Two-time world champion Tyler Wright has put an exclamation point on her surfing rebirth with a stunning Easter resurrection at Bells Beach after almost retiring from the sport. FULL MEN AND WOMEN’S WRAP
Tyler Wright has put an exclamation point on her surfing rebirth with a stunning Easter resurrection at Bells Beach that has her in contention for a third World Surf League title.
Wright opened up on missing almost full years on tour with illness, saying there were many times she had wanted to give up on making a comeback to the tour.
But the two-time world champion, who battled post-viral syndrome after a particularly bad case of the flue, picked up on a trip to Africa in 2018, is back and finally feeling like herself again.
“Honestly, it means the world right now,” said Wright, who was chaired up the beach by brothers Owen and Mikey, who had both also taken part in the Rip Curl Pro over the past week.
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“I cannot put into words just yet what this means it’s, it’s been a long four years, there’s been multiple times where I’ve just wanted to give up and (thought) it’s just not worth putting in the effort to get back to this sort of form.
“I’ve worked so hard to be here and I’m just so beyond grateful to have the support that I have had, and the love and the care as well.”
The strong winds that were the undoing of so many surfers at Bells Beach, only fanned the flames for Wright, who rang the bell for the first time in her career when she lifted the famous trophy.
The conditions forced Sunday’s final from the Bells Bowl to Rincon at Bells Beach, with the howling offshore wind seeming to unsettle five-time world champion Carissa Moore in the women’s final.
In comparison, Wright looked once more like the power surfer who snatched her first championship tour title at just 14 and a world title at 20.
And it came in “the only event that I’ve ever really wanted to win”.
“Here I am, and I’m pretty over the moon and beyond,” she said in the first final held at Bells Beach since 2019 due to Covid.
“Two years being out was a long time, (then) two years coming back and I haven’t this whole time really felt like I’ve been surfing like myself.
“The last couple of months it’s been coming back in little glimpses and that fire that kind of got snuffed out by illness has relit.
“I want to keep nurturing that, keep stepping into my own power and my own strength and team and even to just recognise that this event was just such a an emotional feeling.”
Wright’s emotional win was witnessed by her brothers and mother on the beach, as well as her partner Alex Lynn – AKA musician Alex the Astronaut – to whom she has just become engaged.
“Right now I’m so filled with love and I am so grateful to be met at the beach by my brothers and family and people that have seen me grow up on this tour and also fall down,” Wright said.
“I honestly, I can’t even put into words what it means to me right now, I’ll probably start crying.”
In the men’s event, Brazilian Filipe Toledo won the event for the first time, mastering the wind in an epic display of aerial surfing to beat tour rookie, Australia’s Callum Robson the day after he turned 27.
He takes the yellow jersey from Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi heading into Margaret River as he bids to win a first world title.
“We miss you Bells, I’m really happy to be back here,” Toledo said.
“I couldn’t be happier with this birthday present.”
Robson, who ended the run of wildcard Mick Fanning on the way to the title, now sits at no.6 in the world and is all but guaranteed to make the mid-season cut in his first year on tour.
The win lifts Wright into second place on the World Surf League rankings, while current world champion leaves Bells Beach with the yellow jersey.
The event was also a successful one for seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore, who heads to Margaret River – the final event before the mid-season cut – inside the cut line after making the quarter-finals at Bells Beach, while Sally Fitzgibbons moved up five places and sits just outside the top 10 heading to Western Australia.
EWING’S SEMI-FINALS SHOCK
Ethan Ewing has knocked out fellow Aussie and Olympic bronze medallist Owen Wright to progress to the semi-finals of the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.
It will be Ewing’s first semi-final appearance at the event.
After multiple delays due to poor conditions, the men were the only surfers to take to the water on Sunday. Wright and Ewing were the first heat of the day.
Ewing, 23, set the tone straight away, beating Wright to the first wave and registering 7.50.
The 23-year-old rising star from Stradbroke Island, in Queensland, rode another three waves in clocking a total of 16.33.
Wright struggled to get points on the board, registering 5 and 6.17 point rides on his fourth and fifth waves for a total of 11.17.
Ewing will face off against Filipe Toledo in the semi-final.
Fellow Aussie Callum Robson, who knocked Mick Fanning earlier in the competition, also progressed to the final after a close heat against Brazilian Miguel Pupo.
