Sally Fitzgibbons won the 2014 Fiji Women's Pro on Thursday afternoon in eight- to ten-foot surf at the infamous break Cloudbreak on the island of Tavarua. In a hard fought final Fitzgibbons and fellow Aussie Steph Gilmore volleyed the lead and evenly built their scores in nearly identical fashion, but it was Fitzgibbons who held on to win her second straight ASP World Tour contest.
"It's really overwhelming," Fitzgibbons said immediately after her win. "It's such a big day and there are so many times you get scraped across the reef and you've just got to keep getting back up, 'One more, one more!' The conditions changed for the final and it's just such a warrior day. No matter how you win at Cloudbreak, it's such an incredible feeling. I'm blown away and I'm just so happy."
With a minute remaining in the final Gilmore needed a mere 3.78 to turn the heat, but both surfers were out of position when a final set rolled through the lineup and Fitzgibbons emerged victorious. For the effort she earned 10,000 points (and a cool $60,000), and though she remains in second in the title ranking, she has significantly narrowed the gap between herself and current number one, Carissa Moore, who finished equal fifth in Fiji.
The Fiji Women's Pro saw an entirely different skill set in use this week in the South Pacific. There were wipeouts that quite literally crushed bones but not spirits. Malia Manuel was suspected of having a broken wrist or hand after a killer pounding in Round 4, but she won the heat against Paige Hareb, who was charging in her own right. After a quick consultation with the ASP medical crew, she opted to surf in the quarterfinal, where she took out Johanne Defay before eventually falling to Fitzgibbons in a dazzling semifinal.
En route to her first final since the Roxy Pro, Gilmore faced dangerous goofy-footer Bianca Buitendag in the quarterfinals and then Dimity Stoyle, the rookie who took down Carissa Moore, in the semis.
After nearly a decade off the women's tour schedule the Fiji Pro returned in full force. Tyler Wright told the ASP that when they're put into situations like this, where most of the competitors are out of their comfort zones, they either need to "back off or step up." Most of them stepped up, she said.
The opening day was surfed in building six-foot Cloudbreak. The goofies reveled in the rare occasion to go frontside and everyone from wildcards Ella Williams and Tatiana Weston-Webb to the rookies and ninth-ranked Laura Enever absolutely sent it, despite the surly reef peeking through the lucid water as the tide bottomed out.
The second day saw the third round commence at Restaurants, a historic venue shift for the women. After an hours-long hold due to a viciously low tide and some hectic bumps on the face, Round 3 hit the water again with Fitzgibbons, Enever and Hareb trading excellent scores.
And then, of course, there was Thursday. Big-wave legends like Shane Dorian and Laird Hamilton weighed in on the conditions and the competition, both emphasizing how impressed they were with the women's tenacity and commitment.
"You never really know what you're ready for until you're put in that situation," Dorian said.
It seems clear that the Top 17 is ready for a whole lot more than they've been getting the past couple of years. Luckily for them, the rest of the season has the potential to be just at gutsy: The U.S. Open at the end of July, Trestles is on the schedule of the first time ever and both the Roxy Pro France at Hossegor and Cascais Women's Pro will hit Europe this autumn before the capstone contest, the Maui Women's Pro in November. Expect greatness.