After an exciting season for the World Surf League (WSL) North America Junior Tour came to an end at the Soup Bowl Pro Junior on November 13th, Nolan Rapoza (USA) and Leilani McGonagle (CRI) were crowned the North America Junior Regional Champions. Both clinched their titles on the shores of Bathsheba, Barbados for the first time in their careers and have earned a spot into the World Junior Championships.
Rapoza’s incredible run to the No. 1 spot included making every event Final except for the first contest of the year, the Ron Jon Vans Pro Junior. The Long Beach, California-native started his run for the top with a runner-up in Los Cabos and followed that with a fourth-place finish at the Vans US Open of Surfing Men’s Junior event. But, his breakthrough came at the Vans Pro Junior event in Virginia Beach, Virginia earning his first-ever Junior Tour win — rocketing him past Kei Kobayashi (USA) for the No. 1 spot.
“It feels great to have achieved my goal this year,” Rapoza said. “This year I have tried to mature my technique and heat strategy which I think will help me a lot more in the future also. It means a lot to claim this title because it shows me that I can be consistent — I just have to put my mind to it. It’s been a blast this whole year. I came close last year and I’ve never had this opportunity before so I’m definitely stoked.”
With a runner-up finish at the RVCA Pro Junior, the title was all but won for Rapoza who needed to secure a spot into the Final at the Soup Bowl Pro Junior for the No. 1 spot if Kobayashi took the win. Though his personal highlights came much earlier in the year.
“I think there is a tie [for my favorite moment this year] between getting a first-place finish in Virginia and getting runner-up in Newport where I got to chair up my best friend Tyler [Gunter],” Rapoza said. “[Winning this title] should help my confidence a lot just surfing smarter this year through each event so I’m hoping it translates to the future for me.”
Joining Rapoza at the World Junior Championships for the North America region are Kobayashi, No. 3 ranked Jake Marshall (USA), and No. 4 ranked Che Allan (BRB).
The North America Women’s Junior title was a much closer race and came down to the Final at the Soup Bowl Pro Junior.
Three women remained in the race when the horn sounded to start the Final with McGonagle fending off Maddie Peterson (USA) and Bethany Zelasko (USA). Had McGonagle earned runner-up and either Peterson or Zelasko won, the No. 2 spot would’ve been theirs. But, with a massive win, McGonagle not only solidified her place into World Junior Championships — she also claimed the regional title over Alyssa Spencer (USA).
“I’m still processing the fact that I’m the regional champion — I’m so excited,” McGonagle said. “Ending the year with a win like that gives me a huge confidence boost. I’d never won a Pro Junior before, so doing it when it was so vital was great. Surfing is one of those sports where the stars really have to align in order for things to go your way and I’m so happy they did.”
The Costa Rican-native began her year with a brilliant runner-up finish at the Ron Jon Vans Pro Junior, but couldn’t earn another Final performance until Barbados. With a Quarterfinal finish in Los Cabos and Semifinal appearance at the Vans US Open of Surfing Women’s Junior, McGonagle found herself in a heavy-pressure situation she was able to rise above. Her surfing family background and upbringing has set McGonagle up for what may be a prolific career, but she knows all the work needed to find success.
“I think growing up in Costa Rica has definitely made me the surfer I am,” McGonagle said. “I’ve surfed a point break that has waves all year-round my whole life so I really do prefer bigger and more powerful waves. But, I’ve made a point to try to surf in all conditions and over time I’ve become more prepared to surf all different waves.”
“I love my family, they’re truly amazing,” McGonagle continued. “My parents are always very supportive. If it wasn’t for them I probably would have never started surfing. Having Noe as a brother has been very inspiring as well. He’s very passionate about surfing and that really pushes me to want to be as great of a surfer as he is some day. It would be a dream come true to make it on tour with him.”
McGonagle will be joined by No. 2 ranked Spencer to vie for a World Junior Championships title as both prepare for their first appearance at the event and first time to Australia.
For more information go to www.worldsurfleague.com
Kiama, New South Wales, Australia will host this year’s World Junior Championships January 4 – 13.