Giant Steps: 14-year-old Malia Manuel Wins Historic Women’s Final

Imagine you’re a 14-year-old girl. You’ve been given a wildcard in the U.S. Open. Of course, you’re extremely excited, and understandably a little nervous.

You’re from a sleepy town in Hawaii, and the crowd at Huntington looks like the scene of a rock concert in Honolulu. But you try not to think too much. You just surf.

Next thing you know, you’re in the Quarterfinals. The Quarterfinals! It feels like a dream, not a reality. You’re a sophomore in high school.

Now, imagine you draw a former World Champ in the Quarters. Currently, she’s ranked number one in the world. But you beat her. You make the Semifinals. OMG!

After that, you draw the top female surfer in the world under the age of eighteen. Everything’s happening really fast. You don’t have your driver’s license yet. You beat her, too.

You find yourself in the final at the 2008 Honda U.S. Open of Surfing presented by O’Neill. To top it all off, you’re surfing in the final against one of your good friends from Hawaii. Oh, and she’s only 17-years-old. The two of you are making history on several levels.

So wait, can you imagine any of this? I can’t either.

But let’s rewind.

Competition for the Women kicked off early, with the Quarters and the Semis first thing and the Final later in the afternoon.

The first heat set the precedent, as 14-year-old Malia Manuel took out Sofia Mulanovich in the Quarters. That upset would only be the first of a string of shockers.

Young Aussie prodigy Sally Fitzgibbons (who recently qualified for the ’09 WCT the fastest that any man or woman ever has) beat out her elder Sam Cornish, who had a rough heat, not posting a score over a point.

Reigning World Champ Steph Gilmore met Hawaiian Bethany Hamilton, and Hamilton was ahead with less than half the heat left. But that time wasn’t enough, as Gilmore came to life with a strong series of power carves and hits for an 8.5 to advance.

And Hawaiians Coco Ho and Melanie Bartels battled it out. Coco put up an 8.33 right off the bat by blasting a big backside floater and kept the momentum from there to take the heat. “I knew what Mel’s capable of,” said Coco, who’s 17-years-old. “It just came down to who got a wave with an open wall, and I got one right off the bat. The current is tough, so I was just constantly paddling.”

“This is only my third ‘QS event of my career,” Coco continued. “My goal was to just make the Quarters, and I upped that. I’m really excited.”

At the end of the Quarters, no one over 20 was going into the Semis.

The Semis saw Malia vs. Fitzgibbons, and Coco vs. Steph Gilmore. And after solid exchanges in both heats, the median age once again dropped. Malia and Coco headed to the final. “I was going to bed last night thinking it would be a miracle,” said Malia. “I’m just trying to go out and have fun, this is my first 6-star. But Huntington is tricky, and anything could happen.”

A couple stats about the final: 1) it was the youngest Women’s final in U.S. Open history, and 2) the only wahine final featuring two Hawaiians.

Meanwhile, in the spare hours between the Semis and Finals, Coco found time to win the ultra competitive Junior Women’s title (go here for the full scoop on that), so she was entering the final with a full head of steam.

But the conditions were pretty poor and bumpy for the finale, due to tide and gusty wind, so competitive strategy and wave selection was crucial. And the break’s no cakewalk to begin with. “It’s very shifty,” Malia said, “you can’t just go out there with a set plan and sit in one spot. There are lulls and there are big sets, and everything moves around. You have to stay on your feet.”

And that she did. On the first decent set, Malia worked a right all the way through to the inside, and capped the ride with a huge hit on an imploding section of whitewater. Coco was unable to find a good ride early, but eventually found a left, on which she threw down a nice backside floater. But Malia quickly answered, cementing her lead, and by the five-minute mark, Coco needed a hefty 8.17 with five minutes remaining.

As the horn blew, Malia took home the Women’s title, $4500, a jetski (although the keys went to her parents, as she’s still two years away from getting a driver’s license), 2500 WQS points, and endless respect. “I couldn’t even soak in that I made the final until I was paddling out,” said Malia. “Coco is such a great surfer. We surf against each other in the NSSA and have become good friends.” The two are actually heading to Indo this week together, along with Steph Gilmore and some other girls.

“There’s so much talk about the new generation of women surfers coming up,” said Gilmore, prior to the final. “Today really proves that. This contest made me feel old [laughs].”

The fairy tale finish just proves that anything can and will happen at the U.S. Open. All you have to do is imagine it. –By Mike Fish

For a complete photo gallery of today’s action, click here.