After the 2023 WSL Championship Tour, I penned a piece summarizing how bizarre the season had been for pro surfing. Among many reasons, I cited the mysterious dismissal of former CEO Erik Logan, Filipe Toledo’s confirmed fear of the Olympic venue, and the oddly subpar performances of usual standouts (particularly the men) like Italo Ferreira, John John Florence, and Kanoa Igarashi.
That bizarreness intensified when the all-time-greats Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore elected to leave the tour for at least a year. So, with the many unique storylines lofting in the air ahead of the 2024 season’s inauguration at Pipeline, there’s plenty to discuss. Here are five interesting plots and my predictions of how they’ll play out on the 2024 CT.
Who will fill the power vacuum left by Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore?
While Carissa Moore came up short in the Final 5 format in each of the previous two seasons, no one will argue against the fact that she’s been the best overall woman on tour by a decent margin for several years now.
But with Moore and Gilmore gone, who’s going to fill the power void? It seems all but left for the exciting, young crop of female stars to seize.
Many might look at the reigning world champ Caroline Marks as the prodigy to fill the emptiness, which is not a bad take. But I have my eyes fixed on the soft-spoken 18-year-old from Oceanside, California: Caity Simmers.
Have you seen how fast she has progressed in the past two seasons? I’ve believed in Simmers’ talents ever since I watched her win the ISA Juniors in 2018. She has it all – turns, airs, barrel-riding skills, style. I wouldn’t be surprised if she truly comes into her own in 2024. It seems only a matter of time before she has a few world titles of her own.
Prediction: Caitlin Simmers will fill the void and become the consensus best female competitive surfer in 2024.
The world titles are as wide open as they’ve been for some time.
Particularly without Moore and Gilmore, I reckon that the list of world title contenders is as long this year as it has been in recent memory – for both men and women. I already mentioned that Simmers or Marks could win it for the women. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see Tyler Wright, Molly Picklum, or Tatiana Weston-Webb in the mix.
But the men’s side is even more of a mystery. In 2023, many of the names that we’ve come to expect to perform, simply did not show up. Gabriel Medina, John John Florence, Italo Ferreira, Kanoa Igarashi, and Jordy Smith all failed to put together complete seasons up to their standards. Instead, hungry up-and-comers like Joao Chianca, Ethan Ewing, Griffin Colapinto, and Jack Robinson were consistently better surfers than many of their world-title holding counterparts.
Will we see the old guard re-stake their claim in 2024, or was 2023 a sign that the future generation has firmly arrived? Will Filipe Toledo continue his dominance at Lower Trestles for a three-peat?
Winning three world-titles in a row is such a mental and physical challenge that I’d expect some regression from Toledo this year. And while I think that last year’s surprising crop of young surfers is here to stay, I also conjecture that we’ll see Medina, Florence, and Ferreira reassert themselves as title contenders in 2024. If I had to put money on it, I’d say Medina will remind us all what he’s made of this year.
Prediction: Medina becomes a four-time champ. Simmers becomes a first-time champ.
Is this finally the farewell tour for Kelly Slater?
I love watching Kelly Slater surf. Throughout my life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more emotionally attached to a surfer’s performance than Kelly. I genuinely want to see him win.
And as a wildcard recipient for the 2024 season, it’s still mind boggling that he can compete at the highest level at 51 years old. A few seasons ago, I was (maybe stubbornly) attributing Kelly’s increasingly disappointing performances to bad luck, injuries, and poor conditions. But last season he simply looked outmatched by his competition, even in the tour stops that you would expect him to excel like Teahupo’o and Pipeline.
He’s still probably the standout of most freesurf sessions in heavy waves, but competition-wise, he has looked outmatched for a while. There would be nothing better for surfing than a Slater resurgence, however, I think we are finally seeing the last of the GOAT in a jersey.
Prediction: Kelly will surf his last CT season in 2024. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make guest appearances at his wave pool in the years to come.
Will the new CT class make an impact?
In my opinion, thus far the new Challenger Series format has been a success. At least for the men, it has opened the door for surfers from countries with less resources to enter the CT. It’s no coincidence that since implementing the new format surfers like Rio Waida from Indonesia, Ramzi Boukhiam from Morocco, and Lucca Mesinas from Peru have made the tour.
But the new crops of athletes have also proven fairly successful, underlining that the system is bringing quality talent to the tour. In 2023, 60 percent of the new men and women qualifiers made it past the mid-season cut. In 2022, fifty percent of the female and 58 percent of the male qualifiers made the cut. If you ask me, more than half of the new call-ups showing that they belong on the tour is pretty impressive. For those who criticize the Challenger Series, it’s hard to call that a failure.
The year 2024 has some intriguing names coming up, particularly for the men. Eli Hanneman and the new crop of Californians (Cole Houshmand, Crosby Colapinto, Kade Matson, and Jake Marshall) are capable of making an impact. On the women’s side I’m less confident. There is the re-qualification of Sally Fitzgibbons, who is hard to count out even in the latter stages of her career, but I don’t see this new female class unseating many of the incumbent surfers.
Prediction: The new crop of surfers on the men’s CT will be impactful and make the cut at over a 50 percent rate. For the women, it will be less than 50 percent.
Women’s surfing needs some international spice.
Over the past decade or two, surfing talent has largely been consolidated into the world’s great surfing powers: Australia, the U.S., and Brazil. However, for the 2024 women’s CT class, the lack of diversity is particularly extreme. The pinnacle of professional women’s surfing is not becoming more global, but less.
France’s Johanne Defay is the only woman who is not American or Australian by birth on the CT this year. (I know Costa Rica’s Brisa Hennessy and Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb and Luana Silva have switched countries for Olympic motives, but for all intents and purposes, they became pro surfers in Hawaii.)
The days of having influential women on the CT from outside the U.S. or Australia seem a thing of the past. Currently, there is no equivalent of Silvana Lima, Sofia Mulanovich, or Bianca Buitendag. I don’t think this is necessarily good for the sport and perhaps indicative of a wider problem of support for female surfing outside of the U.S. and Australia.
The Olympics, which incentivize other countries to invest in women’s surfing given the limited quotas per country, should help this disparity sometime down the line. There are some glimmers of hope who just missed out on qualification, namely Nadia Erostarbe from Spain and Vahine Fierro from France via Tahiti. Canada’s Erin Brooks (yes, she is still listed as Canadian on the WSL’s site) is knocking on the door, but again, she’s also a U.S. passport holder who pulled the Olympic-fueled ‘country switching’ maneuver.
Prediction: In the near term, the U.S. and Australia will continue to dominate women’s surfing. In the long term – five to 10 years – we will see many more countries join the fray.