You cannot win the tour if you get kicked off the tour, this is the fate facing Sally Fitzgibbons unless she can conjure a Margaret River miracle.
Heading into the final event before the World Surf League’s mid-season cut-off, Fitzgibbons is on the cusp of losing her place on the championship tour for the remainder of the season.
You could expect the three-time world championship runner-up to be nervous about the prospect of another title chance evaporating. Frustrated. Angry even.
But like a grommet standing up on their board for the first time, Fitzgibbons seems to find the pure joy in what she does.
After ninth place finishes in the first three events of the year though – at Hawaii’s famous Pipeline and Sunset Beach, and in Portugal – Fitzgibbons had to face the reality that she could miss the cut and lose her place on tour.
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“Probably after Portugal when you have three of the ninth-place finishes, (missing the cut) is pretty much right on your doorstep,” Fitzgibbons said.
“So I’ve pretty much had the opportunity to (consider that) and it’s really confronting and you’re like, wow, that seems so scary – I really don’t want to leave my home of 15 years. It’s sort of like getting evicted.
“It’s hard to separate yourself from something that really is a big part of you.
“It doesn’t define you but a body of work that, for me, has been 15-odd years in the making, you get kind of close to it.
“When it says, oh, I’m just going to disappear for a minute, potentially (that’s hard).
“That dream of becoming a world champion, you can’t achieve that if you’re not on this tour.”
Fitzgibbons’ initial feeling about potentially missing the cut was that it would be the “end of the world”.
“But then you get that perspective,” she said.
After a quarter-final finish at Bells Beach last week, Fitzgibbons has clawed her way to 12th on the rankings, two places below automatic qualification for the remainder of the season.
She still needs a strong result at the Margaret River Pro in Western Australia – which could start as early as this Sunday – to ensure she surfs the remainder of the Championship Tour.
If not, she will join the challenger series and attempt to claw her way back to the top level next year.
For most, it would be a hammer blow. But Fitzgibbons has stared down the possibility it could happen and wants to surf freely at Margaret River, come what may.
“I’ve been sitting in the likelihood of all the pieces not falling my way because there’s just so many uncontrollables in this sport,” she said.
“People say don’t think of the alternative – but when I paint both worlds and there’s positives in both, then I can just live out my experience.
“There’s definitely that pressure at the moment, the squeeze – I can feel it and hopefully I can just open the wings up and surf freely because it’s been hard.”
Just four women – five-time world champion and tour leader Carissa Moore, Bells Beach champ Tyler Wright, Costa Rica’s Brisa Hennessy and Californian Lakey Peterson – have ensured they will stay above the cut line regardless of what happens at Margaret River.
It’s a system many have criticised and one Fitzgibbons could be expected to loathe given it could stop her drive for a world title in its tracks.
But the seasoned pro understands the WSL’s reasons for looking at change.
“I’m always open to the fact that evolution of any sport is inevitable,” she said.
“In a sport or a story where they’re looking to add those layers of drama and really hook the spectator and have that interest throughout the year, it definitely creates that if that’s what they are after.
“The excitement level is probably higher than any stage of the year right now.”
Just a few months ago, Fitzgibbons surfed the WSL finals and while things haven’t felt great so far this season she knows she has to “hold strong and just keep ploughing forward”.
Having thought she was a long way behind the cut on points, Fitzgibbons had thought a fall to the challenger series was inevitable.
But after her quarter-final finish at Bells Beach, there’s suddenly a glimmer of hope.
“It’s only one result away, so it’s obviously still possible,” she said.
“And then you’ve just kind of got to believe in the fairytale. The sport of surfing tries to beat the fairytale out of you – sometimes it can be quite cruel not getting the opportunity to display what you’ve been working on.”
As ever though, Fitzgibbons will be pushing for a result and trying to keep her world title dream alive.
“I definitely still believe in the fairytale – it can happen. I left some space for it, so hopefully we’re all watching it and enjoying it.”
Originally published as Surfing news: Sally Fitzgibbons needs a big Margaret River result to stay on tour