Only two surfers reached the quarterfinals in the final three contests of the women’s Championship Tour season — Carissa Moore and Malia Manuel.
For Moore, it’s what we’ve come to expect from her in most years, though the majority of this season did not show her typical prowess.
For Manuel, it was a huge accomplishment and a statement about her place in the women’s pecking order. Returning from a knee injury that kept her out of the water for four months, Manuel looked strong, confident and as fluid as ever during her return to competition.
It would be easy to assume that she would need time to shake off the rust. It would also be easy to assume that Manuel wouldn’t have the competitive will or desire to push herself under those circumstances.
Both assumptions would be incorrect.
The season culminated on Friday at the Maui Women’s Pro, which decided the world title. Australia’s Tyler Wright came away as champion for the second straight year. Wright’s back-to-back world titles are even more impressive given the level of competition that has recently elevated the women’s tour to new heights.
But if not for that injury at Margaret River, Manuel may have been right there with Wright, Moore, Sally Fitzgibbons, Courtney Conlogue and Stephanie Gilmore with a mathematical chance at a world title heading into Maui. Her surfing over the last leg of the season certainly indicates as much.
Maui became Manuel’s second career final heat appearance. She finished runner-up last season to Tatiana Weston-Webb at the US Open of Surfing. Each was looking for their first CT win at that stop and Tati emerged just ahead in the all-Kauai final at Huntington Beach, Calif.
This time, Manuel took on Gilmore and came up just short again. It was evident to all watching that Gilmore was locked in for this event. She was unbeatable from round two through finals day. Every heat win prior to the final included a nine-point ride as she knocked off Laura Enever, Silvana Lima and Wright before eventually topping Manuel, 15.20 to 11.90.
Despite that one loss, Manuel appeared to be surfing as well as she ever has. She won both of her three-woman heats and each of her wins on finals day were absolutely text book performances. She was so solid and consistent, not missing an opportunity, not faltering on a potential scoring wave. If it looked like it had excellent scoring potential, Manuel got it into the excellent scoring range. She piled up eight after eight until the final, when she didn’t get the same waves to work with.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been very long since Manuel finished fifth on the CT, knocking on the door of what was then a very distinct top four. But that was 2014 and a lot has changed. Tati, Conlogue, Johanne Defay, Nikki Van Dijk, Sage Erickson, Lakey Peterson — the list has gotten much longer and less manageable. It’s harder than it ever has been to climb the ladder.
But the end of 2017 showed that Manuel can be at the top. She showed her excellence at three very different waves and can now use the upcoming weeks and months to get into even better shape for a fresh start in 2018.
Her resurgence came much sooner than would be reasonably expected, but we’ve seen something special from Manuel at the end of this tumultuous season. Hopefully the bad luck is behind her and it’s smooth sailing ahead.
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.