Things you need to know about the 2021 WSL surfing season leading to the Olympic debut of the sport

John John Florence returns to full-time competition while Carissa Moore hunts for 5th world title in the biggest year of surfing's competitive history 

By Ashlee Tulloch ·

The wait is over. The world's best surfing stars are back.

Friday (4th December) sees the start of the 2021 World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour, with the opening events in Hawaii.

The surfers are raring to go, after a 2020 competition drought in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, the 2021 season is going to be busy, and unlike any year before.

New locations, a new schedule, and an Olympic Games debut in the mix, this season will be eventful.

Olympic bound American Kolohe Andino told Olympic Channel, ''I'm excited to just get back in the jersey and compete. I've been doing it since I was 10 years old, so it feels natural to me. I'm really looking forward to the Olympics and getting to experience that for the first time. I think a lot of the world is looking forward to that."

"I think its going to be a really special year where sports are able to bring people together.'' - Kolohe Andino to Olympic Channel

Travelling will have it's added challenges this season, with the Coronavirus continuing to have an impact, so organiers have outlined that schedule changes are likely along the way. But once the world's best surfers are in the water and competition gets underway, good things are destined.

Here's everything you need to know about the season ahead.

Championship Tour 2021 and Olympic spots on offer

The WSL has drastically changed the format and schedule this season. Traditionally the Championship Tour started in Australia, made its way to Brazil, by July was in South Africa then Europe, and culminated in Hawaii in December. This year flips previous calendars on its head, beginning in Hawaii.

The women's elite season gets underway at Honolua Bay for the Maui Pro from 4th - 15th December.

The men's season starts 8th December at one of surfing's most iconic spots, Banzai Pipeline, for the Billabong Pipe Masters.

Championship Tour (CT) surfers have eleven confirmed events, with two competitions pending dates in Portugal and Indonesia.

As well as a return set for G-Land in Indonesia, the women will return to Teahupo'o in Tahiti for the first time since 2006. The reef break is renowned for being one of the heaviest waves in the world. This comes as part of the WSL's move to have equal events for both men and women. In 2019 they began offering equal prize money.

The 2019 women's runner up Caroline Marks told Olympic Channel, ''This past year made me really appreciate how blessed my lifestyle is. That I get to compete against all my favorite surfers at the best waves in the world."

"It’s also awesome the women are back at Teahupo'o. I think it’s really going to push all of us and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.'' - Caroline Marks

There has also been a complete overhaul of the how the 2021 men's and women's CT world championship titles will be awarded. The WSL Finals will take place at Lower Trestles in California from September 8-17 2021. A new surf-off format will see the top five women and top five men ranked throughout the season compete on a single day for their respective crowns.

Winner takes all. The stakes are high.

Speaking to Olympic Channel on Instagram live, Two-time surfing world champion John John Florence says he's a fan of the new format.

''I think that's super exciting. I think it's going to be a great way to end the year and I think having the world title decided on one day is amazing.

"I think everyone's going to be tuning in to watch. It'll be super exciting and it's an exciting thing to try to qualify for. I love the change of it and I'm excited to try to be in that position.

"Lowers is one of those waves we had on our tour previously and everyone surfed good there. It has a right and left and it's kind of like our skate park, skate park of the surfing tour.''

The 2021 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador adds another competition to a busy calendar. All 28 surfers who have already qualified for Tokyo 2020 must attend to be eligible for the Games. The 12 remaining Olympic spots will be awarded here.

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The Women to watch in the 2021 WSL season

After winning her fourth world tile, 2019 champion Carissa Moore withdrew from the 2020 season to take some time out, but as it turned out, no-one else would compete either.

She's back, and sure to be one of the top women's competitors in the year ahead.

During a live chat with Olympics on Instagram, the 28-year-old shared that she'd become more grateful this year and has enjoyed spending time at home. She's also been working on her aerial game.

''It's an area of my surfing that I definitely want to improve on. The exciting thing is the next generation coming up. They are doing the craziest manoeuvers, so it's nice to know that that next generation has surfing in good hands'' she shared.

Caroline Marks, the 18-year-old American who will be joining Moore at the Olympics in July, finished second in the world in the WSL 2019 standings. She has ambitious hopes for her season.

