Wailua’s Manuel becomes youngest ever U.S. champion

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Wailua’s Malia Manuel, 14, has claimed the GO211 LIVE featuring the Women’s Honda U.S. Open of Surfing over fellow Hawai‘i finalist Coco Ho, 17, in 2- to 3-foot surf at Huntington Beach Pier.

They were the youngest finalists ever for an Open and by defeating Ho, Manuel became the youngest ever U.S. Open champion.

The Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series 6-Star event saw some incredible performances yesterday, but none as impressive as the young surfers taking down some of the biggest names in professional surfing.

“My sponsors gave me the wildcard into this event and I was just happy to be here,” Manuel said in a release. “To get to surf against some of my heroes and to be in the final with my friend Coco (Ho) is just something I would have never dreamed of.”

Sticking to her game plan throughout the event, Manuel started strong in the opening moments of the final, securing two lengthy righthanders to post solid scores while her opponent struggled to find her footing in the challenging afternoon conditions.

“There weren’t many waves out there this afternoon which was too bad,” Manuel said. “I just got lucky that a couple linked up for me and I was able get some scores under my belt.”

Manuel issued huge upsets yesterday, defeating former ASP Women’s world champion and 2006 U.S. Open Champion Sofia Mulanovich in her quarterfinals heat before posting a dominating heat win over current ASP WQS ratings leader Sally Fitzgibbons.

Ho issued her share of shocking upsets as well, defeating ASP Women’s World Tour veteran Melanie Bartels of Makaha and reigning ASP Women’s world champion and defending U.S. Open champion Stephanie Gilmore on her way to the final. Ho’s potential sweep of both the women’s events was stopped by Manuel’s victory.

“The conditions really came down to the one who got the wave with the wall,” Ho said. “I couldn’t find my feet and I had to watch her catch a really good right. It was just cool being in the final because it was my goal to just make the quarters, so I’m over the moon.”

Fitzgibbons, who has already qualified for the 2009 ASP Women’s World Tour, finished in equal third place behind Manuel, increasing her ASP WQS ratings lead over the field.

“Malia was surfing really well and got off to a great start and just kept going from there,” Fitzgibbons said. “It was hard to play catch-up with the waves that were coming through, and she’s the deserving heat winner.”

Fitzgibbons will take a break and miss the ASP WQS 6-Star event in Portugal to recharge, but will be back and ready for when competition resumes in Hawai‘i.

Gilmore, who finished equal third as well, was defeated in her semifinals heat by event standout Ho. Gilmore put in a hard-fought battle against the young North Shore native, but could not find the score she needed to advance over her opponent.

Hanalei’s Bethany Hamilton made it through the quarters yesterday but was taken down by Gilmore.

In addition to the finale of the U.S. Open Women’s event, the ASP Grade-2 S3 Supergirl Pro Junior came to a close yesterday with Ho claiming victory over fellow finalists Nikita Robb, Sage Erickson and Courtney Conlogue with a come-from-behind victory over Robb, edging out prodigious South African by seven tenths of a point.

“To be here standing on the beach with the crowd with the Pro Junior Title and the runner-up finish in the WQS, I’m really happy.” Ho said. “It’s been a long week of surfing and I’m going to Indo tomorrow with all of the girls that surfed in women’s Quarterfinals and just going to relax after the week.”

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