There was a moment Tuesday, in the plywood locker room at Lower Trestles, when Carissa Moore was on the cusp of, as she put it, a “meltdown.”
She had just lost her first matchup against Brazilian Tatiana Weston-Webb, in a new World Surf League format that decided the 2021 champion in a one-day, best-of-three set of heats. As the reigning, four-time world champion and newly minted Olympic Gold Medalist, Moore had arrived in San Clemente as the overwhelming favorite to win. That was, at least, until Weston-Webb edged past her and, with fewer than 10 minutes to go, Moore lost her priority with a false start and, in a final blow, the ocean went flat.
With the seconds ticking down and with them, her chance to start out ahead, Moore paddled in. She now faced two must-win battles to secure the world title.
“That wasn’t how I imagined it would start,” Moore said in the post-event press conference, in something of an understatement.
Dejected, she made her way for the lockers to wait for her second heat. It was there, in the cool corridor, safe from the glare of the bright September sun and sea of fans, that her inner circle intercepted. There was her dad, with whom Moore has been working since the very beginning in Honolulu. There was the training from her mental coach, which helped her breathe, calm down and re-set. There was her longtime surf coach, Mitchel Cary Ross, who had helped guide her to pole position over the past year. And then there was her husband, Luke Untermann, who greeted her not only with open arms, but a good, old-fashioned pep talk.
“Babe,” he told her. “If anyone can do this, you can do this.”
With that, Moore charged back to the lineup for Heat 2 and, within minutes, had scored an 8.93 to take the lead. Weston-Webb never caught up. Moore, the poised competitor, was back. She won the heat and went on to win the heat after that. By 3:30 pm, she had won her fifth World Title, making history as one of the few surfers ever to win two championships back-to-back.
Even for a woman who, just weeks before, had made Olympic history, the win was superbly meaningful. Part of that meaning, she said, came from the WSL’s new format, which ensured that the world champion would be anointed in the water. For the uninitiated, that’s in contrast to the decades-old format, in which the surfer with the greatest number of points by the end of the season becomes the champ—a game of math, heat matchups and praying to surf gods in which a title win was possible if another surfer lost.
In Moore’s case, that meant winning the 2019 title when Caroline Marks, the world runner-up, was eliminated from the last event of the year. At other points, champions won titles before the last events of the season (Exhibit A: Tyler Wright in France, in 2016; Exhibit B: John John Florence in Portugal, just a few weeks later).
While Moore credits her crew’s mini-intervention for her return to form Tuesday, in a conversation afterward, she said that the go-get-’em-tiger talk was just the latest nudge in a lifetime journey. The work she began with her dad before a fifth world title was even a consideration; her countless choices she’s made over the years; and the depth of determination it takes not only to reset on one day, but to do it heat after heat, event after event, year after year. All of that, she said, began long before she landed at Lowers, when she was still a kid.
More recently, though, Moore credited the confluence of a few factors with her high-flying performances this past year. After winning her fourth title in 2019, she decided to take off the 2020 season to rest, enjoy time with Untermann, and get off the treadmill of tour travel. Of course, her decision turned out to be a prescient one: the tour was ultimately canceled amid the global pandemic, but throughout, Moore was hunkered down at home without the stress of a quickly changing contest landscape.
“I needed rest, and a break from the monotony of the tour,” she says. It had been nearly a decade since she joined the elite ranks. After 10 years of living on the road, she was ready to set down her bags for a bit. For close observers of the sport, that rest paid off in spades throughout the past year: her lowest contest finish was second place.
“In 2021, I came back excited to compete, happy and feeling a sense of freedom,” Moore says.
After a year off and with the ups and downs that COVID-19 brought, she said, she appreciated being able to compete again. In other words: crushing her opponents, even at a few familiar spots, was fun again.
“As I’ve grown as a woman and learned to trust myself more, I [was able to enjoy] competing more.” That sense of freedom, Moore added, also came from her marriage and the life she identity it means for her, outside of surfing.
“Knowing I have the love and support of Luke gives me perspective beyond winning and losing.”
The nonstop, elite contest schedule, she explained, can take a toll (the WSL championship tour is often called a “bubble” for its sometimes insular, high-pressure nature). Even for the most seasoned of competitors, it’s easy to suffer from the pressures of that closed system, a kind of traveling show where one’s currency is made of wins and losses.
Still, for an athlete who started competing (and winning) at Trestles nearly 20 years ago, at just 11, the joy of coming out on top hasn’t gotten old. Mere seconds after winning her fifth world title, commentator Strider Wasilewski paddled over and asked for a reaction to her win. Ebullient, Moore leaned toward Wasilewski’s mic and proclaimed, “Number five feels pretty good!”