Australian Jack Robinson also progressed after a nailbiting heat with Italo Ferreira and will take on Robson in the second semi-final.
Tyler Wright is the only homegrown talent left in the women’s competition.
FANNING’S SHOCK EXIT
Mick Fanning was brought crashing back to earth on Friday by fellow Aussie Callum Robson, who slammed the door on the veteran’s hopes of claiming a fifth title at Bells Beach.
It was a tough day all-round for the Aussies, with Sally Fitzgibbons and Stephanie Gilmore among the other locals to bow out on the fifth day of the event.
40-year-old Fanning retired from the World Surf League tour in 2018 but earned a wildcard entry into the marquee Aussie event at Bells Beach.
The Aussie fan favourite claimed a massive scalp on Thursday by eliminating Japanese world No. 1 Kanoa Igarashi to advance to the round of 16.
But Robson closed the book on Fanning’s fairytale, eliminating him on the final wave and handing him a ninth-placed finish overall.
Robson saved his best for last, recording a 7.77 on the seventh wave to go with the score from his second-best wave (6.73).
With his total of 14.50, Robson did enough to shut the gate on Fanning, who finished with 14.27 (6.77 + 7.50), just below the average heat score of 14.39.
Fanning was all smiles after his elimination, which came in his 100th career heat at Bells, and wished Robson all the best.
“It was great fun. I had a great time. You want to go out just surfing,” Fanning said.
“Callum’s a great kid, it was awesome to have a heat with him.
“Big prospects for Australia riding on Cal, so that’s great.”
Fanning said he was grateful for the chance to surf at Bells for the first time since 2018.
“It’s been a really different Bells from me. I’ve really enjoyed it. The support from everyone has been great. Great memories,” he said.
“I just wanted to go out and have fun and that’s what I’ve done at this event.”
With his Bells campaign wrapped up, Fanning said he was looking forward to spending the rest of the Easter long weekend with his young family.
Meanwhile, three of the four Aussies remaining in the women’s event were eliminated in Friday’s quarter-finals.
Sally Fitzgibbons, Stephanie Gilmore and Bronte Macaulay were all sent packing, with only Gilmore seriously challenging her opponent.
Tyler Wright, who defeated Macaulay, is the last Aussie standing and will battle with American Courtney Conlogue for a spot in the final.
There are four Aussies in the hunt for glory in the men’s event; other than Robson, Jack Robinson, Owen Wright and Ethan Ewing have all qualified for the quarter-finals.
At least one Aussie will make it through to the semis, given Wright and Ewing are meeting in heat one of the next stage.
FANNING RUINS WORLD NO. 1’S DAY
Mick Fanning’s post-retirement Bells charge will continue into Easter after he took down world No. 1 Kanoa Igarashi with a trademark performance.
But surfing fans’ dreams of a showpiece clash between the two old men of the sea have been dashed after 11-time world champion Kelly Slater was knocked out by Hawaiian upstart Imaikalani deVault.
Fanning and Slater had been on course to meet in the semi-finals if both made it through.
Now 50, Slater has been in rare form this year, winning the opening event on the World Surf League championship tour and a heat against wildcard Fanning — a four-time winner at Bells Beach — was posing as a massive event.
While Slater is out, Fanning is finding his feet again after what he described as an “embarrassing” outing in the first round.
In glassy conditions at the Bells Bowl on Thursday though, it was the Fanning of old on show as he scored a two-wave total of 15.77 out of a possible 20 to take down the man in the yellow jersey.
Igarashi had two strong scores but neither matched the judges totals for Fanning, who set up his three world titles with stunning performances at Bells.
Fanning caught six scoring waves in his heat and said he was “gassed” after the performance which left Igarashi with his worst result of the season, despite the Japanese representative giving fans some nervous moments with an excellent final wave.
“As a wildcard you want to come on and just put on performance,” Fanning said.
“You’re going up against the world number one, and I’ve got nothing to lose.
“I’m just coming here to have fun and I’m just stoked we got some waves.
“I just wanted to keep catching waves but I didn’t realise my fitness level wasn’t up to it — I might have to go and suck in some big ones out the back.”
Fanning has lifted the famous Bells trophy four times, the first as a wildcard entry.
He realised he was playing spoiler, especially for tour-leader Igarashi.
But he said that was his role.
