HUNTINGTON BEACH – Two underdogs took home this year’s U.S. Open of Surfing titles Sunday, with small surf and long lulls causing frustration and struggle for the more experienced surfers who were whittled down through the day.
Both the men’s and women’s win went to surfers working their way up the ranks, with France’s Johanne Defay taking her first World Tour victory over veteran Sally Fitzgibbons of Australia, and Hiroto Ohhara becoming the first surfer from Japan to earn a U.S. Open title – both winners taking out big names and local favorites along the way.
Ohhara and and fellow finalist Tanner Hendrickson of Hawaii both entered the event as alternates, only earning spots when bigger names dropped out. Ohhara’s win is being called the biggest victory in the sport’s history for a Japanese surfer.
Four Orange County surfers started the day with hopes of a U.S. Open title, but a fickle ocean stopped all of them short of the podium. Two, Huntington Beach’s Kanoa Igarashi and Santa Ana’s Courtney Conlogue, made it to the semifinals before facing elimination.
The water on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier was quiet as Igarashi and San Clemente’s Nate Yeomans met up in their quarterfinal match in the early morning, the first heat on the final day of competition.
Nearly ten minutes passed before the first viable wave began to form, and just seconds before the clock on the 35-minute heat would have reset due to the lack of action, both competitors stood up, splitting the wave.
Yeomans made the first splash on the board with a 5.17 ride to the right. And although Igarashi found virtually nothing to the left, he caught his second wave just seconds later, challenging Yeomans’ lead with a 5.33.
Another 14 minutes went by as the pair sat idly in the water.
Igarashi, the event’s youngest competitor at 17, found two mid-range waves before finding his fifth wave with five minutes to go, pulling off four powerful snaps for an 8.67. He clinched his fists with excitement as the wave ended, knowing he got the score he needed.
Yeomans wasn’t able to get a score to overtake Igarashi, who was runner-up in the junior semifinals on Saturday.
By the end of the men’s quarterfinals, Igarashi was the only Orange County survivor as San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino was defeated by Hendrickson, 13.26 to 7.93.
Andino, who finished second to Brazil’s Alejo Muniz in 2013, struggled to land his air maneuvers, garnering mere low to mid-range scores. His highest scored wave was a 4.00, which he rode to the right with one dull turn before attempting an air reverse in the shallow water as he neared the sand after the reform.
In the women’s semifinal, the difference for a win came down to just .01 points, with Defay on the winner’s side with a 12.17 over South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag’s 12.16 score.
Conlogue came up against Fitzgibbons, both women in contention for a world title this year. With Hawaii’s Carissa Moore having an early exit, Conlogue propelled to the top of the rankings and sits No. 1 in the world. Fitzgibbons, surfing with a helmet on because of a busted ear drum, is ranked third.
With the ocean again going flat, nearly 10-minutes passed before Fitzgibbons could find a small wave to take, earning a 4.0. She kept busy earning mid-range scores by picking off small waves, eventually building her score to 11.83.
Conlogue sat without a score as the clock neared the 15-minute mark, playing the waiting game by the pier for a wave to show up. She changed strategy by paddling south, finding only a 2.17 for her first wave after wiping out in the white water at the end of her ride.
Conlogue was able to get a solid second wave, a 5.23, but still sat in second spot. With the fickle conditions showing no potential for scores, Conlogue’s run was over.
Hendrickson took out last year’s winner Filipe Toledo from Brazil in the semifinals. Toledo took off on 11 waves through the heat trying to earn the score, but Hendrickson led the heat with a 13.24 over Toledo’s 12.34. As the Brazilian took a buzzer-beater wave, Hendrickson waited in anticipation for the score, jumping up and down and putting his face in his hands when he heard Toledo’s wave wasn’t enough and he’d move into the finals.
“Beating that kid was the highlight of my life,” Hendrickson said. “I look up to him so much and he surfs so well.”
The tide turned for Igarashi as he went up against Ohhara in the semifinals, with the local surfer coming up just .34 short. Igarashi caught just three waves over the 40-minute heat, while Ohhara rode eight.
After getting his first look on a 3-point wave in the opening five minutes, Igarashi waited nearly 20 more before his second came. He rode it to a 6.73, putting him within a reasonable 6.78 reach of Ohhara with 17 minutes to get the job done.
He stood up for his third wave about four minutes later, riding right with two decent turns before riding the reform left to squeeze in two more much sharper, vertical snaps.
Igarashi went the remaining 10-plus minutes without another opportunity, settling for the 13.16 losing score.
“I’m pretty bummed,” he said, “but I gotta look at the big picture.”
Igarashi’s semifinal run and equal-third finish was a step beyond his fifth-round finish in 2014, which was the first year he had competed in both the men’s main event and junior men’s.
“I made a couple mistakes in that heat, but each year I try and lessen my mistakes,” he said. “I’m bummed my run stopped here, but I’m still really stoked with the result.”
In the women’s final, Defay held an early lead with a 7.67 earned with a wave with that ended with a huge snap on the inside section near the pier. Fitzgibbons held just a 2.57 score through much of the heat until she found a solid wave around the 14-minute mark, pulling off three turns to tighten the gap with a 4.83.
Fitzgibbons took a short lead at the 6-minute mark, flipping her board around on the first turn and sliding her way to the reform, ripping on the inside section and pumping her fists as she ended the wave. The score was a 7.0, but without a solid second score, she came up short to Defay’s 13.54 total.
Defay, 21 and on only her second year on tour, now jumps in the rankings from 11th to 6th in the world and is the first French woman to win a World Tour event. She earned $60,000 for her win.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Defay, who said the win was the biggest moment in her career. “It’s a massive event. I can’t believe I got a win today.”
The men’s title was at Hendrickson’s fingertips with a 12.90 to 10.50 advantage as the final winded down until Ohhara made a late surge.
Ohhara caught a wave with four minutes on the clock that looked to be at least the 7.57 he needed to replace his second-wave score and take the lead. He rode left as water sprayed off the tail of his board with each of the three crisp snaps, then finished it off to the right with one more sharp turn.
The judges awarded the wave with a 9.17, propelling Ohhara him past Hendrickson to wrap the men’s main event with a 14.50.
So what is Ohhara, 18, planning on doing with his $100,000 winnings?
“Try to get my driver’s license and get some cars,” he said with a smile.