In a week when there's been too much to mourn, there was something to celebrate on the bluffs of Cascais Wednesday, as Australia's Nikki Van Dijk earned her first-ever Championship Tour win in an unpredictable lineup at Praia do Guincho.
This idyllic, windswept outcrop on the west coast of Portugal is a Mecca for surfers, cyclists and romantics who welcome sides of sangria and sunsets with their waves, dunes and open sky. But this week, in the wake of tragedies in the U.S. and France, plus political unrest nearby, it unwittingly became a much-needed oasis of beauty and idyll. Where taming an unruly beach break was the biggest hurdle to overcome, and sunburn and sand storms the only threats. And where, no matter what else may be happening beyond this gem of a beach, hard work, self-belief and personal triumph still matter.
Since qualifying for the CT in 2014, Van Dijk has had her share of ups and downs. In 2014 and 2016, she relied on her Qualifying Series rank to keep her elite Tour spot; her previous best year-end finish was World No. 9 (where No. 11 and below do not re-qualify). In something of a turning point for the 22-year-old, she arrived in Portugal ranked No. 7 on the Jeep Leaderboard, and will be departing ranked No. 5 -- her best to date. In the Final battle, she topped three-time World Champion Carissa Moore, who still jumps two full spots up the rankings, from No. 9 to No. 7.
Not only did Van Dijk's win today mark a personal coup, but it also threw a huge wrench into the World Title race. On her way to the Final, she took down current World No. 1 and fellow Australian Sally Fitzgibbons in Semifinal 1. For Van Dijk, it was a show of what she could do in wild surf, with essentially no pressure. For Fitzgibbons, however, it was a painful stumble in what could have been a chance to sprint out ahead of the rest of the pack.
With her major opponent -- World No. 2 Courtney Conlogue -- already eliminated from the event, Fitzgibbons had a wide-open door through which to step and gain some ground in a close race. And while she'll be the frontrunner when she paddles out at the Roxy Pro France in just a few days, losing in the Semis was still short of what Fitzgibbons had in mind for herself.
"It's a bit tough at the moment," she said afterward. "I really thought I'd done enough coming in from that heat. It was one of those heats that I thought I surfed really well, so to hear those scores and not come in with the win is a challenge, but something I'll learn from. It felt good that my surfing stepped up from the Quarterfinals, but it just wasn't to be today."
Other standouts Thursday included Malia Manuel, who's getting her groove back after a knee injury derailed her season. She took down fellow Kauai local Tatiana Weston-Webb in the Quarters in a well-matched heat, which she won by a mere 0.77 of a point. And despite losing some steam in the Final, Moore also achieved a season-best in Cascais, with her top result of 2017 so far.
Perhaps like a lot of the onlookers on the beach today, Moore was savoring the experience, beyond the scores. "It's been an up and down year so I'm so stoked just to make it past the Quarterfinals," said Moore. "The Final was just the cherry on top of a great day."
The Top 17 head to Hossegor for the next contest almost immediately; tune in for the first day of the Roxy Pro France this Saturday, October 7.