A massive Finals Day crowned Bettylou Sakura Johnson, Ezekiel Lau, Kelis Kaleopa'a, and Taylor Jensen victors at the Vans US Open of Surfing, Stop No. 4 of the World Surf League (WSL) Challenger Series, and Vans Duct Tape Invitational, respectively. Sakura Johnson and Lau took critical wins at the halfway mark of the Challenger Series season in their mission to rejoin the Championship Tour (CT) while the second of three stops for WSL Longboard Tour tighten the World Title race with Kaleopa'a and Jensen emerging victorious.
Hawaiians staked their claim on Finals Day with representatives in every Final today. Sakura Johnson found herself against Australia's former CT elite Macy Callaghan. Callaghan's opening 5.67 (out of a possible 10) pushed her into an early lead as Sakura Johnson fought back to take a slim lead heading into the twenty-minute mark. Then, the 17-year-old, 2022 CT rookie found her chance under priority and unloaded her powerful forehand on the shorebreak for a 6.93. As time expired, Callaghan wasn't given another opportunity and Sakura Johnson was chaired to her second Challenger Series victory.
"It's been a long week here at Huntington, but I have all the support and everything I need, I'm healthy, I've been training for this, I'm super fortunate to take the win," said Sakura Johnson. "It gives me a ton of confidence (winning the event). This is one of the biggest events we have on the Challenger Series, everyone is here watching. I've always wanted to win a comp out here and I'm super stoked I was able to do it today."
A brilliant ending to the event began with Sakura Johnson taking on event threat and now Challenger Series No. 5, Sophie McCulloch (AUS). But, Johnson notched another 9.00, her second of the event, with a 15.50 (out of a possible 20) heat total and backed it up in the Final to move up the rankings to No. 4 as she looks to requalify for the CT.
The men's Challenger Final kept everyone on the edge of their seats as Lau and Chianca went wave-for-wave until the last seconds. Chianca controlled the first half of the heat with big, committed turns on the outside. But, with about ten minutes left, Lau made a comeback, throwing two large turns out the back to earn a 6.90 and take the lead. Chianca answered back with a powerful layback and inside hack, scoring a close 6.23. With one minute left, Chianca had one more opportunity to better his score but fell short, making Lau the new men's victor of the Vans US Open.
"I'm so stoked, I've always wanted to win the US Open, it's been an event I've watched since I was a young kid," said Lau. "Andy Irons won a few years back, he was my role model, and this is for him and Sunny and all the Hawaiians. When Bettylou won her's (Final heat) I was like, it's up to me now, I gotta put this away."
The South Shore, Oahu competitor had to overcome event standout Eithan Osborne in a stout Semifinal clash with Lau holding the explosive competitor at bay. Now, the Ultimate Surfer winner moves up to No.4 on the Challengers Series rankings with this landmark win.
Jensen Earns Another Huntington Beach Event Title, Entering into World Title Conversation
Eventual runner-up Kaniela Stewart got the Final underway against three-time WSL Longboard Champion, Jensen, and a showcase of world-class longboarding ensued. Jensen notched a near-excellent 7.67 for the heat's first noteworthy score before a crucial exchange provided the Oceanside, California competitor a 6.17 back up. Stewart, in that exchange, earned a 6.00 and needed a 7.84 to catch Jensen. The dying seconds provided one last opportunity for the Hawaiian to answer back, but to the elation of Jensen, he fell short of the requirement.
"I tried to pick clean rights, make sure I got the reform, finish strong and put it all together, said Jensen. "These are all the best surfers in the world. I've had a couple bad results so to get a win here close to home sets me up for going to Malibu and I'm happy with where I am."
Jenson is now tied with Harrison Roach going into Malibu at No. 1 as he searches for a historic fourth World Title. He landed in the Final after overtaking emerging talent Kaimana Takayama in their Semifinal battle. This marks an emotional win for Jensen as the last time he claimed a win in Huntington Beach was 2015 at the North America Longboard Championships and now his youngest daughter witnessed her father win firsthand.
Kaleopa'a Goes Back-to-Back at Vans Duct Tape Invitational
A head-to-head Hawaiian Final ensued between reigning, three-time WSL Longboard Champion Honolua Blomfield and reigning Vans Duct Tape Invitational winner Kaleopa'a. The emerging talent, Kaleopa'a, styled into a quick 6.67 and 5.90 to hold a lead over Blomfield heading into the halfway mark. Kaleopa'a extended the lead, making her fellow Hawaiian need a 7.20 in the dying minutes. But, the ocean didn't provide an opportunity and the 17-year-old emerged victorious once again.
"Hugging my cousin (Stewart) in the water after that final was just so heartwarming,"said Kaleopa'a. "Literally my whole entire family and friends and our surf community back at home are my motivation when I'm out here because we come from such a special place. I grew up my entire life surfing around my uncles and aunties, I do this for them as a thankyou for introducing me to this sport, this passion I love so much."
Kaleopa'a started her day against WSL Longboard Tour veteran Kaitlin Mikkelsen who pushed the young Hawaiian to deliver a brilliant performance. Now, the Waikiki, Oahu surfer moves to a No.1 tie with Blomfield on the rankings, giving her another chance to claim her maiden World Title at the Cuervo Classic Longboard Championship.
Up Next: EDP Vissla Pro Ericeira
The next stop on the 2022 Challenger Series will be the EDP Vissla Pro Ericeira, which holds a competition window from October 1 - 9, 2022. The event will be broadcast LIVE on WorldSurfLeague.com, WSL's YouTube channel, and the free WSL app. Check local listings for coverage from the WSL's broadcast partners.
*The Vans US Open of Surfing is proudly sponsored by Vans, Visit Huntington Beach, Red Bull, Flying Embers, Hydro Flask, Shiseido, 805, Pacifico, Sambazon, StillHouse, Youtheory, BF Goodrich, Fu Wax, Boxed Water, and Just Egg.
For more information, please visit WorldSurfLeague.com.