80 Men And 48 Women Enter The CS Gauntlet — Only 15 Will Survive - Stab Mag

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80 Men And 48 Women Enter The CS Gauntlet — Only 15 Will Survive

Your 2024 Challenger Series x Gold Coast Pro preview.

// Apr 26, 2024
Words by Nick Gibbs
Reading Time: 9 minutes

It is here, the Quo Vadis of the surfing world, the Coolangatta Coliseum, the sun, the blue water, the bikinis, the high-octane-est shredding on the planet. 

I too am here, enthusiastic cub reporter, unashamed surf fan, anticipating sunburn, exhausted from the gladiatorial duel for a parking space, desperate for a thread to tug into a coherent story. 

For the Gold Coast Pro, former dream tour kick off and low-key trade show bacchanal, has since been reincarnated as the first event of the Challenger series — a symbol of regional growth-of-sport and a cautionary tale for pro surfer dreams and woes. It is slick and it is packaged, but gilt rather than golden. A glistening emblem of late-stage surf capitalism demise. 

Anticlimactically, four days before the event I sit on Greenmount hill, squinting through mid-morning glare and an emotional catharsis from the dizzying heights of the Margaret River Finals day. The sense of misplaced anticipation is emphasised by the non-performance of an anticipated swell bending into wonky lumps as opposed to the pinwheel corduroy I, and quite clearly, the hundreds of frothers scattered along the bank expected. 

The stats on momma nature. Friday looking spicy for finals day. Courtesy Surfline

The forecast for the event looks lacklustre in some parts, good in others, but contestable throughout. Whilst stickered multitudes thrash wildly at every section that feels the bank, others are on planes heading east from WA, stifling disappointment, steeling nerves, resetting and reframing their goals for the year after being hit by the swinging axe of the mid-year Championship Tour cut. Still others are deplaning from all points of the globe, battling jet lag and getting their bearings around the all important tide cycle. 

It seems like the new qualifying format of regional Qualifying series (Quey), Challenger series (Changas) then Championship Tour has yet to be fully worked out by fans, competitors, sponsors, and potentially even the WSL. It is, it must be said, a pretty good, albeit ruthless system, for the fans at least. There are flaws, but also a lot to like. After 25 years of the WSL/ASP following a predictable, also flawed, qualification route, it seems like punters are still yet to get around this, purely because it is different. 

“Maate, it’s that stressful,” says the pit boss of a well-known surf brand. “You have to keep jumping through harder and smaller hoops just to get on tour, then you paddle out Pipeline and you’ve got five events just to stay there. It’s heeeavvy….”

The old QS was a year-long war of attrition, wherein one could suffer a slow start and then, at some stage, go on a tear and stack some results. With the benefit of a decent seed, athletes could pick and choose their marquee events and then settle in for the Haleiwa and Sunset finale — big-point game changers in consequential surf, the venues themselves as noble an arbitration as nature can provide. 

How’s that incoming wedge on the first one? Photo: Cait Miers/World Surf League

Contrastingly, the new series of pitched battles leaves little space to grow into a campaign, especially if momentum is compromised by injury, self doubt, or a couple of tough calls. The venues provide an arbitrary baseline upon which to compete, but no notable challenge in and of themselves. 

Jacob Willcox, with a healthy dose of experience in all levels of WSL what-have-yous, provides the following breakdown of venues:

Snapper Rocks, Australia: The best wave on the Challenger series — running right hand point. Can’t go wrong starting at Snapper.

Narrabeen, Australia: Tricky beachbreak, gets fun on its day, depends on the sand and swell direction.

Ballito, South Africa: Shifty beachbreak, the wind’s always into the rights, has a bit of punch, I like it, it’s a bit of fun.

Huntington, USA: Intense scene, tricky wave, but, umm pretty fun if you can work out the formula.

Quadratic formula, perhaps? Photo: Aaron Hughes/World Surf League

Ribeira D’Ilhas, Portugal: one of my favourite spots on tour, just a beautiful time of year there. The wave itself is a pretty flat righthander, but can get pretty good on its day.

