2004 world champion Sofia Mulanovich (pictured below) proved her status as a legitimate world title contender has not wavered, with a super-solid 30 minute display in round five of the WQS division of the Roxy Women’s Surfing Festival.

In highly contestable 1.5 metre waves at Flynn’s Reef, Phillip Island, Peruvian Victoria Mulanovich’s excellent opening ride of 8.83 put her in pole position from the outset versus defending champion, Gold Coast-based favourite Stephanie Gilmore, Laurina McGrath (Byron Bay, NSW, AUS) and Sarah Beardmore (Ballina, NSW, AUS).

The Peruvian’s quick start had her opponents on the ropes, including a rattled Gilmore who succumbed to nerves and fell uncharacteristically on three crucial rides. As Mulanovich sat in the box-seat and waited for time to tick away, it was a battle between Gilmore and McGrath for second that had spectators on their feet.

A last second ride by McGrath pulled the natural footer within striking distance of Gilmore, but the judges score of 5.13 came up an agonising 0.2 points short and she was eliminated.

Mulanovich’s confidence today was a reminder of the flashy brilliance she showed in 2004 when she marched her way to an ASP World title. Ironically, it was Gilmore who managed to unseat her in her first outing as champ, when she entered the water against the rookie at Snapper Rocks in 2005.

“You know, that was a close one," commented Mulanovich on the exchange. “Steph is always going to surf good, but lately I feel really good, I’ve been training really hard which always makes me feel better. It’s just the beginning, no worries," she said.

Former ASP Men’s World Champion, Martin Potter – one of professional surfing’s most respected ambassadors – is Mulanovich’s coach and was on hand to witness her 2007 debut. “Sofia has flashes of brilliance and the way she started her heat today with an 8.83 is a perfect example …. When she believes in herself, then she becomes unbeatable. Every year she is a world title chance, but with any athlete, ultimately it’s up to her to put it all together," said Potter.

Gilmore was less up-beat, but still relieved to scrape through in second to the final 12 to keep her hopes of back-to-back titles alive. “I struggled to find waves and I fell off a lot. The other girls had the inside position, I could’ve been more assertive," reflected Gilmore (pictured below).

“That wave (for Sofia) was the perfect start for her. I watched the heat before and I was getting excited, and then the line-up changed, the waves moved onto the reef a lot more. I beat Sofia the first time I surfed against her, but she’s kind of smoked me every time I’ve surfed against her since then."

American new-comer Kyla Langen served notice with a giant-killing performance that saw the 25 year-old defeat three top, world-ranked opponents. The WQS campaigner advanced in front of 2006 ASP World Title stand-out Melanie Redman-Carr (Dunsborough, AUS) and caused the elimination of 2007 tour rookie Caroline Sarran (Fra) and Hawaiian veteran Megan Abubo.

The confident Californian, who finished at no.19 on the 2006 WQS rankings, now heads into the final twelve of the high rated 5 star event. “At this point of competition you know you are going to go up against some of the sports big names and you just can’t let that affect you," said Langen. “Everyone is capable of having a bad heat no matter who they are."

Young gun Airini Mason (NZ) also sent a clear message to the top ranks advancing behind pocket-sized West Australian dynamo Claire Bevilacqua. 2005 world champion Chelsea Georgeson (Gold Coast, Aus) and ASP tour rookie Jessi Miley-Dyer (Bronte, Aus) were the day’s other stand-outs both advancing with strong performances.

The Festival’s phenomenal standard of surfing was also apparent in the U/20 junior girls division. Hawaii’s Bethany Hamilton, 16, was back to her best today surfing with confidence in the wind affected 1.25 metre waves to advance with a win over super grommet Laura Enever (Narrabeen).

Superior wave selection by Hamilton and Enever created an exciting blow-by-blow exchange between the two talents. The pair dominated their other two opponents for the entire 20 minute match-up. Sixteen year-old Hamilton secured the heat win with a final 8.10 ride after a series of full top to bottom flowing maneuvers. Proven junior performer Angela Keighran (Mullaway, AUS) was left requiring a near perfect 9.77 on the siren to be eliminated in third.

“Phillip Island is an awesome set-up, there are a lot of great waves," said Hamilton. “I didn’t do so well in my WQS heat yesterday but that was good heat today. It’s such a rippable wave out there."

Fifteen year-old Enever who has also been excelling in the U/18 and U/16 divisions of the Festival advanced behind Hamilton into the top seeded round four of the juniors. “Ever since Bethany had her accident I’ve wanted to compete and surf in a heat with her," said Enever, the Quiksilver U/16 Australian Grommet champion. “Beth is such an inspiration, a great surfer and a great person. It was a fun heat."

Top seeds entering round four of the juniors are Airini Mason (NZ), Rebecca Oakley (Sunshine Coast, Qld), Mischa Davis (NZ) and Jessie Hickson (Boomerang Beach, NSW).

The tournaments biggest score has come from one of its smallest contestants. Pint-sized Kiwi, 11 year-old Sarah Mason ‘went to town’ on a Flynn’s Reef bomb for a perfect 10. The younger sister of ASP Australasian junior champion Airini Mason turned on with her mature backhand attack to advance in yet another highly contested division of the Festival the U/13 girls.

Mason is now in the running for the Samsung K5 MP3 player for the most impressive wave of the week. Open to any surfer in any division, as chosen by the expert panel of event commentators.

The Roxy Women’s Surfing Festival is Australia’s biggest celebration of women’s surfing bringing together a huge cross section of participants contesting seven divisions, including: World Qualifying Series (WQS) 5 star (US$25,000); 6-star Pro Junior Girls (AU$6,000) – 20 Years & under; U/13’s, U/16’s, U/18’s and Over 35’s Amateur Divisions; 1-star Regional WLT/7A Australian Women’s Longboard ALC Pro Tour (AU$4,000).

The Roxy Pro Women’s Surfing Festival is based at Woolamai Beach but mobile for the best quality surf on the island. While the water may be colder for most, there is a choice of nearly 20 quality breaks, depending on conditions, with contestants ready to surf a variety of reef, point and beach breaks.

The 2007 Festival incorporates the Chill Island music festival with headline acts The Cat Empire, The Beautiful Girls, Ash Grunwald and more, on Saturday January 27th. Visit chillisland.org for extra info and ticketing.

www.chillisland.org

www.roxy.com/festival