Sean Doherty: Tyler Wright Returns to Shatter Lakey Peterson's World Title Dreams At Honolua Bay
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY
THE HONOLUA HEARTBREAKER – 2019 lululemon Maui Pro
Grey old morning at Honolua Bay.
This morning at Honolua was certainly not the Xanadu, crushed diamond dancefloor we’ve been conditioned to expect. No ‘70s Kalapana soundtrack on the breeze and no brown acid pilots talking to the sky on the cliffs above. No Sultan of Speed soul arches swinging into the Cave section. No, pro surfing was here in all its modern mercantile glory and this was some serious business.
This is a big event for the women.
The lululemon Soul Glo Maui Pro will decide the women’s world title – in all likelihood that will happen tomorrow – but it’s more significant than that. It remains the only standalone women’s event on tour, held at the fabled Honolua Bay. When the WSL took over and immediately started throwing money in the general direction of the women, it was a genuine effort to make things right with the sisterhood… but there was also a huge commercial opportunity there. With the men’s surf brands in decline, where was the growth going to come? The women’s tour held real commercial potential, yet here we are, six years in with just one standalone women’s event. Not only that, but sponsor lululemon – the goat yoga/wellness/dogtooth spearing brand – only came on as a naming sponsor three weeks ago. The Maui finish for the women’s tour is a marketer’s dream, and yet there’s always been a feeling that this event, as magic as it can be, lives on borrowed time.
There was not much to sell out there today, but as a test of real surfing chops it played true. The raw north-by-north swell was being dragged down the point; solid, wedging more than running. Grey and squally. Mud flush in the bay. It wasn’t pretty but it was challenging.
The first heat got lost entirely, world title contender Caroline Marks amongst them. The usual marks were useless as it bombed wide and the girls struggled to work out where they needed to sit. Grommet Marks looked to have squeaked through, only to be bumped by Macy Callaghan who lucked into an insider. Thanks to the archaic concept of the non-elimination round however, Grommet Marks would surf again.
The second heat looked more comfortable – Lakey, Silvana, Tyler Wright. Hang on… Tyler Wright. Almost 18 months since her last appearance on tour, the two-time champ made a return at Honolua this morning.
Floored by a mystery virus in South Africa back in July 2018, Tyler simply didn’t get any better. Days, weeks, months rolled by. There were eerie, uncanny similarities to the fate of brother Owen who’d been floored by a brain bleed back in 2016. Bedridden, both physical and mental symptoms, sensitivity to light and sound, weight loss, fogginess, unable to be accurately diagnosed, no real timeline around a recovery. Looking beyond a textbook medical diagnosis which no doctor could really settle on, maybe there was something genetic happening. Both Tyler and Owen are such prime physical specimens that maybe they were too highly tuned. To perform at such a high level they’d also became prone to physical breakdown. Younger brother Mikey Wright is currently sitting out his rookie season with a recurring back injury. Owen, in his rookie year on tour, was floored for almost two months with a flu between Europe and Hawaii. Beyond that again, maybe there was a cumulative career exhaustion playing out. Both Owen and Tyler have been pro surfers since they were kids. Tyler won a tour event at just 14. They’ve travelled the world following the tour for a very long time and maybe their bodies were simply telling them they needed a break. And just like Owen, a halftime career break certainly won’t hurt Tyler. A couple of years on the couch certainly didn’t hurt Occy in the long game either, I suppose.
First wave this morning and Tyler was back. The wave was wobbly but no more wobbly than her past 12 months. She rode it out, cool. She actually looked better than when she’d left. She’s lost a bunch of weight with the illness, but I think she’s consciously taken the opportunity to re-engineer her style. Whereas in the past she’s been all about short-rail, explosive turns in the pocket, she looked a little more drawn out in her turns and surfed with more time. Maybe it was just the fact she was surfing Honolua, maybe it was because I hadn’t seen her surf in over a year, but it seemed something more conscious than that. Am I tripping?
Whatever it was, Tyler looked great… maybe a little too great. Interviewed after progressing to the knockout rounds she seemed subdued, sounded a little croaky, downplayed it and told BL that this was just a step in her recovery. It’s the final event of the year, however, and there’s a bit at stake. If she wanted a low key return this isn’t the place. With no seeding points she’d draw a title contender straight up in the knockout round… and that would be Lakey Peterson. It was a bad draw for Lakey. A single heat behind Carissa for the title, a loss would not only end the title for her, it also potentially took her out of the Tokyo Olympics. She’d lost the title here last year to wildcard Alana Blanchard, and she paddled out with some psychic weight.
Lakey immediately looked in trouble. Both the scoreboard and the surfing optics didn’t look good for her. Tyler was driving hard through turns, while Lakey checked hers, worried about what the wave was doing down the line. For Lakey fans it was excruciating to watch. She caught two closeouts, paddled for a shitty one to lose priority, then inexplicably let a bomb go. The one wave she connected comprised three half-snaps, the final one under the lip for dramatic effect. The judges juiced the score to give Lakey the lead but it didn’t change the feel of the heat. It felt like Tyler’s to win and two swooping turns later, it was. In the closing minutes I half imagined Tyler might just give Lakey a shot at it, but she used priority, took the wave herself as she should, and Lakey’s season ended just like that. It was a heartbreaking way to go out. She’s looked epic at certain points this year but for the second year running would fall just short of a title… and to rub salt into the wound, also an Olympic spot. Luckily she couldn’t hear Kai Lenny in commentary say, “Whoever wins the Olympics is going to be the biggest star surfing has ever seen!”
It’s all Carissa’s from here. She’d almost been cleaned up jumping off the rocks before her first heat this morning, but from that point was commanding. It didn’t much look like she wanted to win the title by default. By round three Honolua had cleaned up and was back on the reef and Carissa sliced and diced and rode the first tube of the day.
That just left Caroline Marks. She was two heats behind Carissa in the ratings and at worst needs to make the final. But she was still there. She was up against Coco Ho who also needs to make the final – just to stay on tour. Coco wouldn’t mind winning the heat if for nothing else meaning that the women’s world title comes back to Hawaii. While Lakey had looked shaky, the grommet tore straight into it. Caroline fell from the sky on her first wave, hung in by her toenails, and then drove hard straight at the lip. The grom backed it up for a pair of sixes, and while she looked challenged momentarily when Coco threaded a tube, she held her nerve. Caroline Marks is now going to the Olympics, a phrase Caroline Marks will no doubt repeat to herself several times tonight. The moment was so big even Natasha Ziff – rarely-sighted league owner and the woman who’s driven the WSL’s investment in the women’s tour – made her very first public appearance on the broadcast to hand over some kind of commemorative Olympic shroud. We look forward to seeing Dirk Ziff at Pipe.
Carissa Moore meanwhile is just a heat – maybe two – away from a world title tomorrow morning. Sleep on that.
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