Student and the master

Different year, same leader: Gilmore goes wild. ASP

The Movistar Peru Classic kicks off in San Bartolo, Peru on Saturday, setting the stage for the mid-way point of the Women's 2010 World Tour. After two events in Australia and one in New Zealand, things are looking remarkably similar to last year -- at least at the top of the rankings. Stephanie Gilmore, who won her third world title in 2009, remains the tour leader with only one blemish in an otherwise dominant year to date. Her ninth place finish at the TSB Bank Surf Festival in April was uncharacteristic and explains the relatively small gap between her and current world number two Sally Fitzgibbons, who's just 708 points back.

Sitting at third in the rankings is the woman responsible for the very existence of the Movistar Peru Classic. Peru native and 2004 World Champ Sofia Mulanovich is among the country's most high profile athletes, and she lobbied the ASP in 2006 to bring a World Tour stop to her home country. The event has had the desired effect, regularly bringing out huge crowds of young surfers, many of whom can attribute their participation directly to Mulanovich.

Mulanovich is reportedly nursing a neck injury coming into the event, which may hamper her ability to capitalize on her obvious home-beach advantage. "I'm just trying to take it heat by heat this season," she told the ASP. "I need to improve a bit on my fitness because I have been nursing a bad neck lately."

The Peruvian's home-beach advantage doesn't simply rest with the vociferous crowd guaranteed to line the beach each time she paddles out. Among the top-ranked surfers expected to compete, Mulanovich is the only one who has experience at this year's new venue: the reefs and beaches of San Bartolo.

"This is my first time to San Bartolo, and I don't really know what to expect," Gilmore told the ASP. "It's pretty cool to rock up to a new event venue and see what happens, so Sofia is always a threat, especially on home turf. But the conditions are beachbreak stuff, so any of the girls are dangerous."

And no one is more dangerous than Australia's Fitzgibbons, who's proven in her sophomore year on tour that she's a credible contender for a world title. Still just 19, Fitzgibbons has displayed precisely what a surfer wants to show at this point in the season: a steady upward trend. After taking fifth on the Gold Coast, she earned third at Bells, followed by consecutive seconds in New Zealand and Dee Why. There is no shortage of young phenoms on tour at the moment -- Carissa Moore and Coco Ho both come to mind -- but it's Fitzgibbons who's shown the most mettle of the young bunch.

"I was in fifth last year and I'm sitting in the second spot at the moment, so I am heading in the right direction," Fitzgibbons told ESPN. "It would be a dream to win a world title, and I feel that I gained a lot of experience last year. I'm ready to make that leap."

Gilmore, for one, isn't going to count the youngster out. "She's a threat to me. I've kind of watched [her] grow up and she is just such a well-rounded athlete. She's one of the girls that in a heat, she can outsmart you. She's had a few second places lately and I'm sure it's just eating away at her. Once she gets over that little hump and she finds the switch, then she will be amazing. She's a competitive machine. She'll be very hard to beat."

Ultimately, the primary obstacle facing all the women in San Bartolo could be bigger than Fitzgibbons' emergence or Gilmore's consistent dominance. With a forecast calling for nearly triple-overhead surf at the opening of the swell window, and 10-foot-plus into next week, their fellow surfers may take a backseat to simply tackling the ocean.

"Everybody is beatable, and everyone has weaknesses, but it's better to concentrate on one's strengths," says Fitzgibbons. "For me, I don't focus on my competitor, just on the task at hand and what waves I have in front of me."

Considering what those waves might look like, that's probably a wise approach. And so long as the strengths in question are located in the shoulders and back, Fitzgibbons may well earn her first win of the year. Either way, she'll have to go through some macking south Pacific swell -- and Stephanie Gilmore -- to do it.