Steph Gilmore falls short in record surf title bid as shark halts men’s WSL final

Carissa Moore clinched her fifth world title leaving Stephanie Gilmore stranded on seven, while Gabriel Medina has won a third men’s crown with victory at the World Surf League Finals in California.

The world champions were decided for the first time in an epic one-day session at Lower Trestles, California, that featured the top five ranked surfers of the year, with Hawaiian Moore and Brazilian Medina living up to their top billing. Advancing directly to the final as No 1 seeds, Moore overcame Brazilian Tatiana Weston-Webb to defend her title while Medina downed compatriot Felipe Toledo.

Gilmore was aiming for a record eighth title to move ahead of Layne Beachley but was a shock elimination in her opening round clash with France’s Johanne Defay. Sally Fitzgibbons missed advancing to the title decider in further heartbreak for Australia, while fifth-seeded rookie Morgan Cibilic was a men’s first-round casualty.

Gilmore had beaten Defay in their previous three meetings and had high hopes after winning the most recent event in Mexico. She won at Lowers in 2014, posting a perfect 10 as well as a 9.5 in the final against Fitzgibbons, but was unable to find any waves of that calibre at the famed point break. The 33-year-old’s top score was a mere 3.5 for a combined best-two score of 6.7.

“It’s not my finest moment, that’s for sure,” a shattered Gilmore said. “It was really tough to pick a great wave out there – there was like a rip running through the left and it created some ribs on the right and my whole plan was to stick to the rights and try to pick off a clean one.”

Fitzgibbons eliminated Defay to book a clash with second-ranked Weston-Webb. A three-time runner-up for the world title who narrowly missed an Olympic medal in Tokyo, Fitzgibbons had the edge before the Brazilian pulled out a late 8.00 ride to take the win.

Hawaii-raised Weston-Webb, who switched her allegiance in 2018, shocked Moore to win the first final in the best-of-three clash. But Olympic champion Moore stormed back with two big scores of 8.93 and 8.33 to level in the second and then got the better of her rival in the deciding heat.

“It was a crazy back and forth battle and it didn’t really go how I wanted it to at the beginning so I was really happy to fight back,” Moore said. “I would not be where I am today without my team, especially my husband who was telling me, ‘I believe in you; if anyone can do this you can. “I was about to have a full meltdown but I was feeling the love and support.”

Relishing the high quality conditions which improved through the day, Medina only needed two championship heats to take his title. No 3 seed Toledo earlier ousted reigning world champion Italo Ferreira, who was seeded second. Surfing was paused for 15 minutes during their second heat while an eight foot shark was cleared from the competition area.

“A shark has breached the side of the line-up and it’s about six to eight foot so we’re going to search the line-up and make sure it’s gone,” WSL head of competition Jessie Miley-Dyer said.

Coincidentally Mick Fanning was in commentary at time; the retired Australian three-time world champion famously encountered a shark during competition at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa.

Fanning was rattled by the attack, which miraculously left him uninjured, but could now joke about it from the broadcast booth. “They’re probably looking for my phone number to light me up – it’s your fault,” he said of the finalists.

Both Medina and Toledo unleashed an array of powerful slashing turns and progressive aerial manoeuvres in the clean, overhead waves. But Medina posted the highest scoring waves of the to win the first heat 16.30 to 15.70, while the second was equally as close with two-wave score of 17.53 besting Toledo’s 16.36. “I’m crying right now, because there’s a lot of emotion you know,” Medina said.