In 44 years of women's competition at Bells Beach in Australia, there have been only 21 winners. In fact, of the current top 17 female surfers, only three have ever rung the bell. This wave does not favor the unstudied, and it is rarely conquered by anything short of world champions.
The event itself is renowned, drawing thousands of spectators (and the entire industry) for 12 days of spectacular surfing, as the world's best negotiate with Rincon, Outside Bells, Bells Bowl and seriously treacherous shorebreak. Winkipop, right next door, and Johanna, on the far side of Cape Otway, are serving as mobile sites this year.
The 2013 Rip Curl Women's Pro at Bells was groundbreaking for the top 17. They commanded attention from even the most apathetic female surf fans and truly raised the bar for women's surfing. With more ASP support this year in the form of more dollars, publicity and clout, it's safe to say that the 2014 Rip Curl Women's Pro at Bells will be even more tantalizing.
It's always tough to divine how these things will go down, especially when the whole of the top 17 looks so phenomenal. And despite having said all of the above, the newbies had a stellar Round 1 on Wednesday, so I ask this: Can a young gun take Bells this year?
If so, my money is on Bianca Buitendag. The South African is the best kind of underdog -- the type that is not perceived an underdog. She doesn't think, speak or act like a 20-year-old who's been on tour for fewer than two years. And she sure doesn't surf like one.
"I am looking forward to letting go," Buitendag said on the eve of the Rip Curl Pro, "[and] drawing lines on one of the world's most beautiful waves. It reminds me a lot of J-Bay. ... I am looking forward to enjoying it with no fear or expectation of what could happen."
She was narrowly defeated by Paige Hareb in the second round at Bells last year, but after a runner-up finish on the Gold Coast and an equal fifth in West Oz, Buitendag is tied with Tyler Wright at third in the world and looks poised to stake a major claim. She was up against Lakey Peterson and Hareb in the first round but remained composed.
"I think if you had to think of your competitors, you would only cause yourself disadvantage," Buitendag said. "I am there to give it my best, no matter the circumstances, and not let any opportunities slip past."
She sailed right into Round 3.
Sally Fitzgibbons loves everything about Bells Beach, from the waves to the cold water, and she rang the bell in 2011 and 2012. She has casually referenced Gail Couper's momentous 10 wins at Bells, so that's on her radar. And we all know that what she's really hunting for is a world title. Bells is as good a place as any to kick-start your campaign -- especially if your portrait already lines the steps. Fitzy defeated Coco Ho and Alana Blanchard in the second heat and was one of the few top seeds to skip ahead Wednesday.
Speaking of world title hunters, Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore are presently sitting side by side on the ranking with 16,500 points. Wright is just a few thousand points behind them, and she's the only one who hasn't yet "made it ring." However, after outstanding performances by Australian rookies Dimity Stoyle and Nikki Van Dijk, Gilmore was the only one of the three who will skip Round 2.
"I love Bells -- and so does Carissa," Gilmore said at Margaret River. "I'm sure it'll be another good show for everybody. I hope we get pumping waves like we did last year. That would be awesome."
It looks like a southwest swell is in the works, and we're probably looking at clean three-footers until the weekend, when the swell reaches its full potential: four to seven feet at 16 seconds with offshore winds. With a forecast like this, we may see a repeat of last year's incredible Easter Sunday final. The waiting period for the 53rd Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach runs from April 16 to 27.