This past December, on an otherwise mundane North Shore night, 17-year-old Tonino Benson, a friend of his named Ahi, yes, like the fish, as well as Reef team manager Heath Walker and his wife met me for dinner at Lei Lei's. We got caught up on all the latest gossip. We talked about last season's trip to Bali, on which Tonino played pesky younger brother to the likes of Mick Fanning, Bobby Martinez, and Rob Machado. We talked about how crappy winter in Hawaii had been thus far, and how to make Fantasy Surfer more enticing to sponsors. But for whatever reason, the World Junior Championships coming up in Narrabeen were never brought up. It could have been that they were still a good month away and out of mind. It could have had something to do with Tonino, being the good teenager that he is, spending most of the evening head down, intently focused the full rack of sticky ribs in front of him. Or Heath, his wife and I could have killed the conversation by talking about housing prices in Southern California. Regardless, we didn't talk about Tonino's big debut.
Four weeks and a few more plates of ribs later, and this past weekend Tonino found himself paddling out in the Final at the Billabong World Junior Championships. Facing 20-year-old Brazilian Pablo Paulino, who already won the 2004 title, Tonino was the obvious under-dog, but as webcaster Dino Andino was quick to point out, "he'd been gaining more and more momentum as the week went on, turning a lot of heads along the way."
Out of all the talent coming out of Hawaii at the moment, from Clay Marzo to Casey Brown, Torrey Meister to Granger Larson, it was the relatively quiet, soft-spoken Tonino who wound up with the best result. Maybe it was the ribs? But in an unruly ocean, it was probably Tonino's perfect 10 that gave everybody something to digest. In the quarterfinals he bested surging Aussie wildcard Owen Wright, and in the semis he took out San Clemente's Tanner Gudauskas. Dubbed by some label-makers as "the next Shane Dorian," the young, understated Tonino's magic ride would ultimately come to an abrupt end against Pablo Paulino in the Final.
"I'm happy for Pablo, he's my friend and he deserved the win," Tonino would humbly say after getting out of the water. "I got out of rhythm in the Final and everything seemed to be going his way. I am happy to reach the Finals and just grateful to compete in these amazing waves."
While Brazil celebrates Pablo's second victory at the world championships, an accomplishment only equaled by Joel Parkinson, the rest of the world is watching their own future champions emerge, just like Tonino's arrival from the Big Island.
And on the women's side of the draw, Sally Fitzgibbons is quickly proving to be Australia's answer to Carissa Moore. Seems like she's winning everything these days, and the World Juniors appears to be just another trophy for the mantel. She blew through the later rounds of the event, knocking the snot out of one wave, coming up with a 10 from the judges, and ultimately her first world title.
If there's one thing to be taken from the Billabong World Junior Championships this year, besides that fact that Pablo has an obvious knack for Narrabeen, and the eventual Sally/Carissa rivalry could end up being one for the ages, it's that the international field is more wide open than ever before. Traditional surfing powerhouses like Australia, the U.S., Hawaii, and Brazil were thoroughly represented, but more importantly, the subtle locales like Japan, Tahiti, New Zealand, Guadeloupe Island, and yes, even Germany were all well represented. All told there were 14 different countries flew their flags. In the men's quarterfinals six different countries were represented, and on the women's side, five different countries.
The United States can take some solace in the fact that Courtney Conlogue and Tanner Gudauskas are on their side. Demonstrating that Courtney's surfing continues to develop and mature, she put in an especially powerful performance. And it must be something in the water because Tanner's surfing also appeared exceptionally powerful, blending solid, full-rail top and bottom turns, with speed floaters and fins-free, closeout blasts.
Thanks to his win, Pablo will be seeded into the top 96 of the WQS, which gets him that much closer to joining Adriano De Souza on tour as part of Brazil's latest wave. Sally is also bound for surfing glory. And Tonino? He'll be back in Hawaii soon, probably in the water at Banyons, "like Shane used to do." And like Shane, Tonino could end up being a key ambassador for his generation…just as long as he doesn't eat too many sticky ribs along the way.
Billabong World Junior Championships Results:
1. Pablo Paulino
2. Tonino Benson
=3. Tanner Gudauskas, Charles Martin
1. Sally Fitzgibbons
2. Page Hareb
=3. Courtney Conlogue, Laura Enever