Two weeks ago Australian Sally Fitzgibbons pulled on her first contest jersey of the 2012 ASP World Tour season at Manly beach, in northern Sydney, Australia, for the Australian Open of Surfing. When she pulled it off, she was sitting in first place -- her first contest win since the U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, Calif. in August 2011.
The 2011 ASP Women's World Tour No. 2 surfer has been deadly so far at the Roxy Gold Coast Pro -- the first official contest of the ASP season -- fending off some of the hottest rookies on the tour. Surfing with a specially designed cast on an injured left wrist hasn't slowed her advance through six heats to Sunday's semifinals.
"I was in Fiji last December and hit the reef at Cloudbreak, fracturing my wrist," explains Fitzgibbons. "They didn't think it was that bad at first but it wasn't getting better. I had it X-rayed and yeah, it was fractured. It was definitely worth it though because we scored some amazing waves. But I found out the reef isn't very forgiving. I've had the whole Australian summer [December to February] just sweating it out with a cast on my arm so all my training has been out of the water."
The training out of the water didn't quite go according to plan. When we showed up at Surfing Australia's High Performance Centre, she looked like the walking wounded with her right leg and ankle heavily strapped.
"I guess if you looked at me then I looked a bit battered and bruised. I currently have ... some things going on with my knees and my foot -- injuries were sustained during other training. I'm still trying to find that balance in the preseason between pushing it and just building a base of fitness. [Laughs] I guess I haven't quite got it right just yet."
Fitzgibbons keeps fit and trains with her coach, former World Tour surfer, Dan Ross, who is often at her side during the world tour events. Ross helped carry her through the crowd when Fitzgibbons had her first ever World Tour win at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in April last year -- a win that had been a long time coming.
"I'd been getting all those close seconds," says Fitzgibbons. "It was something different each time I lost ... I was dealing with a lot of people saying, 'Oh, you can't win an event,' or giving me the 'bridesmaid' tag. I had to put all that aside. I always felt that when the time was right it would all come together in a special way. My coach Dan Ross was saying, 'When it happens it will be perfect.' And I was going, 'Yeah, right. You're full of s---.' [Laughs] I was thinking it was never going to happen."
But happen it did, and at the end of the 2011 Tour she finished a nail-biting second to Hawaiian Carissa Moore in the World Title race. And though throughout history professional surfing has always had its champion-level rivalries (Slater vs. Irons, Curren vs. Carroll, Beachley vs. Andersen), the one between between Moore and Fitzgibbons that has been budding over the past two years looks to be one of the most dramatic matchups to come.
"Having Carissa right there over the last few years has been interesting," says Fitzgibbons. "We've been going back and forth with results. Last year I had an unbelievable season with three wins, but she was right there with me. It was devastating to come so close to winning the title. I had to keep taking it back to what I had achieved through the year and how I'd stepped it up from the year before. That was the only way I could deal with finishing runner-up."
Coming into the Roxy Pro at Snapper Rocks last week, Moore was the No. 1 seed with Fitzgibbons No. 2, and four-time World Champion Stephanie Gilmore coming in at No. 3. Adding to the excitement of the Tour this season are rookies Sage Erickson, Lakey Peterson and Hawaiian Malia Manuel, who have already shown they're more than ready to mix things up.
Gilmore, who wasn't on a Title hunt in 2011, spent the season watching the Moore vs. Fitzgibbons rivalry unfold.
"I think Sally is really buzzing off her results last year, her confidence is really sky high," says Gilmore. "She's such an athlete and I think at Snapper she is going to put on a good show."
"This year I'm sure Carissa and I are going to go at it again," says Fitzgibbons, "but there a couple of young rookies who aren't that experienced, but are going to flare up and show everyone what they're capable of doing, and they are bound to cause some upsets."
Fitzgibbons acknowledges that she wants a good result here at the Roxy Pro.
"It's going to be another short season so I want to hit the ground running. It's my sponsor's [Roxy] event as well and they've been running this big 'Go Sally' campaign so there's a lot of pressure to do well. I just want to go in there and just explode and throw everything at the tour -- I've only got six months to get the results I want."
Thus far, Fitzgibbons has put on an insane show at Snapper Rocks. When the Roxy Gold Coast Pro continues, her encore will be facing Gilmore in the semifinal. And you can be sure she'll be back to fifth gear for that.