Surfest 2018: Sally Fitzgibbons and Matt Banting out to bounce back

Sally FitzgibbonsSally Fitzgibbons and Matt Banting have been coming toSurfest 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.ItallowedCulburra’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 10thyear 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 Ivisualisedto happen, and itjust 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’sthe beauty of it all.And I think just the overwhelming amount of support really just gotme back on my board and in the water again.

Sally Fitzgibbons winning Surfest in 2016

“It took a couple of weeks where I just rode my twin fin, just sat in the water and I kind of triedto digest it. It was pretty tricky,for all that to come crashing down. It’s such abig emotional, mental ride as well as thephysical.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 Ilove, and on boards and riding waves, which is why I definitelystarted this journey.”

Shestarts her competitive year in Newcastleagainst a class field featuring13 of the top 18 ranked surfers, including of courseWright, at theGrandstand Sports Clinic Women’s Pro –a 6000-point event on the World Surf Leaguequalifying 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 happenin 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,isarguably the carnival’smost 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 .”

For Banting, the 2014 men’s champion,theroad back to Surfest has been much longer.

Matt Banting at Surfest 2014

The Port Macquarie natural-footer burst onto thechampionship tour in 2015 but missed the second half of the season with a knee injury. He returned in 2016butwas sidelined again thatDecember andspent more than a yearrecovering 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 hemade a semi-final exit.

He wasdetermined to kick-start his shot at acomeback to the CTat the 6000-point Burton Automotive Pro after a break which included losing his major sponsor andworking part-time concreting with his dad.

“It was all on the up for me, but as soon as I got tothe 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.”

Matt Banting at Surfest 2014

Banting avoided surgery but took anti-inflammatory drugsfor about eight months beforea thirdscan showed swellingaround 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’vegot into bike riding, swimming, running, things like that.”

Happy with his return at Boomerang Beach last week, Banting washoping to “channel some of that 2014” at Surfestwhenhe 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 AndyCriere.

World No.5 Matt Wilkinson, the 2016 winner, is the top seed, ahead of training partner Owen Wright.