As the saying goes, to be the best you have to beat the best. And that's what the North Shore's Bettylou Sakura Johnson just did enroute to topping the podium at the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Haleiwa Challenger. Under rainy skies and challenging conditions, the 16-year-old North Shore local upset five-time World Champ Carissa Moore to not only win the event, but also qualify for the 2022 Championship Tour.
"I'm just really happy to represent Haleiwa here," said Sakura Johnson while being showered in celebratory apple cider. "I'm in shock. I'm so excited. I can't wait [for next year]."
During a day of crazy weather and high pressure, the women's 2022 Championship Tour qualification scenario was an absolute nail-bitter all the way to the final horn. In the Semifinals there were five surfers still in contention for the three remaining spots.
When the spray finally settled it was Hawaii's Sakura Johnson and Luana Silva, as well as Australia's Robinson clinching their spots on the 2022 Championship Tour.
All three surfers will be true rookies in 2022 as none have spent a full season on the CT. Sakura Johnson is the only surfer in the group with any CT experience. She finished 9th at the 2021 Maui Pro presented by ROXY at Pipeline. Neither Silva or Robinson have never surfed a CT event, but they did both post wins on the Australian Qualifying Series in 2021.
Overall, this new class of rookie women will bring a huge generational shift to the Tour. At 22 years old, Costa Rica's Brisa Hennessy is the oldest in the class. Robinson is 21. But the other three are all teenagers. Silva is 17. Both Sakura Johnson and Simmers are only 16.
Class of 2022 Championship Tour Qualifiers:
Day Four: John John Florence Dominates Haleiwa Challenger, Men's 2022 Championship Tour Roster Finalized
As the wind switched offshore and the waves at Ali'i Beach Park turned on, it was John John Florence that once again gave the surf world something to talk about. Building momentum all week long, he saved his best for last when he dropped a freakish perfect 10-point ride on a wave that had it all -- turns, airs, barrels. As the WSL's Joe Turpel described, "It was like a dream run at a skatepark."
Taking the win at the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Haleiwa Challenger, this marks Florence's second victory at Haleiwa and proves that he's truly back in prime form after suffering a knee injury at Margaret River last year. Consider the Championship Tour put on notice.
"It's so much fun being here, competing and being back in it again," Florence said afterwards. "Going through the injuries the last couple years, it just feels good to be here."
"I just want to say thanks to my wife, my family and everyone who's been there supporting me. Ross Williams, we've been working a lot. My whole team behind me. It's been huge going through these last couple of years and to be here winning again is awesome."
But with the completion of the 2021 Challenger Series, Florence wasn't the only big winner on the day. The qualification picture for the 2022 Championship Tour has now been finalized. Joining the world's best at the Billabong Pro Pipeline when the CT kicks off this January will be Brazil's Pupo and Joao Chianca, Costa Rica's Carlos Munoz and Australia's Jackson Baker. All four surfers will be true rookies as none have spent a full season on the CT.
"My family is crying at home and I'm about to cry. This is a dream come true," said Chianca.
"Sammy [Pupo] has to qualify, I don't want to do the Tour alone next year," he added while Pupo's heat was still in the water.
Pupo's qualification moment came when he advanced out of the Quarterfinals. For the effort, he'll be joining his best friend Chianca and his brother, Miguel Pupo, on the CT next year.
"It's been such a long journey, I've been competing on the QS since I was 15. It's been a long road," Pupo said. "It just doesn't feel real ... to be on tour with my best friend [Chianca] and my brother."
New Zealand's Billy Stairmand finished fourth in the same heat, and with his loss it opened the door for Baker to clinch his spot on the '22 CT.
"I'm shocked...I'm over the moon. The last week as been a lot of number crunching," smiled Baker, dedicating the accomplishment to his late mother. "It's a dream come true."
The final qualification spot was awarded to Munoz when Aussie Kalani Ball's long-shot bid to join the Tour came to an end when he came up short in the second Semifinal. The first male from Central America to make the CT, after years of hard work and pouring his heart and soul into his surfing, Munoz will give surfers around the world much to cheer about. He'll join country woman Brisa Hennessy, who currently sits atop the Challenger Series ratings, on Tour next year.
"Thank you everybody who believed in me and supported me and have been through this journey with me. It's been a learning experience and all I can say is thank you," said Munoz. "I can't believe this.
Class of 2022 Championship Tour Qualifiers:
Ezekiel Lau | HAW
Jake Marshall | USA
Imaikalani deVault | HAW
Nat Young | USA
Connor O'Leary | AUS
Liam O'Brien | AUS
Callum Robson | AUS
Lucca Mesinas | PER
Joao Chianca | BRA
Jackson Baker | AUS
Carlos Munoz | CRI
Samuel Pupo | BRA
By the time the women hit the water the waves had cleaned up and it was looking like classic, rippable Haleiwa. Offering perhaps a glimpse into the future, in the opening heat, California's Alyssa Spencer came out and took the heat win over five-time World Champ Carissa Moore. Spencer, who was sitting 8th on the CS going into Haleiwa, kept her CT hopes alive as both women advanced into the Quarterfinals.
