Photo: WSL/Cestari

Steph Wins, Proper-Like: Sean Doherty On J-Bay Finals Day

Steph Gilmore and Lakey Peterson meet in a top of the table final on a classic J-Bay day.

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After waiting 20 years for the women to return to Jeffreys Bay, it has felt like we’ve had to wait another 20 years to finally finish their event.

Did you even remember it was on? Does it feel like a lifetime ago since they ran their first round, and several lifetimes since Phil Toledo put J-Bay to the sword to win the men’s? The World Surf League has become the World Safari League for a week… with all that downtime at least ensuring the men’s winner and the women’s winner wouldn’t be standing side by side on the stage with checks of disparate denominations.

As it turns out it was worth the wait because the waves for the women’s finals were better than anything the men got. The swell was better angled, and while the men had to race frantically down the point, last night’s swell moved off the reef and slowed up enough to allow the girls plenty of room to spread their wings. And there was some size too, “four to seven foot” if you believed the WSL’s press release.

The early signs weren’t good, however. As my screen resolved on the good old WSL app, I watched 10 minutes of Bianca Buitendag rolling around on the reef, unable to get out. The surfing fortunately improved from that point. With the women being plonked on a perfect wave, there’s an expectation that they’ll just pony up and surf it perfectly, which rarely happens. Cloudbreak a few years ago a prime example of that. Today was their first real day of J-Bay, and as a collective they got a groove on and surfed great, more than validating the WSL dropping all those krugerrand and bringing them back here.

It’s not often I sympathise with the World Surf League, but the recent brouhaha over the prize money at a junior contest almost had me there. For all their catalogue of wacky moves, the one area where they can’t be faulted is their commitment to the women. They tripled prize money on their first day on the job, gave the girls good surf, and in many ways are leading the way for women’s sport globally. Their problem of course is that they inherited a sport that was way out of balance, and they’ve had to play catch up. Then, of course, someone handed over that prize cheque and the professionally outraged piled on, with none of them bothering to mention the overall trajectory of the sport.

Back to normal transmission, and one of my pet criticisms of the WSL coverage is bloviated over-analysis. With hours to fill the presenters are forced to strategically pull apart replay after replay and conjure up some Kasparovian angle that clearly doesn’t exist. It’s just surfing. This could not have been illustrated any better than when Steph took off on her first wave in the final and was dropped in on by a pod of dolphins who frolicked on the wave ahead of her. Pottz saw something more. “You’ve got to wonder, are the dolphins coming into play here? Are they taking a bit of shine off her surfing?” Steph eventually fell on her last turn, the dolphins clearly having interfered. There seems a wider agenda at play here. Clearly dolphins and sharks have changed places as animal world totems – dolphins are now demonised while white sharks are fetishised. Dolphins admonished for ruining a wave, while big cuddly white sharks are allowed to do hot laps of the point to the delight of the crowds. Strange times indeed.

Most assumed Steph Gilmore would win at Jeffreys Bay, which she duly did, but early in the day Lakey Peterson looked the goods. They met in the final with contrasting styles. Lakey-like twitchy between turns, but then owned the top third of the wave, her turns “spicy” as Joe would say. Steph, meanwhile, did what Steph does, drawing long fluent turns, remaining flawless between them. Considering neither of them have spent any time here, their reads on the wave were pretty good. The difference in the end came down to Steph holding it together. So often she surfs her best heat in the first round and slowly falls apart from there, today she built as the rounds went on. Her coach, two-time J-Bay winner Jake Paterson, clearly wasn’t going to allow her to lose by drifting off into some mid-heat dream sequence believing she was filming a video part and not surfing a heat. She was clinical yet captivating at the same time, and won proper-like in the process.

Sean Doherty