“I had it so many times throughout my career where a wildcard would come through and just take you out — and it ruins your day.
“But everyone else in the field wants you to go out and play that spoiler.
“I’m just having fun and to get to surf pumping Bells with only one (other) person out, that’s the gift.”
Fanning would have to win four heats back-to-back to win a fifth Bell but insisted he wasn’t looking that far ahead.
“I’m thinking about getting some air,” he said.
“I’m gassed. This old boy ain’t fit.”
While Salter was knocked out, Aussie Olympic medallist Owen Wright progressed, increasing his chances of making the mid-season cut, while former world champions John John Florence and Italo Ferreira also remain in the last 16.
Hells Bells: New format ramps up stress factor
Stephanie Gilmore has taken another step towards avoiding the World Surf League’s mid-season cut, but five-time world champion Carissa Moore now stands between her and ringing the famous Bells Beach trophy for a fifth time.
Gilmore advanced to the Rip Curl Pro quarter-finals with a clinical display against Aussie young gun and Victorian Surf Coast local India Robinson in the round of 16, with a show of graceful power on display.
It was a result Gilmore desperately needed given she sits outside the top-10 cut-off for automatic qualification for the rest of the women’s championship tour.
The seven-time world champion opened up on the stress being caused by the new format, with several top surfers on the cusp of missing the remainder of the season.
“When you’re making the cut, you’re a fan of the cut, when you’re not making the cut you hate the cut — that’s kind of the position I’m in the moment,” Gilmore said.
“But it’s just one of those things — it’s sport and you just have to really show up and put on a great performance every time.
“It’s stressful for sure.
“It’s really tough on the surfers, I can see there’s a lot more stress on everyone and that’s a weird thing but I can’t really think about that when I’m surfing my heat, so I’ve got to paddle out there and do my best.”
With at least a quarter-final finish at Bells to go with her semi-final result at Portugal last month, Gilmore is likely to move into the safe zone by the end of this event.
She would love nothing more than a fifth bell though and has set up a super heat against Moore in the quarters.
“I paddled out for my heat and watched Carissa go really hard on three waves,” she said. “She’s so strong and she’s the best in the world right now, so it’s going to take a lot (to get past her). But I’ll do my best, see what I can come up with, and try and beat the champ.”
With the men’s competition called off for the day, the women’s round of 16 was the only action at Bells on Wednesday, with Aussies Sally Fitzgibbons, Tyler Wright and Bronte Macaulay also advancing to the quarters.
Like Gilmore, Fitzgibbons is sitting outside the automatic cut-off mark and will be looking for a strong result against 2019 Bells winner Courtney Conlogue.
“I’ve just taken positive steps towards a feeling I wanted to bring into this comp, which is (being) relaxed and just surf free and bringing my best surfing to the table,” Fitzgibbons said of digging herself out of the situation.
“It is hard when a lot of pressure’s mounted on your head.
“It’s hard when those results aren’t coming easy, you start to question things but it’s pretty cool to come out the other side and get a couple of heat wins.”
Surfing icon has Steph’s back to make cut
Mick Fanning expects Stephanie Gilmore to stare down the challenge of the World Surf League’s inaugural mid-season cut with a standout performance at Bells Beach this week.
The WSL will cut its men’s and women’s fields by a third following the two Australian legs of the tour — at Bells Beach over the next week, and Margaret River in Western Australia in an event starting at the end of the month.
After missing the opening event of the year at Pipeline with Covid and bowing out uncharacteristically early at Sunset Beach, seven-time world champion Gilmore was languishing towards the bottom of the championship tour ladder.
A semi-final appearance in Portugal lifted her to 14th place but Gilmore remains in danger unless she can lift herself into the top 10 to secure automatic qualification.
But Fanning, a three-time world champion and four-time winner at Bells Beach, who has secured a wildcard to surf at the Rip Curl Pro four years after retiring, backed Gilmore to rise to the occasion.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen Steph with a bit of pressure on to actually qualify,” Fanning said of his fellow Snapper Rocks local.
“I know she can pull herself out of this and then when she’s got a wave like Bells Beach, she’s the best out there, of the girls, in my eyes.
“But you’ve still got to go out, still got to catch waves and still got to put on a performance, so there’s a little bit of pressure. But she’s a champion and champions always rise.”
At 34, Gilmore is no longer the grom who won the world title in her rookie year on tour.
