If there was one constant throughout the turbulent 2021 Championship Tour season it was the ever-present, beaming smile of Johanne Defay. Through her positive vibes, powerful surfing and never-say-die competitive grit she reminded fans around the world that, yes, these may be some strange times we're riding through, but there really is nothing better than being fortunate enough to live this crazy surf life.
"This feels so good ... I had a little cry out the back," Defay said after getting the news that she'd solidified her spot in the inaugural Rip Curl WSL Finals at Lower Trestles this September.
And now, she has the opportunity to become the first woman from Europe and first surfer from France to win a World Title. But like she's done from the start of the season, if Defay hopes to make history she's going to have to take it one heat at a time.
"We didn't compete for a year, so the goal this year was just to step back into the competition and get good results," she explains. "I'm super happy I'm a part of the first-ever Final 5."
Consistency has been the key for Defay all year long. Over the course of the four-stop Australian leg, she walked away with three Quarterfinal appearances and a runner-up finish at the Rip Curl Rottnest Search.
In Newcastle she lost to ratings leader and good friend Carissa Moore, who went on to win the event and will be the No. 1 seed in the Finals.
In Narrabeen she got tripped up by an in-form Caroline Marks. And in Margaret River, she finished her Quarterfinal heat tied with Bronte Macaulay, but ultimately lost the heat after a count back. Her run was capped off by a remarkable performance at Rottnest, where she was finally halted by Sally Fitzgibbons in the Final. Fitzgibbons will be waiting for Defay at Lowers if she can get by No. 4 seed Stephanie Gilmore first.
The bright spot of Defay's season came in the form of a break-out win at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro. After finishing runner-up there in 2019, she was not to be denied in 2021.
"She is truly the queen of the pool," Moore said after the victory celebration. "She has very good timing, and it was really good to see her winning today."
But Defay's roll actually started well before the CT season kicked off in Hawaii last December. During the 2020 pandemic she was virtually unstoppable in the specialty Euro Cup Of Surfing, sweeping the series with wins in Anglet and Ericeira.
Defay's first full-time season on Tour was back in 2014, where she immediately made her presence felt. She tallied solid results in Fiji, France, Maui, and perhaps most importantly, California, where she finished third at the Swatch Women's Pro Trestles. For the effort she was awarded Rookie Of The Year honors.
"I make so many sacrifices for surfing and for my career. It is already enough for me," Defay explains. "I think surfing and competition has really helped me to be confident in myself."
And now, she'll be looking to that early experience at Lowers as a cornerstone to her run at Lowers, where her powerful frontside carves and laybacks are sure to serve her well. But as the No. 5 seed she has an uphill climb ahead of her. Nevertheless, the pieces are in place for her to become France's first World Champion.
The stakes couldn't be higher, and with her next-level confidence and the power of a positive mindset, as she's out to prove anything is possible if you just keep chasing the dream.
Rip Curl WSL Finals runs from September 9-17, 2021 in San Clemente, California. A historic, one-day, winner-take-all race for the 2021 World Title, don't miss a second of the action right here on WorldSurfLeague.com.