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By Andrea Swayne
For Rachael Tilly, 17, of Capistrano Beach, the pressure was on, going into the World Surf League North America Women’s Longboard Championships, Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7 and 8, in Huntington Beach, the only WSL World Longboard Championship qualifying event of the year.
But the pressure, she said, was only to make it to the semifinal round, a performance that would seal her qualification into the upcoming WSL World Longboard Championships in China, Dec. 5 through 12.
She not only qualified but ended up winning the event to become the 2015 WSL Women’s North American Longboard champion, her second U.S. pro title, having also won it in 2013.
“My main goal throughout the event was just to make it to the semis and qualify for China,” Tilly said. “After that, I was really relaxed and surfing looser, and that made the difference. Winning was just the cherry on top.”
The first day of the event was a round robin, with eight out of 16 women moving on to day two on Sunday. Tilly was the top surfer, advancing on as the No. 1 seed—a real confidence booster, she said.
On Sunday, Tilly was in second place throughout much of the 30-minute final, against fellow Dana Point pro Lindsay Steinriede.
“I knew I could get the ride I needed so I never stopped searching,” she said.
Tilly finally found the ride she needed to take the lead with about two minutes left in the heat.
“I was thinking, ‘oh my gosh, this could be it’ and then right in front of me Lindsay took off on a wave and I thought ‘oh no, she could take it,’ because she was really ripping,” Tilly said. “Unfortunately for her it didn’t work out but at that moment I knew I had it and was really happy. I got off my board and went underwater for a few seconds and tried to soak it all in.”
Going into the event, four other U.S. women in the contest (Karina Rozunko of San Clemente has also qualified but was not at the event) were already qualified for the World Championships—Jen Smith, Kaitlin Maguire, Tory Gilkerson and Steinriede—but having only made it into round two in China last year, Tilly needed to pull out all the stops in Huntington to requalify.
Tilly was also cut in round two in China in 2013. And with no qualifying contests being held in the U.S. in 2014, qualified again last year when the WSL used ratings from 2013 to determine who would represent the U.S. in 2014.
2015 will mark Tilly’s third appearance at the WSL World Longboard Championships in China.
The North American Championship event qualified only two men and one woman. The men’s event was won by Taylor Jensen of Oceanside. San Juan Capistrano-based surfer Kevin Skvarna finished in third place and qualified for China. Tony Silvagni was the runner-up.
Tilly said she is really looking forward to her third trip to China and feels like her surfing has improved since last year.
“I’m feeling a lot of great momentum with this win and my surfing lately has been the best it’s ever been so I’m feeling really good going into the event,” she said. “The competition side of my surfing has matured a lot since then as well, along with my wave selection and patience. It’s a huge step from amateur to pro because the bar is set so much higher.”
Tilly attributes her recent progress to increasing her competition time in the water, returning to the Western Surfing Association Championship Tour and competing for the San Clemente High School surf team at least once a week.
“More contest surfing has helped season the competitive side of my surfing and prepared me for these bigger events,” Tilly said. “It’s one thing to just time yourself in a free surf and another to test yourself under pressure in a contest. With the entire qualifying season being only one event, doing more competitions has made all the difference.”
For her win in Huntington, Tilly won $2,000, money she has already tapped to book her ticket to China.
“Actually, I won $2,005,” she said with a smile. “My grandma has been giving me $5 in ‘prize money’ for every win since my first when I was 8.”