But nor is she ready to give the game away.
And Fanning was adamant she was still able to compete with anyone on tour.
“It’s totally up to her. I’ve always said that when Steph Gilmore gives up, it’ll be her call, it won’t be anyone else’s,” he said.
“If she puts her down and gives it everything, she’ll go out and be the Steph Gilmore that we all know.”
Given she was forced out of the opening event of the year — and had to watch her rivals compete just 24 hours before getting out of isolation — Gilmore is likely to be among the top contenders for one of two wildcards to see out the season on the championship tour even if she doesn’t qualify automatically.
And she’s not out of world title calculations either, with strong results on the Australian leg of the tour putting her right back in the race.
Fanning though, as a wildcard, heads to Bells without having to worry about his place in the rankings or making cuts.
But the former tour veteran said he was “not a huge fan” of the mid-season cut, in principle.
Earning a place on the championship tour, should give athletes the right to fight for the title for the entire year, he felt, having seen the effect it had on surfers in the past.
“I think that with the cut at the end of the year when everyone fights it out for the world title, that’s big enough,” he said.
“Until I see it, I can’t give you an educated opinion but in principle don’t feel like it’s the right thing to do.
“I’ve seen when we cut form 48 to 32 (in the past) and I saw the way that affected people.
“But the WSL put this in place for a reason and until actually see it, we can only make assumptions of what it’s going to do.”
Why it had to be Bells or bust for Fanning comeback
Mick Fanning believes he still has what it takes to compete with the world’s best but is adamant his Bells Beach cameo is not a pointer to a tour comeback.
Three-time world champion Fanning retired from the World Surf League (WSL) tour in 2018, but has won a wildcard to compete at the Rip Curl Pro where he will attempt to lift the famous Bells trophy for a fifth time.
“It’s a place that I cherish,” Fanning said of the Bells right hand break in the shadows of millennia-old cliffs.
“It is a spiritual place, especially with all the stories of the Wadawurrung people … and the amphitheatre style, it’s almost like our grand final running out there.”
Fanning was awarded a wildcard entry to the Narrabeen Classic last year, where he was bundled out in the round of 32 by Italo Ferreira, the Brazilian who beat him in the final at Bells in 2018, denying a fairytale finish to his career.
With Victoria still in lockdown, there was no WSL event at Bells last year but when offered the chance to return to his favourite break this year, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“This is the event that I really wanted to do when I decided I’d take a wildcard here and there. So to be back is really special,” he said.
“The tour has been a little bit different over the last few years, so to have a tiny bit of normality back is something that (everyone) will embrace.”
At 40, some may considered Fanning too old to return to the level that allowed him to dominate the Bells break on so many occasions.
But in a sport in which 11-time world champion Kelly Slater won the season-opener at a pumping Pipeline just days shy of his 50th birthday, Fanning is a mere pup.
“He’s a person that always sort of blows your mind,” Fanning said of Slater.
“So many people (watch him and) probably sit here and go ‘oh, I can do that, I’m only 40’ but he’s an incredible athlete — he’s just a freak to be honest.”
Competing until 50 was never going to be for Fanning.
The man whose life became suffocatingly public after he punched a great white shark on live television has been happy to be out of the public eye, a little at least.
Not that he hasn’t been busy. A businessman, philanthropist, father and most recently, white knight to northern NSW flood victims, Fanning is as busy as ever — just not always out in the waves.
He’s not counting himself out next week though.
“I think I still have some surfing where I can compete with those guys but you just never know until you put that wet shirt on and paddle out there and the hooter goes,” he said.
“I just try not put on too much expectation and just go out and do the right things at the right time.”
The return to the familiar waters of Victoria’s surf coast and the sudden newness of competition has Fanning as excited as a grom descending the cliffside stairs for the first time.
“As my career went on, I didn’t really get those (competitive) urges until actually game day,” Fanning said.
“But being a wildcard is a lot different to being on the on the tour each and every day.
“When you’re on tour you’re always playing two or three steps ahead but now I sort of get to play where I am. I’m enjoying it a lot.”
It’s not something he has any interest in revisiting full-time though.
“I’m happy to dip my toe in and I’ll go and dry it off again.”
Originally published as Bells Beach 2022: Tyler Wright completes incredible surfing comeback; Filipe Toledo wins men’s event