old took his confidence from yesterday's heat win against Cory Arrambide into a hefty Semifinal battle with former Championship Tour (CT) competitor and his Team USA coach Brett Simpson before matching up with David do Carmo in the Final. A devastating circumstance unfolded for the Brasilian do Carmo as both he and Watanabe were locked in an absolute battle.
Do Carmo received a priority interference, meaning he interfered with Watanabe who had first priority and the Brasilian lost his second-highest score, which all but ended the heat after Watanabe's impeccable backhand attack earned him an 8.00. (Full interview in video)
"It still hasn't hit me and I'm just at a loss for words," said Watanabe. "Just with Cory (Arrambide) that was a tough heat yesterday, Brett (Simpson) is one of my heroes and then David (do Carmo) I've seen surf against Mick (Fanning) and the CT guys. It's surreal to surf with them and then take them out (laughs)."
Lindblad Continues Impeccable Start to 2020
A runner-up for Lindblad keeps her at No. 1 on the North America rankings with two Final appearances to start 2020 and showing that she's becoming a threat on the QS level after her first WSL Pro Junior season yielded a Junior Championships appearance. Just two QS events into her emerging career, the 14-year-old looks to continue her incredible streak later this month at the Jack's Surfboards Pro QS 1,500 to complete her Californian leg but knows to keep her mindset on the task at hand.
"I never would've guessed this kind of start and 2020 has been really good to me so far," said Lindblad. "Now I'll just train harder, surf more and try to keep this momentum going. It'd be insane to see myself toward the top of the rankings at the end of this year because I really want to get into the higher-rated events next season."
Despite his mistake in the Final, do Carmo's performance was electrifying throughout the SLO CAL Open at Morro Bay with some show-stopping surfing. The QS veteran's forehand was on full display, as well as his decimating backhand, that helped make him a well-known threat in 2015 when he took down three-time WSL Champion Mick Fanning at the Oi Rio Pro. But the 35-year-old is constantly learning from the good and the bad, and will look for more in 2020 following this big result.
"It was an exciting Final, I've had a great time here and I would have loved to have won the event for my friends, family and Brazil, but I ended up getting an interference on a wave, but congrats to Taro," said David do Carmo. "I knew he had priority, but I went on the wave and knew when we got mixed together, I knew there was a chance of me getting penalized. To me it was 50-50, but that's how it goes sometimes. I asked Taro what happened and we went over the math and both agreed it was pretty much over. It serves as a lesson, and I'll definitely use this experience in my future heats. I was just too frothed out to catch waves, but I'm still stoked with the way I performed throughout the event here in California and look forward to the next one,"
The event is proudly sponsored by Visit SLO CAL, Dignity Health, Jeep, 805 Beer, Surfers of Tomorrow, Mid-State Containers, La Serena Hotel, City of Morro Bay, Peak WiFi, Natural Healing Center, Cool Cat Cafe, Hubbell Real Estate Group, Mechanics Bank, Pack Design Group, Sunrun Solar, Aqua Systems, Moshpit Digital, Sunshine and Reign Photography, Surfing for Hope, Catch Some Air, and Ahern Rentals.
The next North America regional event will be the Ron Jon Quiksilver Pro QS 1,500, Junior Pro and Roxy Junior Pro in Cocoa Beach, Florida, beginning March 12 - 15.