The opening day of the waiting period for both the Hurley Pro and the Swatch Women’s Pro rolled around today, and while the sizeable and much talked about south-west swell failed to arrive with it, the opening round of women’s competition nevertheless went ahead at small, fun-looking Lowers. After a slow start to the year, Steph Gilmore was back in prize-fighting form, putting on one of the most impressive displays of women’s small-wave surfing seen in competition as she easily scooped the day’s highest combined heat total.

While the waves were glassy and playful during the early clashes, by the time Steph took to the water alongside Johanne Defay and Keely Andrews for the last heat of the day, an onshore wind had sprung up adding a tricky layer of chop and crumble to the face. Conditions didn’t slow Steph down any though, as she put together four lightning-quick rides, posting an 8.5, 7.93, 8.2 and 5.17 respectively. It wasn’t just the numbers that made it such an impressive performance, however. Combining her trademark fluency with a series of powerful, beautifully-timed belts and loose, confident tail-slides, the twenty-eight-year-old showed just how far women’s surfing has come in recent years as she put on a display that wouldn’t have been out of place on the men’s side of competition.

Currently sitting at 7th on the ratings, 2016 has been one of Steph’s most underwhelming seasons on tour, with all the focus resting on front-runners and first-time title hopefuls Tyler Wright and Courtney Conologue. In fact, in the first six events of the year, she has yet to progress past the quarters. 2015 was a disrupted season for her, however, with the stylish natural-footer missing six events due to a knee injury. But with today’s performance and her undisputed reputation as one of the best out at Lowers, this could very much be the contest where we see Steph Gilmore return to the form and confidence we’re used to seeing from the 6x world champ.

In earlier heats, current world number one and two Wright and Conologue both went down in their respective clashes, with Wright making a number of uncharacteristic mistakes as she lost to teammates Nikki Van Dyke and the ever-gracious Bethany Hamilton. 3x world champ and last year’s Swatch Pro winner Carissa Moore won through to Round 3 as did US Open champion Tatiana Weston-Webb, Malia Manuel and Laura Enever. But after day one of competition, the benchmark has well and truly been set with Steph Gilmore’s performance, and if she continues on the same tear it’s going to take something special for the rest of the field to match her.

Here’s hoping they do, because women’s surfing will be all the better for it.