Accustomed to being the grom on the tour, Stephanie Gilmore got a taste of seniority at the US Open, as she became the oldest member of the final four. Old. At 19.
With not a single surfer aged past their teens, the Women's Pro semi could have easily been mistaken for a Junior Pro competition.
“It was almost puzzling the way that they would continue to be in the best position for almost every decent high scoring wave that came through in their heats,” recalls champ Stephanie Gilmore, “the small light-weight grommets with tons of energy were on fire, disposing of girls twice their age.”
Fellow semi-finalists Sally Fitzgibbons, 15, Karina Petroni, 19, and Courtney Conologue, 14, have yet to reach World Tour status, yet they managed to edge out established figures on the WCT Sofia Mulanovich, Sam Cornish, and Megan Abubo in early heats. “Its pretty scary the talent that’s coming through,” says Gilmore.
The conditions alone proved advantageous for the pint-sized groms, as they were able to push their way through flat spots to the reforms on the inside with an ease that some of the bigger girls lacked. But there’s also something about a little girl on a little board that the crowd and judges found appealing. “Don't get me wrong, the young girls were totally ripping,” explains Holly Beck, who announced the Semifinal, “but I think the judges were giving out the ‘cute points.’ The older girls would do the same thing and maybe get a 7 where the young ones would get a 9, and that made the difference.”
Regardless, as surfing progresses and there is more industry support than ever, especially for the girls, groms are starting earlier and surfing harder than ever before.
“I didn't even start surfing until I was 15, and here these girls are already surfing at a pro level,” says Beck.
At 14, Courtney Conologue is the youngest surfer ever to make a Semi in this event, but using her home break advantage she was able to navigate the mediocrity of Huntington, riding all her waves to the shore.
It finally took Women's World Tour No. 1 Gilmore to slide past Conologue, joining Karina Petroni in the Final.
“I was so close to losing against Courtney in the Semis, she had me on my toes the entire heat,” recalls Gilmore. “She wasn't giving an inch to anyone.”
In the Final, young Floridian Petroni, also born post-1987, gave Gilmore a second run for her money. Closely resembling one another in age and stature, neither was given the “cute bonus,” and the two were judged solely on their wave selection and ability to connect the crumbly Southside peaks. Though Petroni was, according to Gilmore, “on fire the whole event, really proving that small waves aren't necessarily meant for small people,” she was unable to match Gilmore's combined 14.64-point score, falling into second and leaving Gilmore the victor.
Whether it was “cute points” or the compact advantage, this contest definitely saw a triumph of the tiny. With a lower center of gravity and higher flexibility, the mini surfers could mimic their older counterparts with style previously uncharacteristic of those so young. So are we witnessing a progression toward a pre-pubescent WCT? Probably not. But, we are definitely experiencing a grom explosion and, as Stephanie Gilmore explains, “The majority of these groms have such mature heads screwed on that, unlike in the old days, I don't think they’ll be burning out from pressures and things anytime soon.”