France's Pauline Ado, who was sitting 11th on the CS ratings, saw her hopes of rejoining the CT dashed when she finished fourth in the heat.
California's rising star Caitlin Simmers finished third in the following heat, but it was enough to clinch her a spot in the big leagues next year. Simmers lost out to Hawaii's Gabriela Bryan, who's also qualified for 2022, and Portugal's Yolanda Hopkins, who's sitting 20th on the CS.
Simmer's captured the surf world's collective attention this year on the Challenger Series when she won the US Open of Surfing Huntington Beach presented by Shiseido. At 15 years old, she's largely considered the face of the next generation of American women. And with impeccable style, raw power and a penchant for progression, she's undoubtedly going to shake things up.
The qualification drama just kept on going as heat number seven saw 15-year-old Californian Sawyer Lindblad, who was donning a helmet due to a recent ear injury, and Aussie Macy Callaghan's run at Haleiwa came to an end, while 24 ranked South African Sarah Baum advanced into the Quarters.
The hopes of Hawaii were with the final heat of the day at 16-year-old Bettylou Sakura Johnson put in a statement-making performance to ace the heat, while veteran Coco Ho was dispatched by Japan's Amuro Tsuzuki at the buzzer.
All of this sets up a dramatic Finals day as there's no shortage of qualification scenarios still in play … and of course, the five-time World Champ is still in the draw and we all know what she's capable of.
Day 3: Five More Surfers Clinch 2022 Championship Tour Qualification
Another day at the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Haleiwa Challenger, another step closer to finalizing the 2022 Championship Tour roster.
Today, with big, stormy peaks swirling through the career-defining North Shore lineup, Australia's Liam O'Brien and Callum Robson, Hawaii's Imaikalani deVault, Peru's Lucca Mesinas and American Nat Young have all been confirmed as competitors in the '22 CT.
"I was pretty anxious the last few days with all the lay days and wasn't sure if it was going to run today or not," said O'Brien.
"Every heat is a hard one moving forward but I found my rhythm and got a few good ones. Those are tough, too, when you want guys like Jordy (Lawler) to do well and see it fall apart so it turns into just focusing on yourself and wanting to perform."
O'Brien, Robson, DeVault and Mesinas will all be true rookies, while Young will rejoin the Tour after falling off in 2017. Mesinas will be the first full-time male CT surfer from Peru.
O'Brien did enjoy some CT success earlier this year, when he surfed his way to a third=place finish at the Rip Curl Rottnest Search presented by Corona as a wildcard. He also got a wildcard start at the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe.
Then, with the weight of qualification on his shoulders, Robson advanced out of heat two alongside a very focused Ezekiel Lau, who has already qualified for the '22 CT.
Up next, all eyes were on John John Florence as his return to competition continues. The two-time World Champ made his heat win look too easy in the challenging conditions -- even calling them "fun." More than just another heat win, his performance will factor into who's on Tour next year.
Aussie Jacob Willcox advanced out of the heat with Florence in second position, keeping his qualification hopes alive. But for Brazil's Joao Chianca, who started the day sitting in sixth on the Challenger Series ratings, a fourth-place finish in that same heat means that his fate is now out of his hands. He'll have to see where the cards fall in the rest of the event before he can figure out his plans for next year.
New Zealand's Billy Stairmand, sitting way down at 59th, was able to advance in second place behind a silky smooth Griffin Colapinto, who's surfing has been seemingly effortless at Haleiwa. Unfortunately for Brazil's Alex Ribeiro, we was eliminated from the event. Sitting 33rd on the CT and 32nd on the CS heading into Haleiwa, he'll be looking to regroup for 2022.
As the swell continued to build, hitting a bombing 21 feet at 14 seconds halfway through the day, so did the qualification pressure.
Brazil's Samuel Pupo did what he had to do to keep his hopes alive. Then, in the following heat, O'Brien turned it on to earn his '22 CT spot, while Aussie Jordan Lawler couldn't find his rhythm in the turbulent conditions.
As the conditions just kept getting more hectic, the day ended with Portugal's Vasco Ribeiro and Brazil's Deivid Silva bowing out of the competition. Both surfers were below the cut line going into Halewia and were hoping for a big result to catapult them up the leaderboard while Connor O'Leary and Kanoa Igarashi advanced into the Quarters.
Day 2: Marshall, O'Leary Clinch Qualification For 2022 Championship Tour
With action back underway at the Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Haleiwa Challenger, the qualification picture for the 2022 Championship Tour continues to gain clarity as Australia's Connor O'Leary and the United States' Jake Marshall have clinched their spots for next season.
For O'Leary, who finished the 2021 CT season ranked 28th, his performance on the Challenger Series this year has earned him a spot amongst the world's most elite surfers next season.
"It's been a very up and down year but stoked to finish off the year on a positive note," O'Leary said after learning he'd clinched his CT spot for next year.