''My goal is to be in the final event at Lowers, go for the world title, and win a gold medal in the Olympics." - Caroline Marks

"I’m super aware of how gnarly and talented everyone is, and I know it’s going to be really hard. I feel very confident in the work I’ve put in this off season, so I believe that if I surf my best throughout the year I can accomplish my lifetime dreams.'' she added.

Australia's seven time world champion Stephanie Gilmore is sure to be a threat this year too. The 32-year-old has spent time down under, but heads into the new season without her coach of the last few years, Jake Paterson. The former pro surfer retired from coaching in July having worked with Gilmore since 2018.

The Men challenging for CT honours

Big things will be expected of reigning men's world champion Italo Ferreira. The Brazilian won his maiden world title in emphatic fashion at Pipe in December 2019 so he'll be looking to use those good Hawaiian memories to start this season on the same note.

After settling for second behind Ferreira, Gabriel Medina will be even hungrier for a third world title. The 26-year-old has spent most of this year in Brazil at his training institute, but videos from a short stint in the Maldives prove he's not got rusty in his time away from competition.

2020 was supposed to mark the 30th year on tour for surfing legend Kelly Slater. But as with everyone's plans, the 11-time surfing world champion has had to wait. He'll be back on the waves, for what could be the final season.

Slater missed out on securing a place at Tokyo 2020, as fellow American John John Florence finished the 2019 season higher than Slater, despite rupturing his ACL, undergoing surgery and only surfing five events.

John John's return to competition is highly anticipated, as the 28-year-old is one of the key threats to the world title and Olympic gold. Despite being a Hawaiian native, he's had more victories in Brazil than at Pipeline, so there's added incentive to open the season well.

Fellow American and Tokyo qualified surfer Kolohe Andino is yet to win a WSL CT event but has high hopes for this season.

''My focus for 2021 is to stay healthy and injury free. My goal is to Medal in the Olympics and finish top 5 on the world tour.'' - Kolohe Andino

The Rookies

Five surfers are making their CT debuts, and the rookie class of 2021 have a tough ask ahead of them.

Not only have they been anxiously waiting since their spots were confirmed 12 months ago, but Hawaiian waves will be merciless.

Isabella Nichols is the 2015 World Junior champion and Amuro Tsuzuki the first woman from Japan to qualify for the CT. Added pressure comes from the fact her home country is hosting the Games in July 2021.

In the men's, Jack Robinson goes into the Pipe Masters as one of the favourite rookies. The 22-year old is comfortable on several of the tour stops so will be looking to make his mark.

South Africa's Mathew McGillivray had a stellar finish to his 2019 Qualifying Series season in Hawaii, but it'll be a big step up for both him and Australia's Morgan Cibilic, who claimed the last spot in the tour. The 21-year-old and lesser known surfer has little to lose and everything to gain.

2021 international surfing and WSL Championship Tour schedule

(*All events are contested by both women and men, except for Maui Pro and Billabong Pipe Masters.)

December 4-15: Maui Pro presented by ROXY - Maui Hawaii (*Women only)

December 8-20: Billabong Pipe Masters presented by Hydro Flask - Oahu, Hawaii (*Men only)

January 19-28: Sunset Open - Oahu, Hawaii

January 2-12: Santa Cruz Pro - Santa Cruz, California

April 1-11: Rip Curl Pro Bell Beach - Victoria, Australia

April 16-26: Boost Mobile Margaret River Pro - Western Australia

May 3-13: Corona Open Gold Coast presented by Billabong, Gold Coast Australia

May 29-June 6: 2021 ISA World Surfing Games - El Salvador

June 11-20: Oi Rio Pro presented by Corona - Saquarema, Brazil

June 25-July 9: Corona Open J-Bay - South Africa

July 23-August 8: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Tokyo Japan

August 12-15: Surf Ranch Pro - Lemoore, California

August 23-September 2: Outerknown Tahiti Pro - Teahupo'o,Tahiti

September 8-17: The WSL Finals - Lower Trestles, California

Date TBD - Meo Pro Portugal - Peniche, Portugal

Date TBD - Quiksilver Pro G-Land - Indonesia