Saquarema, Brazil: Generally pretty tense environment being the last event — the waves are pretty tricky, a backwashy beachbreak.

There are no proper reefbreaks on the CS, and it’s all over so quickly. Six events in six months. BamBamBam…. 

Only 10 men and five women progress to the big leagues — hello, Pipeline. The ensuing three month global zig-zag is all you get at the upper echelon before potentially sliding down the snake to start again after Margs.

Zero time for adjustment. 

No easy draws.

Maximum consequence in every heat.

The sheer depth of talent in both the men’s and women’s draws is stupefying.

That said, ruthless application of glory and consequence is the essence of sport. 

Pre-comp warm-up. Imagine realizing you have to beat all these people in a heat.

As former WSL Head Judge Pritamo Ahrendt explained, “With this system, at least fairly early in the year you know if you’ve qualified and what you have to do. If you don’t get through you have the rest of the year to go and work on whatever else, chase clips…. But you may have a shocker in one event and not qualify, and there’s always a couple of people who slip through the net. Yeah it’s tough, but the cream rises.”

Jacob Willcox, who finally qualified for the CT this season after coming so close on many occasions, only to be sent straight back on the Challenger after the cut, is pragmatic in his comparison of the two tours:

“It’s the same as the CT — if you’re not on for those first 5 events you’re not on. You gotta work your shit out eventually, cos if you can’t figure it out over that five (CT) then six (Challenger) events, maybe it’s not for you…”

Which brings us to the Changas’ most obvious metric — cost effectiveness. The halcyon days of the pro surf bubble are in the rear view, its industry benefactors neutered by leveraged buyouts, corporate restructuring and boardroom accountability. 

Yeah, we’ve been here before.

The echoes of PT and Bugs, building professional surfing around themselves from these very streets, whirl beneath the modern developments that replace the grotty weatherboard flats of old Coollangatta. The demographic switch-up from blue collar grit to unabashed affluence in most modern surf towns stands in profound contrast to pro surfing’s age of relative austerity. The irony is not lost. Perhaps one day coastal demographic wealth may position surfing alongside sports like rugby, or sailing, that fortuitously exist at the top end of the top end of town, and competitive budgets will become reassured simply by proximity to the Big Money. 

But that’s staring into the mist, whilst in front of me, in sideshore wind and crumbled swell lines, the machine grinds along, on the fumes and oily rags of its aspirants. For nascent pros, big, speculative contracts have been replaced by unstickered boards and part-time labouring.

For aspiring grommets, truancy and hitchhiking have been replaced by home schooling and parental support; boardriders clubs offer wholesome junior coaching programs instead of questionable hazing rites. It’s way more Nippers than Dogtown, and the earnest, wholesome-looking aspirants of the Changa reflect this vibe. Every day of competition will see a minimum of half the day’s surfers decimally cleaved out of the event, staring deep into the regrouping void, while the other half tries to hold their nerve into the next round. No one will rest easy. 

Surfing and competition have evolved, shaped by new demographic, economic and performance realities. In relation to these, the new tour and system feel right-sized. This is a lean, hard tour for lean, hard times — and from a viewer’s perspective, it works. For now.

How long now is, is again subject to the shifting sands of fortune; a day before the event starts, as local triallists fight for the chance to play dream-spoiler, the WSL drops the bombshell announcement that Snapper will return to the WCT in 2025, on a freshly inked four-year deal. Maybe the fortunes of professional surfing are already changing. Great for the WSL, great for the sport, great for the fans. 

Gnarly for the battlers of the Changa. Again, contenders are left with the savage bargain of having to make the most of what they can, while they can. Make the most of those long walls  now, knowing that only qualification will guarantee a rashie here next year, and your game better be tight.

