2022: The Year of the Dark Horse
This year the Woz ran their inaugural Challenger Series (CS), the mini-tour that sits between the Qualifying Series - which is now split into seven regional tours - and the elite Championship Tour.
Designed as a way to handle pro surfing’s increasing popularity and also to cut down global travel, the CS is limited to the world’s top 96 surfers for men (32 pulled from CT, 64 from QS) and top 64 for women (16 from the CT, 48 from the QS).
At the end of the Challenger Series, the top 12 men and top 6 women are promoted up to the following year’s CT.
For this year at least, the Challenger Series has provided a rare boost for surfers fortunate enough to do well in the series, even if only for one contest. When the CS was first announced in December 2020, the Woz conspicuously left out how many contests were in the series, leaving the reader to assume those details were yet to be finalised.
Yet when the rubber hit the road, the CS was just four contests strong: the US Open, Ericeira, Quik Pro France, and the upcoming Haleiwa Challenger.
As of right now, the cut off to get into the men’s top 12, and hence qualify for next year’s CT, is 9,500 points. The points for first place in any of the three contests is 10,000 points, so it goes without saying that each first place-getter is set to qualify.
One contest win and in. Or a few minor places and the same.
Big results aren’t easy, of course, not when the field includes the world’s best 96 surfers, yet with just four contests in the series consistency isn’t the key to progressing, a lone strike of lightning is. There’s been a number of flashes and it’s throwing up some unusual results.
Consider that pre-COVID a typical QS warrior would incrementally climb the ratings over a number of seasons, improving their seedings each time, till they were within striking distance of the CT. The process might take years so watchers of pro surfing were always aware of the rising talent - who they are and how they're surfing.
Yet right now there are three surfers poised to qualify for the men’s CT who were outside the top 100 in 2019, which was the last full year of competition.
Peru’s Lucca Mesinas was 136th in 2019, while Australia’s Jack Baker and Callum Robson were ranked 120 and 105 respectively. Also set to qualify is Hawaii's Imaikalani Devault who placed 82nd in 2019 and Brazilian Joao Chianca who was 49th.
Such large leaps onto the elite tour aren’t entirely unheard of. For instance, Morgan Cibilic jumped from 111th to 11th following a red hot run through the back half of 2018, but he’s the only surfer to do it in recent years.
It’s tempting to think the 2022 dark horses will be eaten alive when they hit the CT, yet Cibilic’s unlikely success this year might give them hope. From 111th to 11th to a shot at the world title - fella came 5th this year.
The women’s qualification race is more tightly bunched, with just the top three assured of qualifying, however one of those, 15-year old Caitlin Simmers, only surfed her first QS event last year - in 2019 she had no ranking. Similarly, equal 5th in the women’s and right on the bubble of qualifying is 15-year old Sawyer Lindblad who, like Simmers, surfed her first QS event last year.
Actually, there’s a notable trend in the women for young qualifiers with current 2nd place holder Gabriela Bryan aged 17, Simmers and Lindblad at 15, 7th placed Luana Silva who’s 17, and 13th placed Bettylou Sakura Johnson who’s also just 15. They follow the lead of Tyler Wright who won a CT at 14 years old and qualified at 17, and Caroline Marks who was the youngest qualifier at 16, however all this is another article for another day.
Already, the Woz has announced there’ll be six events for next year’s Challenger Series, which will again prioritise consistency throughout the series and reduce the impact of one big result.
If so, it means 2022 will stand alone as the year of the dark horse.