The WSL Finals
The Queen is dead, long live the Queen!
Steph Gilmore, the Queen of Australian surfing finds herself, according to three-time World Champ Mick Fanning, "in a whole new stratosphere by herself”.
From a deep combination position down in her opening heat against Brisa Hennesey and three consecutive falls, Gilmore told herself “it's not gonna go this way again” and climbed out of the hole with a brilliantly surfed buzzer beater.
The wobbly-legged faller of Heat One was never sighted again from that moment.
What we got from Steph en route to an 8th World Title was the most sustained run of rail surfing excellence ever seen in the sport. There is no comparison, no historical precedent to set her achievement beside. It stands alone.
'Sun and Steel', the autobiography of Japanese author Yukio Mishima details the path of self-mastery through martial arts and training. From the opening presser it was obvious there was a steeliness about Gilmore today which would match any martial arts practitioner.
Questions about her athleticism, her ability to go the distance, her drive, her reserves of stamina were ruthlessly quashed heat after heat. She finished the day effortlessly besting Carissa Moore in straight sets looking fresher than when she started.
She was combo-ed again briefly in her second match-up with Tatiana Weston-Webb, before landing two devastating consecutive rides, one with perfect rail work for a 7.00, and a second under priority featuring a greased nose-pick reverse, for an 8. That was the heat. Weston-Webb got the chance to answer back but her three-turner was rightly judged under the requirement.
Steph pulled a reverse? Where the fuck did that come from?
“I have to be more progressive in my surfing,” she said after the heat. “Thats a fact”.
Sure, it was a recycled Josh Kerr circa 2006 turn, but progressive is relative, not absolute. It made her stand out compared to unrelenting meat and potatoes from her opponents. Despite being the oldest woman in the Finals, Gilmore made her contemporaries look slow, outdated and miles off the pace.
By the time she got to Johanne Defay there was blood in the water, sunlight glistening on steel, precise spray fans being thrown everywhere. It was not a competitive heat, which I believe, as well as noting that head high Trestles suits Steph, was one of the few correct predictions I made. Defay was smoked by six points in her heat, which is an almost unbelievable show of dominance at this level.
Her two Finals Heats against Carissa were similarly uncompetitive. She won the first with the opening wave - hustling Moore off the takeoff as good as any behind-the-rock Snapper shark to nail a set wave for an 8.33. Moore could not produce anything remotely as sharp and precise in over an hours worth of surfing as the opening turn on that wave. The back-up 6.67 put her almost 5 points clear of Riss when the siren sounded.
In deteriorating surf there was no let-up, no signs of shakiness or any softness in the steel for the deciding heat. Gilmore made Moore look second-rate, which few have been able to do. An almost 4 point spread showed Steph still firing in absolutely peak form. Five thirty-five minute heats, the last three almost perfectly done. Dane Reynolds ended up on a drip after surfing three times there in 2009. Gilmore looked like she could surf five more times.
“Fark Yeah!” she screamed at Strider on the back of the sled, “Let's prove this whole system wrong.”
“Carissa is World Champ in my eyes.”
In any given year, sure. Carissa wore the yellow and held a commanding if uninspiring lead.
World Champ, nah.
The record breaking eighth title is in the books now Steph. And you almost single-handedly rescued Finals Day from being a dreary farce held in sub-standard surf.
Moments of brilliance in a very challenging year for Gilmore. Missing Pipe with COVID, dudding out at Sunset. “I had to crawl my way back into the cut,” she noted. A patchy year with an incredible day attached to the end, and as the reality started to sink in Steph started to revise her opinion on the “wrong system”.
“I disliked this format,” she said glinting into the Southern Californian glare, “and now I love it!”
Where does this sporting performance from Gilmore sit in the pantheon of epic Finals efforts, globally? I'll say top five and need to hear very strong arguments to convince me otherwise.
The best I've ever seen, for sure.
The dominant performance we expected from front-runner Carissa was executed perfectly by new World Champion Filipe Toledo. Coolly iced it, from the opening ride. Speed, variety, perfect join-the-dots flow on janky sections which he lined up and blasted without a hiccup. Remarkably, despite the aerial attack he possesses, not a single air, clearly part of what he referred to as his “winning strategy”.
That was a bold move. If Italo's opening air on a left into the wind had been more generously scored, as they were in earlier heats, Pip may have needed to press launch. As it was, for two dominant heats, not as one-sided as the Women but still emphatic wins, Toledo was able to stick to the face, and click the fins out the back skate-style like only he can do.
Italo fought a tight heat against Kanoa, saved by a single air on a right closeout before the wind came up.
The Australians could not mount any effective challenge. Ewing waited and waited. Fell on his opener for a 3.17.
With 18 minutes to go, he had a 3.17 and a 1.00 in the score-line. It was shades of Bells: stubbornly waiting for set waves he had visualised but which refused to manifest.
Robinson did no better. In the words of Kelly Slater, “he fell apart”.
Mysteriously, bizarrely, he kicked out of a major set wave after a strong opening for a 3.67. That was a mid-6 all day long if he milked it. Maybe more. At one stage he was signalling wildly to the beach while paddling back and forth. Why?
Needing a 9.60 he fell on three regulation top turn reverses.
A final exchange where Jack got an 8.70 flattered the score-line but 16.10 to 13.30 is still a hiding at this level.
Our humble family man who, in the words of Kelly Slater referring to Pip’s Tahitian performances, “still has lots of room for improvement” is our new World Champ. The overwhelming emotion he expressed was relief “for all the hard work of nine years, all the sacrifices made by my family.”
“To see God's work through my life and family life is amazing.”
Jesus had kept his promise, apparently, and Toledo walks away with something no-one can ever take away from him. A World Title.
How many more he manages depends on whether we come back to the cobblestones next year and in years to come. Backslapping and mass pocket-pissing from inside the tent will inure ELO to fan cries to hold the Finals Day somewhere more meaningful. The favourable time zone for the coveted American consumer audience will be a continual siren song.
Meanwhile, Cloudbreak was 6-8 foot and offshore today. Indo was pumping too.
In the end, the pennies will be counted and if the cobblestones put zeros in the bank account we will be back here next year, and forever more after that. In my view that sucks, softened slightly by the fact that we may see the Queen challenge Slater for 11.
Can you imagine Slater in the booth for that?
Thanks for reading, seeya next year.
// STEVE SHEARER