The news from ASP Women’s Tour Manager Brooke Farris that Sally Fitzgibbons has already secured qualification on the 09 Championship Tour is definitely worth closer inspection. In much the same fashion that Jordy Smith and Dane Reynolds tore through the ribbons to qualify for the Men’s Tour at their first serious attempt, the young surfer from NSW, Australia, has cut a swathe through the ranks to set a world record pace for qualification.
It was not that long ago that Sally hit a crossroad with her sporting aspirations. Being a track athlete of Olympic potential, Sally reached that point where she had to make a career path choice. Sally had not only reached a point of physical maturity where one sporting discipline beckoned over another, but she instinctively new that the demands and training regime of either sport were not only in vast contrast, but would demand full application of personal resources.
Fortunately for us she chose a career in professional surfing. When Sally claimed the ASP World Junior Title this past January, she was still the holder of titles in both sports however her frenetically paced ascent up the surfing totem pole proves that her focus and commitment is now singular. And with half the qualifying series yet to be contested it is not as though she is looking at all like taking her foot off the gas, in fact Sally is looking for more competition to give her the battle hardened edge she will require in her rookie season in the big league.
With most contenders locking away about three of the required Best 5 WQS results, qualifying trends are starting to emerge. With Sally Fitzgibbons blazing a trail at the head of the ratings, there are several more new faces amongst the pace-setters. Paige Hareb has made great headway in her first full year, the New Zealand prodigy has impressed, securing three solid keeper results in the first half and appearing to be well on track. Paige was also a member of the junior class of 08, graduating with full honours at Narrabeen and making an immediate impact on the next tier level.
New Zealand is making quite a statement out there, Gold Coast based kiwi Airini Mason sits just outside the bubble at #8 and is probably just one podium finish away from being right in the mix. Hawaii’s Alana Blanchard is another exciting talent she too sits reasonably comfortably with three keepers over the first half and will no doubt relish the prospect of finishing the tour in home surf. Conspicuous by her absence is Hawaiian super-teen Carissa Moore. Having already nailed two stunning Top 3 results at Snapper, and consistently defeating boys of her own divisional age at amateur meets, Carissa is definitely the next big thing.
The reason she is flying below radar in 08 is her commitment to school studies. One cannot help but wonder what Carissa thinks about her arch rivals strides, it is a certainty that Carissa Moore and Sally Fitzgibbons will develop one of the great competitive rivalries in Women’s sport, and is a matter of when, not if, they compete together on the ASP Women’s World Tour.
Another famous surfer from Hawaii making inroads is Bethany Hamilton. She has clocked up one major result and probably has a bit of work to do with regards to back-up results, but 2008 represents great opportunity for progression. Bruna Schmitz waves the flag for new blood from Brazil she too has a couple great results and is poised to reap the benefit of an early workload as we come into the second half.
Speaking of conspicuous by their absence, there is currently just one full time Top 17 surfer occupying qualifying space on both the main tour and the WQS. Rebecca Woods sits at #6 on the World Tour and has established a strong back-up at #4 on the WQS. But apart from Claire Bevilacqua, who, as next in line has secured starts in the first two WCT events but is not guaranteed any more, but has strong a strong WQS average, there are no double qualifiers within shouting distance.
This is a major departure from past seasons, made even more prominent by the arrival of a new layer of challengers at WQS level. Then again, it may be because of the successful thrust of girls like Sally, Paige, Alana and Bruna that has relegated some of the regular WQS performers to points south in the ratings. Or is it because the Women’s World Tour is only two events into a seven event championship and the sword of relegation does not yet hang over anyone’s head.
Plan ’A’ is obviously to negotiate direct passage via the Top 10 and with only two events under the belt it is smooth sailing. However by the end of the fourth event for some the remainder of the tour suddenly looks like the Magellan Straits on a rough day. That’s when Plan ’B” takes hold, and that is usually hustling up some fast results on the WQS. With a bunch of new faces raising the bar by establishing qualifying pace averages in the first half, this will have a vice-like effect for the stragglers, and with the big squeeze on, the group that relies on a late season rally will find that there are not enough spots to go around.
This is the crossroads I was speaking of, when a new guard challenges the established order by getting runs on the board early and applying the inevitable blow torch in the home stretch. On the Championship Tour Sofia Mulanovich, Stephanie Gilmore, Samantha Cornish, Amee Donohoe and Layne Beachley look reasonably comfortable, however the next two events will expose any shortcomings for girls aspiring to qualify exclusively on the main tour.
One thing is for certain, the talent pool in Women’s professional surfing has some newfound depth, and this augurs well for the marketability of surfing over the next five years. With a great title race developing at the top end involving reigning World Champion Stephanie Gilmore and former World #1 Sofia Mulanovich and with Sally Fitzgibbons sending a shot across the bow of the status quo by amassing an unassailable qualifying average, we are in for some fantastic years of high performance ripping.
And if one scrolls down the page it is very clear to see that Sally and Paige are the tip of an iceberg that is destined to change the way we look at women’s surfing. Looks right on schedule to me, we still have the great Layne Beachley contending and she will be book ended generationally by Sally Fitzgibbon as leader of the youth revolution.
That’s what sport is all about.