Sally Fitzgibbons and Matt Banting have been coming to Surfest since their earliest days of dreaming about world tour success.
Now both are heading to Merewether for the February 19-25 main events on the comeback trail after seeing their hopes come “crashing down”.
Fitzgibbons, a three-time runner-up in the world championship, led the 2017 race before the season-ending Maui Pro but was knocked out in the second round by local wildcard Brisa Hennessy. It allowed Culburra’s Tyler Wright, who is returning to Surfest after a seven-year absence, to go on and claim a second consecutive world crown.
The heart-breaking loss left Fitzgibbons, now 27 and starting her 10th year on tour, with an eighth top-four season finish without a maiden world crown. She admitted it was tough coming to terms with the defeat.
“It was like this crescendo to a lot of different things,” Fitzgibbons said. “That feeling of just sitting there in that fairytale that I visualised to happen, and it just didn’t.
“To know at the end of the day the reward is I get to stand back up, put the jersey on again this season and try again, that’s the beauty of it all. And I think just the overwhelming amount of support really just got me back on my board and in the water again.
“It took a couple of weeks where I just rode my twin fin, just sat in the water and I kind of tried to digest it. It was pretty tricky, for all that to come crashing down. It’s such a big emotional, mental ride as well as the physical. Just the end of the year as well, it all kind of releases and pours out.
“It was brilliant, though, that after everything, I go back to the ocean and let it be my comfort. I was just in the water a lot over Christmas, and with people I love, and on boards and riding waves, which is why I definitely started this journey.”
She starts her competitive year in Newcastle against a class field featuring 13 of the top 18 ranked surfers, including of course Wright, at the Grandstand Sports Clinic Women's Pro – a 6000-point event on the World Surf League qualifying series.
“It’s so good to see the top seeds there,” said Fitzgibbons, who meets wildcard trials winner Alysse Cooper in the round of 48. “Obviously it’s close to home for us Aussies and it's a good way to start the year. I just love coming to Newy, and these match-ups are such good intel. Just to check out what needs to happen in your own performance to really match it with the best.”
The Gerroa product, champion at Surfest in 2016 and 2012 and also a pro junior winner, is arguably the carnival’s most popular visitor. And the feeling is mutual.
“It just feels awesome, just walking down the beach, it feels like a second home,” she said. “And that support for women’s surfing – I still really have that memory of when I had that final with Steph [Gilmore] a couple of years back. The whole beach was packed and to see people lining the boardwalk, those moments are in the memory chest and just present … they pull me back each time and just remind me how special it is to compete in Australia.”
For Banting, the 2014 men’s champion, the road back to Surfest has been much longer.
The Port Macquarie natural-footer burst onto the championship tour in 2015 but missed the second half of the season with a knee injury. He returned in 2016 but was sidelined again that December and spent more than a year recovering from osteitis pubis, an inflammation of the pubic bone and surrounding muscle.
Now 23, Banting returned to competition last week for the first time in 14 months at the 1000-point Great Lakes Pro, where he made a semi-final exit.
He was determined to kick-start his shot at a comeback to the CT at the 6000-point Burton Automotive Pro after a break which included losing his major sponsor and working part-time concreting with his dad.
“It was all on the up for me, but as soon as I got to the back half of 2016, I just started feeling it in America and it got worse and worse,” Banting said. “I powered through it and tried to surf heats the rest of the year with a bit of pain and everything. Quiksilver ended up dropping me at the end of the year when my contract was up as well.
“Everything was up until then, then it all come crashing down pretty hard. Then I had all of last year to sit around and think about it and reassess.
“It's kind of re-lit the fire within me and I just want to get back going, get back on the CT, get that winning feeling again and get some money behind me and be successful.
“There's not much I could really do about it, being forced to sit out. I've just got to take it as part of God's plan and move forward.”
Banting avoided surgery but took anti-inflammatory drugs for about eight months before a third scan showed swelling around the pubic bone had finally died down. The condition, more common in football and AFL players, kept Banting out of all surfing for nine months and forced him to change his approach to training.
“I think I kind of created it from some exercises in the gym, doing heavy weights, rugby league kind of training,” he said. “Now I'm off all that and just doing a lot of core work, just stretching and more functional stuff, which is good.
“I’m just getting the core strong again and I’ve got into bike riding, swimming, running, things like that.”
Happy with his return at Boomerang Beach last week, Banting was hoping to “channel some of that 2014” at Surfest when he beat Nathan Hedge in the final with two nine-point rides.
“I can always take some confidence from that win there,” he said. “I had a couple of good results back in the juniors there as well. Other than Boomerang and places like that, it's the closest meaningful event to home. I've got some family there as well, and after having the past year off competitively, I'm hungrier than ever to get some good results in these next few.”
Banting, a wildcard, will start in the round of 144 against Soli Bailey, Joshua Burke and Andy Criere.
World No.5 Matt Wilkinson, the 2016 winner, is the top seed, ahead of training partner Owen Wright.
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