Reigning world surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore (Pictured above) has taken out the 6-star World Qualifying Series (WQS) Midori Pro at Newcastle's Merewether Beach.
In a dream final match up for contest organisers, the 20-year-old from Tweed Heads defeated the reigning world junior champion Sally Fitzgibbons to take out 2008's biggest WQS event for women in Australia and pocket $US4500.
Small right-handers up to a metre in height were affected by a light onshore wind, but Gilmore still found plenty of wave faces to perform some big maneuvers that were cheered by thousands of spectators and rewarded by the judges.
Gilmore, who came into the Midori Pro as the number one seed in the round of 48, won each of the five heats she contested before assuring herself victory half-way through the thirty minute final when she had a 7.83 and 8.83 on the score sheet while Fitzgibbons had only managed a 6.17.
“I was a little bit nervous out there in the earlier heats because I am pretty used to surfing in the man-o-man heats of the top tour,” Gilmore said.
“I am absolutely wrapped. Sally was surfing really well here and did great in the semi – I knew it was going to be hard to beat her,” she said.
“I'll slip this one under my belt –it's another feather in my cap,” she said.
The Midori Pro winner paid her respect to Fitzgibbons and said she expects to be meeting her at the top-level events in 2009.
“Sally really is going to be one to watch. There's no doubt she has a great future,” Gilmore said.
The world champ said she was going to take some time off from the grind of the tour and will not be competing at next week's Margaret River event.
“I haven't been home since Bells and it is good to go into a break with a couple of wins.
“I just want to spend some time with my family and friends –home is just so good.
“I will then go to Bali for a couple of trips and the next contest I'll surf will be the Billabong Pro in Brazil,” she said.
Earlier in the quarter-finals, Gilmore accounted for three-time winner at this event and current world number six Rebecca Woods from Copacabana on the New South Wales Central Coast.
In the semi-final, Gilmore easily accounted for South Africa's Rosanne Hodge on the right-handers off Merewether reef.
Fitzgibbons, who hails from Gerroa on the New South Wales South Coast, has made three finals in three WQS events on the Australian leg of the Qualifying Series tour.
She won at both Phillip Island and at the Central Coast – and after her second placing today today she is likely to have already racked up enough points to ensure a berth on the elite tour in 2009.
Fitzgibbons made it to today's final by defeating fellow Aussie Jessi Miley-Dyer from Coogee in Sydney and then defeated Hawaiian Alana Blanchard in the semi-final.
Fitzgibbons said she was happy to have made her third final on the Australian leg of the WQS in 2008.
“Steph is the current world champion and is doing extremely well so it was a privilege and honor to be in the same heat and pick up some tips at the same time.
“Just watching the way she surfs is awesome – there's always something to learn from the world's best.
“It's a dream of mine to be on the world tour like her,” Fitzgibbons said.
“Steph got two good waves early on and I knew I had to do something big but I couldn't get the waves so unfortunately she got me.
“I am going over to Margaret River and it is going to be my first time competing in WA so it'll be great to get the experience and have some fun as well,” she said.
This morning's round of 32 in the Mark Richards Pro saw competition heat up as the field was narrowed down to the final 16 surfers.
The day's honours went to current world number nine, Adrian de Souza, after the Brazilian secured his name at the top of the day's tally-sheet with a 16.33.
Jeremy Flores (France), who is ranked fourth on the ASP World Tour and the number one seed here, continued to dominate in the water by eliminating Aussies Nathan Hedge (Narrabeen) and Leigh Sedley (Sunshine Coast).
Last weekend's winner of the Motorola Pro Junior at the same beach, Owen Wright from Culburra on the New South Wales South Coast, was unable to hold off the experienced attack provided by Sunshine Coast hot shot Julian Wilson and Kiama's Rhys Bombaci.
Wright was bundled out of the competition by less than one point.
Wilson will tomorrow meet Flores in heat seven of Sunday's round of 16 which gets underway at 8am.
Other surfers who progressed through this morning's round included Aussies Adam Melling, Blake Wilson, Ryan Campbell, Nic Muscroft, Michael Campbell and Jarrad Sullivan.
Internationals still in contention at Merewether include Kiwi Bobby Hansen, Brazilian Willian Cardoso and Tahiti's Alan Riou.
Also at Merewether today, a legion of legends gathered on Merewether Beach for the Landcom Charity Teams Session.
In a unique event, retired rugby league great and likely immortal Andrews Johns went board-to-board with former world champions Mark Occhilupo, Mark Richards and Sunny Garcia along with Merewether's Matt Hoy, former world number two Luke Egan and Simon Law.
This is one of the first opportunities Johns has had to surf back on his home break since his move to Sydney late last year.
Johns was pleased to be among his surfing idols, which showed in his “dreadful” performance in the surf.
“I think the occasion got the better of me,” Johns said.
“To surf in the sort of thing is really an honour.
“Mark Richards, especially in this town, is a god.”
Occhilupo, who said goodbye to professional surfing at the conclusion of last year's end of tour event in Hawaii, was enjoying the opportunity to catch some waves with his surfing mates.
Newcastle provides fond memories for Occy.
He took out the Surfest main event in 1986 and 1998.
“It feels great surfing with all my really good friends,” Occhilupo said.
“Newcastle has been such a special spot to me over the years and it felt really good being back.
“It weird being down here without competing, I guess that's when you know you're retired.”