Wright, Gilmore win 2017 WSL opener in Australia
The Wright stuff
A couple of weeks ago, Owen Wright wasn't sure he'd be ready to compete in the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast. Nearly 18 months after suffering a near career-ending head injury while surfing Pipeline, Wright's future was very much in the air. Then the 2017 World Surf League (WSL) season got underway at Snapper Rocks and he surprised just about everyone -- including himself -- as he went on to win the contest. The accomplishment may stand as one of the best stories in surfing in recent years.
Question marks on the year
"At the start of February, I was sitting in the doctor's office and there were question marks on the year," said Wright after his unlikely victory. "So to be sitting here right now, we just pushed hard and went hard. I confronted every fear of getting back into it. There were a lot of fears I needed to push through in order to get back into the sport and back into what pretty much took me out and could have taken me out forever. I kept going and kept doing it. I am just so stoked."
What he loves
"I couldn't have done it without all the support of my friends and family, including my partner and my little baby boy," continued Wright. "We just kept going and the team just kept saying, 'Keep breaking it down,' and 'Keep going Owen, keeping getting back there.' This is what I love. This is what I love doing."
Back in the groove
On the women's side of the draw, it was six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore that rose to the challenge. Facing a hungry pack of world tour women with their own aspirations of winning, Gilmore clicked into rhythm and never looked back. The win was her 25th career victory on the WSL Championship Tour, but more importantly, it was her first win since 2014 and gets her back into a winning groove. "Getting to win an event again was really cool and it feels really rewarding to win," said Gilmore.
"I can't believe it, I've been visualizing holding that trophy so much," said Gilmore from the podium. "It was so hard against Lakey [Peterson]. I'm so happy to have all the support from everyone here and there's nothing better than winning at home."
Finishing runner-up in the men's draw was Matt Wilkinson, who was in a tight race for the world title last year and is one of Wright's best friends. "I obviously wanted to win but Owen has made me cry about five times this week," said Wilkinson. "To see him last year was one of the toughest things I've ever seen and for Owen to be in this event is one of the most amazing things, but to go and win is incredible. I couldn't have asked for a better person to beat me. He's inspired me so much and to come back and do this is unreal."
Return to form
Another inspiring story at the Roxy Pro was Lakey Peterson. After sitting out all of 2016 with an injury, the Californian didn't waste any time returning to competitive form. Finishing runner-up, she's put herself in the early world title conversation. "I can't complain too much with the result," said Peterson. "I just missed it by one spot so it keeps the fire lit in me. It stings a little, but I really think I put together a great contest and did my absolute best. It was a really fun time and I'm so stoked the waves worked out as well, we got pumping surf for this event. To compete against Stephanie [Gilmore] here gives me chills and is one to remember."
Held at Snapper Rocks on the Gold Coast of Australia, the Quiksilver Pro and Roxy Pro enjoyed quality conditions throughout most of the waiting period. Warm water, tropical air temps, and perfect, head-high rights, it's little wonder the WSL keeps coming back here year after year.
A long year ahead
John John Florence, the 2016 world champion, had a good run going on finals day until Wilkinson upended him in the semifinals. "In heats like that, there is isn't too much that I could've done differently," said Florence. "It is funny because almost the identical thing happened to me last year against Stuart Kennedy, but I am stoked. Third place is the best I've done here at Snapper. We've got such a long year ahead. Anything can happen and I'm excited. I'm happy. I am going to head over to Margaret River early and try to get barreled before everyone gets there."
Fifth in the world
At 45 years old, Kelly Slater is by far the most senior competitor on the WSL Championship Tour, but he hardly seems to have lost a step. Carving out a spot for himself in the quarterfinals, his run ended when Gabriel Medina (22 years his junior) took him out. He now sits fifth in the world as he guns for a record 12th world title.
Bringing an international flavor to the contest, Johanne Defay gave French surf fans much to cheer about as she smashed her way into the semifinals. Peterson was able to get the better of her, but a third place finish to start the season will give her a ton of confidence as she sets her sights on a potential run at a title.
The return of Fanning
There were a lot of eyes on Mick Fanning as he returned to full-time competition after taking a personal year last season. While his surfing has hardly been diminished, he was tripped up in Round 3 and ended up falling out of the contest earlier than he would have liked. It may take the three-time world champ a couple more contests before his competitive savvy really kicks in.
On top of the world
To the victor go the spoils: Wright and Gilmore are on top of the world at Snapper Rocks and fronting the WSL ratings.