The first day of the O'Neill SMTH Shapes Ballito Pro Junior QS 1,000 was nothing short of entertaining. Clean four-to-five foot surf and light winds kicked off the morning's opening rounds with the women first up in the water.
The defending event winner Zoë Steyn showed why she's had so much success in Ballito. Steyn seems to have a connection with this break, getting buzzer-beater waves when she needs it most. She had a nail-biting clash against Sophia Medina, Alyssa Spencer and Anastasia Venter later in the day to advance to the Semifinals. Spencer and Medina were leading the heat, right down to the last few seconds, when Steyn caught a set wave, throwing down two big, critical turns and hanging on for the finish. She smashed the required score to win the heat ahead of Medina, and eliminating Spencer who was on fire in her earlier heats.
"It was a tricky heat, I knew it was going to be difficult so I tried to stay busy, but that didn't end up working and I waited quite long, so I just got lucky in the end with that last wave," said Steyn. "Whether I got the score or not, I knew I surfed that wave as best I could. The goal is definitely to defend the title again this year and the strategy will always be to find the best two waves."
Bettylou Sakura Johnson looked right at home, despite it being her first time in South Africa. Taking off on the bigger set waves in her opening heat in the Round of 20, she scored an excellent heat total of 17.00 to take the win, and then proceeded to win her next two heats to secure a spot in the Semifinals.
"The conditions switched fast here, it's totally different from this morning, but it's good to know what this beachbreak can do," said Sakura Johnson, who will also compete in the Ballito Pro Challenger Series starting on Sunday, 3 July 2022. "This is a good warm-up for me, it's really just to get more reps out there and surf more heats."
Sakura Johnson was part of the exciting rookie class of 2022 on the Championship Tour, and despite some impressive performances, she didn't make the Mid-season Cut. Competing on the Challenger Series will give her another chance to requalify for 2023.
The onshore winds picked up mid-morning and on the low tide, conditions were deteriorating fast. It wasn't a problem for Ryan Kainalo in the Round of 8, using the wind to go to the air and he set the tone for the rest of the heat against Luke Thompson, Daniel Emslie and Brad Scott.
Kainalo was boosting on every wave and looked set to take the win, but then Thompson awoke from a slumber and caught a set wave with a meaty end section. He held on and got the best score of the heat. Thompson went hunting for a backup, needing less than 3-points, and used his priority to block Kainalo. Two quick, powerful turns secured him a decent backup and he moved into the Semifinals, a cherry on top for Thompson who was celebrating his 18th birthday.
"It was a super tricky heat, I was so out of rhythm at the start," said Thompson. "I waited so long for my first score, and then I knew I had to hunt for a backup. I didn't want to lose in that round, this competition is crucial for the WSL World Junior Championships so that heat meant everything to me. My game plan was to never give up. I knew I had priority and just had to wait for that moment, and when it came I was ready."
"It was nerve-wracking," said Ireland. "The conditions were very tough and I was looking for a wave where I could do some turns. I changed boards halfway through the event and they are feeling really good, so I'm stoked."
The next call will be on Saturday, 2 July 2022 at 6:30 a.m. (GMT +2) for a possible 7:00 a.m. start for the women's and men's Semifinals and Finals.