SAN DIEGO >> From Tokyo to Lower Trestles, surfing is still riding its biggest wave.
Less than two months after their sport’s Olympic debut, the top five women and men have gathered at Lower Trestles, one of Southern California’s epic breaks, for the World Surf League’s new one-day, winner-take-all championship.
For the first time, world titles will be decided on the waves instead of by the season points standings. There will also be equal prize money, with each champion earning $200,000 out of the identical $470,000 purses.
The competition window for the Rip Curl WSL Finals opened Thursday and runs through Sept. 17. Organizers will look for the optimum forecast to decide which day the contest will be held. It could be as early as Sunday.
Olympic gold medalist and reigning world champion Carissa Moore of Honolulu is seeded No. 1 in the women’s bracket, meaning she’s guaranteed a spot in the final match. Men’s gold medalist and reigning world champion Italo Ferreira of Brazil is No. 2 on the men’s side behind countryman Gabriel Medina, who has a huge points lead but must win the title match to clinch his third world championship.
Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore will be going for a record eighth women’s world title and is seeded No. 4, so she’ll need to win three matches to earn a showdown with Moore.
“There’s a lot on the line because sometimes world titles have been determined on the beach, but I’ll actually be in the water this time surfing for it,” said Moore, a four-time world champion. “It’ll be very exciting.”
For this contest, the location will be as big of a star as the surfers themselves.
Surfers revere Lower Trestles for its consistent waves as well as its setting.
Lower Trestles is one of several surf breaks between San Onofre State Beach in northern San Diego County and San Clemente Beach in southern Orange County. Surfers named it decades ago after Trestles Bridge that spanned San Mateo Creek.
Although the wood railroad trestle has mostly been replaced by reinforced steel and concrete, the single train track is still in play — although visitors are supposed to go under the bridge to get to the beach, not on a path that crosses the track.
“It’s unique. It’s like a military area so you have to like go down and run across the train tracks and get to the beach,” Gilmore said. “It’s quite the adventure to be able to get down to the beach but once you’re there you’re greeted with a perfect A-frame, a left- and a right-hander, and it’s close to the shore so it’s great for the fans to come down and see all the best surfers really close.”
Gilmore has won a tour event and gotten a perfect 10 at Lower Trestles. She is tied with fellow Australian Layne Beachley, who won seven world titles between 1998-2006.
“It’s one of the most perfect waves in California, and essentially the world,” Gilmore said. “It’s so rippable. It’s such a great arena for competitive surfing. If we have a great forecast then I can’t think of a better way to finish the year.”
Moore loves Lower Trestles, too.
“This place holds a special place in my heart for sure,” she said. “It’s just a really fun wave. It’s consistent. It’s a very high-performance wave, meaning it allows for the surfer to be very playful and take some risks. It has a nice pace to it so the surfer that’s riding it can really open up and display their kind of surfing.
“It’s just been a part of surfing history for so long. It seems like a very fitting venue for this historic event,” Moore said.
Gilmore wasn’t a big fan of the new format at first. “Now that I’m coming in at fourth place and I actually have a shot at the title, which in any other year I wouldn’t be in this position, I’m really liking it,” she said.
“I can imagine winning this event, having beaten all the girls in the top five, and just feeling like it was a huge achievement,” she said. “Obviously the toughest event of the year to win and to be able to win the world title, it would be an achievement you’d never forget, for sure.”
The full women’s field is Moore, Tatiana Weston-Webb of Brazil, Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia, Gilmore and Johanne Defay of France.
For the men, it’s Medina, Ferreira, Filipe Toledo of Brazil, Conner Coffin of Santa Barbara and Morgan Cibilic of Australia.