I look at the scene in front of me. Scattered pros light up the pre-comp freesurf in amongst the gen pop. Later, I take a drift down the point myself. Sammy Pupo is focussed and flaring. Ryan Callinan belts a few off the end. Caio Ibelli, just off the cut, is cruising big lazy lines on a twin fish, which I can only surmise as:

  1. An honest surrender to retirement
  2. A complex psy-op on competitors
  3. Just the biggest flex of ‘I-don’t-gotta-even-practice’ confidence I’ve ever seen. 
Caio, the perennial underdog, still keeping the faith on the 2024 Challenger. (Photo: Tony Heff/World Surf League)

It’s busy, but not frantic. I still get no waves or any real sense of who’s doing what.

I would not dare piss into the wind with any sort of form guide or prediction here. Instead, I retreat to the carpark to work the phone, try and get some dispatches from the trenches.

George Pittar answers as he hurtles up the highway from Manly. Fresh from a good showing as a wildcard at Bells, followed by a remarkably assured 3rd place at Margaret River, the Vanuatu kid has wind in his sails. He’s grateful for his seeding on the Challenger (based on last season’s results). 

“The Australasian Qualifying Series is gnarly,” George says. “There’s at least 10-15 guys that could qualify for the (CT) tour but dont even break through the regional qualifiers ‘cos they’re that hectic.”

Georgie Pitts, kid is mighty. Photo: Aaron Hughes/WSL

Pittar finds the Challenger Series comparable to his recent CT experience: “There’s the extra level and intensity (on the CT), but heat by heat. Just because I had those results, there’s no expectation going into Snapper… The level on the CS is way up there — 4-man heats, everyone’s so hungry. It’s super full on.” 

When I ask George who to watch for on this year’s Challenger, he is quick to point out the value of top-tier experience: “The guys who fell off tour, they’re always gnarly — Sammy Pupo, Jacob, Callum Robson. Then, newcomers: I reckon Joel Vaughan, he’s just on one… Jackson Bunch…he’s unbelievable, and Morgan Cibilic…he went close last year but has just done so much work. There’s so much talent on there I couldn’t put it down to a few names.”

On the women’s side, recent CT casualty Isabella Nicholls also identifies consistency as key. “With only five spots for the girls, you can’t make too many mistakes. Last year I had two good results and quite a few throwaways. That’s something I’ll be working on.”

Isabella Nichols looking to claw her way back on Tour — perhaps in waves like this should she live to see Finals day. Photo: Tony Heff/WSL

Bella is hesitant to identify anyone in particular as a contender: “There are so many good female surfers coming through the CS now. I don’t see there being any easy heats. There are surfers coming from previously non dominant nations that are ripping.”

She-GOAT, Steph Gilmore is more specific: “Sal Fitzgibbons and Sophie McCulloch would be staple Australians, then Erin Brooks, Portugal’s Francisca Vaselko, Macy Callaghan… Vahine Fierro has a good backhand, and if Sierra Kerr is in it…watch out.’

After a top-10 CT finish the first time around in 2022, Samuel Pupo fell victim to the cut last year, but immediately rebounded to win Snapper and requalify in second position. After knocking his brother off tour last week, he fell agonisingly below the line himself. Sammy regrouped courtesy of an epic run of pre-event waves last year, but this year, he’s frustrated by the relegation.

“I feel like my surfing deserves to be there, and falling off tour has me thinking of the opportunities that I’ll be missing to get my first win. This cut doesn’t make any sense, only five events — to people that have been waiting for that moment their whole lives it’s so unfair! You could ask anyone about this. If I had the full year on tour and didn’t make the top 22, I would be more than happy to step aside and go back to the Challenger… But the way it is, you just feel like it’s taken away from you.”

On the flip side, had Sammy surfed a full year on the tour and failed to make the cut (as in the old system), he wouldn’t be able to requalify for another entire year, as opposed to getting back on the CT in six months’ time — as he did in ‘23, and likely will again in ‘24. 

For those who rose from the QS depths rather than falling from the CT heights, the first event of the Changas provides a palpable sense of belief, a commitment to dreams, an occasionally painful sense of putting it all on the line. And I’m here for it.

Gimme the hideous accountability of last-minute borderline scores, the emotional intensity of fleeting podium glories, and despondent walks with stickerless boards into uncertain sunsets. 

Snapper, we’ll be watching.

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