Surfing's biggest year yet: Who to watch as the 2019 World Surf League gets underway

Kelly Slater is back for possibly his last title attempt while Steph Gilmore is ready to lead a new generation of female surfers into the record books.

By Ashlee Tulloch ·

2019 is a huge year for surfing as the sport preparing to make its Olympic debut.

And the countdown to Tokyo 2020 is well and truly on with the new season also the start of the Olympic qualification period.

This year's World Surf League features equal prize money for men and women, plus changes to the Championship Tour.

Here's all you need to know.

Olympic competition and qualification

  • 40 surfers will compete on Tsurigasaki Beach, Japan next year: 20 men and 20 women.
  • A maximum of two surfers per gender permitted for each country (National Olympic Committee).
  • Qualification spots are earned on an individual basis.
  • As the host country, Japan is guaranteed one spot per gender.
  • 18 places are up for grabs during the WSL 2019 Championship Tour surfers: 8 for women and 10 for men.
  • The CT end of year rankings will decide who gets those 18 spots.
  • The 22 remaining places will be determined at the 2019 and 2020 ISA World Surfing Games and the 2019 Pan American Games.

The Olympic Games test event - Ready, Steady, Tokyo - run by the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee will be held from 18-21 July 2019 at Tsurigasaki Beach.

WSL Championship Tour format revamp

The Championship Tour is the annual elite surfing competition, where one woman and one man are crowned overall title winners.

The 2019 season starts in April instead of March, to give athletes a longer break between seasons.

The women's schedule is now more closely aligned with the men's with events for both genders at the Meo Pro Peniche in Portugal.

Changes have also been made to the tour format in a bid to make competitions more entertaining.

From Round 3 onwards, there will only be one-on-one contests with the aim of running competitions with the best possible conditions.

"We believe that going straight to head-to-head match-ups from Round 3 onwards will drive more direct competition while making the format more engaging for viewers," explained Sophie Goldschmidt, CEO of WSL.

See details schedules below:

Men's 2019 WSL competition format
Women's WSL 2019 competition format

Same sport - same wage

Surfing's governing body announced in September 2018 that they would award equal prize money in 2019.

The WSL's new policy helps close the gender pay gap which has long been a hot topic in the waves.

"This is a huge step forward in our long-planned strategy to elevate women's surfing and we are thrilled to make this commitment." - Sophie Goldschmidt, World Surf League CEO

The first Championship Tour event to award equal prize money, the Pro Gold Coast, starts on 3 April in Queensland, Australia.

Goldschmidt added, "This is the latest in a series of actions the League has undertaken to showcase our female athletes, from competing on the same quality waves as the men, to better locations, and increased investment and support."

Women to watch

Stephanie Gilmore will once again be the one to beat.

The Aussie claimed a record-equaling seventh world title in 2018, earning her the nickname, Queen.

The 31-year old is a technical expert and arguably the most dominant women’s surfer in history.

After winning her first world title in 2007, she retained the crown for the next three years.

Gilmore has always reaped praise from her peers, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.

''Steph is just the best,'' he told Stab ahead of her last world title win.

''In the right conditions Stephanie could win heats (on the Men's Championship Tour).'' - Kelly Slater talking to Stab

USA's Lakey Peterson put up a good fight for the championship in 2018, but had to settle for second after a disappointing finale in Hawaii.

Despite that setback, it was a great year for the 24-year-old who ended a win drought of almost six years on the Championship Tour.

After taking the 2018 opener on the Gold Coast, Peterson triumphed again in Bali and was runner-up in Brazil and South Africa.

Now that the American has tasted success, there's every chance she could build on her second overall placing in 2019.

And when it comes to her Olympic ambitions - there's no question she's got Tokyo in her sights. Check out our interview with her below.

Unfinished family business

World number 2 surfer Lakey Peterson has the same competitive drive that ma...

Caroline Marks is a name you'll be hearing more about.

The 17-year-old impressed in 2018, finishing seventh overall in her first season on the Championship Tour. And as if being the youngest ever male or female surfer in history to make the world tour wasn't enough, she was named Rookie of the Year as well.

She's in good company with former pro surfer Mike Parsons as her coach. The American also coaches Lakey Peterson and men's CT surfer Kolohe Andino.

Marks has already kicked off this year with a victory, retraining her Florida Pro title in January.

The leading men

Brazil's dominance could well continue this year with 2018 world champion Gabriel Medina leading the charge and Felipe Toledo hot on his tail.

The high-flying Medina has been called ‘the Cristiano Ronaldo of surfing’ and clinched his second world title last year, four years after claiming his country's first surfing world title.

The 25-year-old was given a homecoming parade in December and continued celebrations with his friend, football star Neymar.

He's also made the most of his off-season, hanging out with France's 2018 FIFA World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe.

Medina is also a basketball fan, and took in some training sessions with Steph Curry and his NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors.

The tactical and consistent surfer isn't just a favourite in the water, with 7.6 million followers following his every move on Instagram.

And Medina could find life tougher this year with the return of one of his biggest rivals.

John John Florence is making his comeback from a knee injury which saw him miss over half of last season.

The two-time world champion was given a wildcard entry for the 2019 CT after partially tearing the anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) in his right knee in Bali in June 2018.

The 26-year-old has kept himself busy over the last 10 months.

As well pursuing his film and photography interests, he came second in the Molokaʻi-2-Oʻahu Paddleboard World Championships, and sailed in the Sydney to Hobart race.

Florence has also been environmentally active, trying to reduce the amount of plastic being used by restaurants in his home of Hawaii.

As far as his surfing goes, he was still wearing a knee brace in February.

But since then, he has been training at Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch and testing a variety of boards ahead of the season opener on 3 April.

The second injury wildcard was handed to 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.

The undisputed king of surfing has been on and off the tour and battling for form since breaking his foot in South Africa in June 2017.

Before the injury, the 47-year-old had said he wanted one last crack at a 12th world title before retiring.

Despite holding the record for being the youngest and oldest world champion in men’s history – winning his first title as a 20-year-old in 1992, and his last at 38 years old 2011, Slater is considered an underdog for the title in 2019.

And he still hopes to compete at surfing's Olympic debut in Tokyo.

He told the Herald in February, "Olympic qualification is on my mind.''

Last year, he stated his intention to surf in Japan and carry on for many years to come.

Kelly Slater: I want to surf until I’m 70

Surfing legend Kelly Slater also wants to represent USA at Tokyo 2020. See ...

Championship Tour Schedules

2019 Men's Championship Tour Schedule

Gold Coast Men's Pro: 3-13 April

Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach: 17-27 April

Bali Men's Pro: 13-24 May

Margaret River Pro: 27 May - 7 June

Oi Rio Pro: 20-28 June

J-Bay Open: 9-22 July

Tahiti Pro Teahupo'o: 21 August - 1 September

Surf Ranch Pro: 19-22 September

France Men's Pro: 3-13 October

Meo Pro Peniche: 16-28 October

Billabong Pipe Masters: 8-20 December

2019 Women's Championship Tour Schedule

Gold Coast Women's Pro: 3-13 April

Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach: 17-27 April

Bali Women's Pro: 13-24 May

Margaret River Pro: 27 May - 7 June

Oi Rio Pro: 20-28 June

J-Bay Open: 9-22 July

Surf Ranch Pro: 19-22 September

France Women's Pro: 3-13 October

Meo Pro Peniche: 16-28 October

Hawaii Women's Pro: 25 November - 7 December