"Now I can enjoy Haleiwa and just try and get as many points as I can while I'm still in the event and try and put on as much of a performance as I can. Huge thanks to my family and my wife Stef, she's been a massive part of my life, if I didn't have her I wouldn't be here. Let's bring on next year and start off with a bang."
And for Marshall, who came up via the junior ranks in California, this moment has been a long time coming. He finished ranked 13th on the Qualifying Series in 2019, just missing the cut. He is the first pure rookie to qualify for the men's 2022 Championship Tour.
And while O'Leary and Marshall have much to celebrate, there are plenty of other surfers who are waiting with bated breath to see what the future holds in store for them.
Hawaii's Imaikalani deVault was sitting 4th on the Challenger Series rankings going into Haleiwa, but an early exit in the Round of 64 has left his fate out of his control. California's Nat Young and Costa Rica's Carlos Munoz are both in a similar positions. Young was sitting 5th on the CS before the event, Munoz was closer to the cut line at 11th. All three surfers will now have to wait to see if they've done enough to make the cut and rejoin the CT next year.
Then there was the unfortunate heat draw between San Clemente CT surfer Griffin Colapinto, who reluctantly knocked out rising star Cole Houshmand. Colapinto has done a lot of mentoring work with Houshmand and fellow townie Kade Matson (who also lost out in the Round of 64) making the victory especially bittersweet.
Tahiti's Michel Bourez was also knocked out of the event today, thus ending his bid to rejoin the Championship Tour in 2022. After a disappointing run on the CT in 2021, The Spartan will return home to refocus and figure out what the future may hold in store for him.
With the completion of the men's Round of 64, the women hit the lineup for the first heats of their campaign. French veteran Pauline Ado, who's looking to get back on Tour next year, made short work of her heat -- and will now face five-time World Champ Carissa Moore in the Round of 32.
"I'm very excited to get a win in that heat even though the wind made it pretty hard out there," said Ado. "I had a few falls and bad waves at the beginning and I did better after, so I'm happy. 2010 wasn't exactly a great memory for me because I lost early but I still qualified that year, so it was a good memory in the end. In those last ten years I've only come back once here, so I'm super happy to be back."
"It was pretty anxious times at the end there and it usually never goes my way - it either goes flat or the wave doesn't provide the right opportunity," said Anderson. "But, I had a seven; I knew I could do it and just had a few waves to guard at the end and luckily it went my way. I've got a bit to go before I can qualify, but it's just about the journey and it's so cool for the girls to be back in Hawaii."
Day 1: Qualification Race Shaken Up On Day One Of Season's Final Challenger Series Event
The Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold Haleiwa Challenger is the final event of the 2021 Challenger Series and the last chance surfers have to qualify for the Championship Tour.
Day 1 saw the men's Round of 80 completed and half of the 16 heats which comprise the Round of 64, with some standout performances from the athletes who are very close to locking in a long-held dream of Championship Tour qualification.
California's Jake Marshall is currently third on the Challenger Series rankings, and unleashed a nine-point ride during the Round of 64, sending a message that he's serious about finishing the season well within the qualification bubble.
"That was awesome," Marshall said after his heat. "That was exactly what I wanted to do out there. I got a nice set wave with three turns and looking for those major maneuvers and linking those turns together.
"Seems to be the key with all that rip current and bump in the waves," he said.
The top 12 men and top six women on the Challenger Series will graduate to the Championship Tour. The Challenger Series is also open to Championship Tour athletes such as men's leader Kanoa Igarashi, and these so-called Double Qualifiers will see the available spots moved down to the next available CS athletes. There are currently no double-qualifying CT women, though there are three in the men's rankings, meaning the qualification cut line drops down to no.15, which is currently Samuel Pupo.
As we've seen in previous events, the rankings will change significantly by the time the event is over -- for example, Australia's Connor O'Leary jumped dozens of places earlier in the season after a win in Europe. But there are athletes, such as Marshall, who are looking like they have a very strong chance of being on the Championship Tour next year.
Also among this cohort are some exciting up-and-coming young athletes such as Imaikalani deVault, Liam O'Brien and Jordan Lawler, veteran competitors such as Carlos Munoz, former CT star Nat Young -- who is a strong chance of locking in a fairytale CT comeback if he does well in his Round of 64 heat when competition resumes.
Also among the potential qualifiers -- part of a band of fresh Australian talents on the cusp of qualification -- is Australia's Callum Robson, who was a standout on Day 1, locking in a 14.93 two-wave heat total.
"There's definitely pressure of course, I want to make it but at the same time I just try to take it moment by moment and just surf what's in front of me," Robson said in a post-heat interview.
Jackson Baker was another Australian right there in the qualification mix, but was eliminated in a tight heat which saw him catch a wave on the buzzer, just missing out on the score required to advance.
Olympian Lucca Mesinas, of Peru, was another athlete in the current qualification bubble who failed to progress past the Round of 64, which is likely to have an affect on the current rankings scenario.
Stay tuned when competition resumes, as the scenarios will firm as we move through the rounds -- athletes are about to start locking in their Championship Tour spots.