The month of March opened with a major surfing competition held in Morro Bay as part of the World Surf League (WSL) Qualifying Series.
The competition, termed the SLO CAL Open at Morro Bay, took place from Feb. 21 to March 1 and saw two surfers claim their first ever Qualifying Series (QS) wins.
Seventeen-year-old Taro Watanabe and 20-year-old Izzi Gomez claimed the Men’s and Women’s titles, respectively.
The weekend served as the first appearance for Gomez in either the Semifinals or Finals of a QS event.
“I definitely surprised myself,” Gomez said. “Like, I can’t believe it still. I just feel like I had good momentum and a good connection with the wave and it just, it all worked out.”
For the championship, Gomez faced 14-year-old Sawyer Lindblad, who was just coming off of her first win at the preceding QS event, the SLO CAL Open at Pismo Beach, which took place from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, 2020.
Though Gomez was up against a defending champion, she was able to maintain her calm to finish the heat with a total score of 11.50, beating Lindblad’s final score of 6.00.
“I just knew that if I was on the best waves I would definitely have a good chance of taking out the event,” Gomez said. “I just try not to pay too much attention to my opponents and just focus on the task at hand.”
Although Lindblad came in runner-up, her second QS Finals appearance of 2020 was enough for her to hold her No. 1 place in the North America rankings.
“Unfortunately I didn’t really get the best waves in the final but I still had fun,” Lindblad said. “My brother was in the event too and he really pushes me so it was really fun having him here.”
The Men’s Finals saw 17-year-old Taro Watanabe face QS veteran David do Carmo.
Do Carmo received a priority interference midway through the heat, which meant that he would only be scored on his highest-scoring wave at the end.
The interference came just minutes after Watanabe’s successful backhand attack on his second wave that earned him a score of 8.00. Scoring on only one wave, do Carmo’s highest possible score could be a 10.00 and since Watanabe’s combined score at the time of the interference was above a 10.00, the fight for first place essentially ended there.
When the clock ran out, Watanabe was officially declared the winner, giving him his first-career QS victory.
In a show of support, Women’s Champion Izzi Gomez and her brother came down on the beach and carried Watanabe on their shoulders up to where the award ceremony took place.
“I have no words,” Watanabe said. “I’m just, I’m so happy.”
Earlier that morning in the Semifinals, Watanabe faced his Team USA coach and idol Brett Simpson and came away with the top score.
“It was surreal,” Watanabe said. “I mean, he’s been like a hero of mine and he coaches the U.S. team that I’m on so I know him pretty well now and it was just fun to compete with him.”
WSL qualifying competitions draw talent from not only the United States nationwide, but also from countries across the globe. Over a dozen countries were represented at these two competitions alone, with 96 male and 32 female competitor slots open.
The SLO CAL Open series drew not only international participants, but international audiences as well. As official World Surf League events, the contest was broadcasted live to viewers across the globe. Full broadcasts from each day of the event are still available for viewing on the WSL’s Youtube channel.
“I’d give us an A plus,” said Andy Mckay, president of Surfers of Tomorrow. “I’m so happy. We got lucky with wind, waves, and weather and the surfing was insane and the town embraced us.”
According to Mckay, entry-level professional contests like the SLO CAL Open are more geared toward younger surfers.
“That’s the reason I’m actually wanting to do this,” Mckay said. “I really want to promote younger surfers and help them get into the World Surf League Championship Tour so they need these small events. I’m excited to see the younger kids do well, do so well.”