- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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For years, the story of the women's pro surf tour read much like the men's today: headlines dominated by a couple of bold-print names. In the late '90s, it was Lisa Andersen. Then, from 1998 to 2003, Layne Beachley's name was scrawled in permanent marker atop the world rankings. But in 2004, 21-year-old Sofia Mulanovich of Peru won the world title in only her second season on tour, igniting a spark in her young peers by showing them anyone could become champion. The next year, 22-year-old Chelsea Georgeson (now Hedges) of Australia followed suit. And then, in 2007, 19-year-old Steph Gilmore became the first rookie and the youngest woman ever to win the world title. Then she took the next three. This year, the tides are shifting once again. "It's always been one girl," Gilmore says. "Now it's five girls, 10 girls and they are all so hungry to win. Last year, I was the oldest girl in the water in most of my heats, and I was 22."
The new women on tour
This year, 19 no longer sounds young; it sounds like the norm. Of the 17 women on the elite tour, eight are 20 or younger and six of those eight are currently ranked in the top 10. These girls represent a new era in women's surfing; one dominated by contest-smart, competitive, well-coached athletes who all believe they can be world champion. One of the youngest surfers on tour, 18-year-old old Carissa Moore, currently leads the rankings after winning the opening contest of the 2011 season.
"Day one of the Roxy Pro was the best first day of women's surfing I have ever seen," says ASP head judge Rich Porta of that event. "The women are putting themselves in positions on the waves they weren't previously using and the turns they're doing in the critical section of the wave are amazing. They're mastering aerial maneuvers and big power turns. I expect the young surfers coming through the ranks to continue to push the boundaries of women's surfing."
And to continue pushing the veterans -- those boldface names they grew up watching and being inspired by -- along the way. For the first time in 32 months, Gilmore is not ranked number one in the world. Here are five reasons why the 2011 season could see the crowning of another first-time champ. It is no accident that we've bolded their names.
Carissa Moore, 18, Honolulu, Hawaii
Moore has been beating world tour pros since she was in seventh grade. But back then, she would win a heat and then sheepishly apologize for beating one of her idols. "She was so bummed she beat me," Mulanovich, the world champ at the time, said after a 12-year-old Moore knocked her out of the 2005 SG Lowers Pro in San Clemente, Calif. Today, Moore is still beating tour vets, but she no longer apologizes for her success. In only her second year on tour, and her first since graduating from Punahou High School, Moore sits atop the world standings heading into the second contest of the season, the Rip Curl Women's Pro, April 19-25 in Bells Beach, Australia. She still surfs with the fluidity she did as a middle school standout, but she now has the size (5'7", 140 lbs.) and power to back it up. One of the most acrobatic women on tour, Moore is known for her spins, fins-free releases and reverses, as well as for a competitive drive possibly matched only by that 39-year-old guy who's still dominating the men's tour.
Tyler Wright, 17, New South Wales, Australia
Tour rookie Wright made her debut in this year's Roxy Pro, where she beat Gilmore in the first round with powerful surfing despite tough conditions, and then finished second to Moore in an exciting, ultra-competitive final. And while it seems Moore owns nearly every "youngest to" accolade, the title of "youngest surfer to win a world tour event" belongs to Wright, who beat reigning world champ Gilmore in 2008 on her way to winning the Beachley Classic as a 14-year-old wildcard. She also won last season's O'Neill Women's World Cup as a wildcard, beating Gilmore, Coco Ho and Sally Fitzgibbons in the Sunset Beach final. "These young women have been pushing each other at junior levels for years," Porta says. "Every year, we get a few rookies and they always surf well, but the women who've entered the tour this year have truly added depth to the field."
Laura Enever, 19, Sydney, Australia
As is true in all sports, it's impossible to talk about the potential of young athletes without comparing them to the best at their game. The same is true here. Although Wright beat Gilmore in the first round of the Roxy Pro, it was Enever who knocked the reigning world champ out of the contest in the quarterfinals. At the six-star 2010 Billabong Azores Islands Pro, she toughed out a come-from-way-behind win over Courtney Conlogue and was named the 2010 ASP women's World Tour breakthrough performer. Enever also represents a group of young surfers Gilmore calls, "every company's marketing dream." On her blog -- titled LOL for Life of Laura -- the rookie gushes about her love of Beyonce and includes as many photos of her posing and putting on makeup as of her charging through barreling surf. "The girls now are really living the lifestyle, finding the balance between being intense competitors and young surfer girls," Gilmore says. "That was the missing link in women's pro surfing for a long time and it's really nice to see."
Coco Ho, 19, Sunset Beach, Hawaii (turns 20 April 28)
Ho's been a name to watch since the day she stepped foot on a surfboard. As the daughter of surf legend Michael Ho, she's aware her last name comes with expectations. And she's living up to them. In 2009, Ho became the youngest woman ever to qualify for the world tour, at age 17. That year, she was the only rookie to win a World Tour event, taking the Rip Curl Women's Pro Search in Portugal. She finished the year ranked fourth overall -- the highest of the 2009 rookies --and won the Rookie Of The Year title. Now in her third season, she has momentum heading into the second contest. After finishing fifth at the tour-opening Roxy Pro, she followed that up with a win at the six-star Legendary Pacific Coast Pro in Newcastle, Australia. On her website, coco-ho.com, the teen posts videos of she and her teammates dancing in short shorts and bathing suits during lay days and blogs using passages taken straight from her personal journal. She interacts with fans on Twitter and snowboards during the off-season. Like her competitors, she is a driven competitor, but she is also an athlete that young surf fans feel they can relate to out of the water.
Courtney Conlogue, 18, Santa Ana, Calif.
The lone mainlander in the top 17, Conlogue earned her WCT status competing on the WQS while also attending high school in Southern California, competing in track and field, and maintaining an intense workout schedule that included surfing, running, dry-land work and boxing. This season, she plans to be part of the opening lineup in 16 contests while competing in both the WCT and WQS tours. The 2009 U.S. Open champion, Conlogue also won a gold medal at the 2009 ISA world championships in Costa Rica, was voted Orange County Surfer of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and, at 14, was the youngest member of the gold-medal-winning team at the 2007 summer X Games. Of these young hotshots, Conlogue might not have the flashiest skills nor the most elite contest experience, but she is certainly the surfer who will out-work and out-want the rest of the field.
Meet the five young surfers to watch in the women's field at the 2011 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach