Lakey Peterson, 17, cuts down a wave near the pier on her way to dominating… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
HUNTINGTON BEACH — At the U.S. Open of Surfing in 2011, the surfing industry watched as a lanky, blond-haired 16-year-old stole the show from the best female surfers in the world at an event described as the Super Bowl of the sport.
At the time, Lakey Peterson wasn't even on the ASP's world championship tour. She had been given a wild card invite to the event, an opportunity to compete against surfing's elite — women she had spent her early teens looking up to.
In the semifinals, Peterson took her surfboard and paddled over to meet her opponent, world champion Carissa Moore. After 30 minutes of competition, Peterson had sent Moore packing.
Peterson eventually fell in the final to Australian Sally Fitzgibbons, but the thousands on the beach had caught a glimpse of a future powerhouse in the sport. Peterson had claimed the junior women's title a day earlier, and the Santa Barbara native appeared determined to take the next step when she joined the tour in 2012.
Now in the final event of her rookie season, and ranked No. 9 in the ASP women's world rankings, Peterson is back at the U.S. Open — this time as one of the favorites. She has already upset five-time world champion Steph Gilmore, currently No. 1 in the ASP women's world rankings.
Peterson is one of four women remaining in the event. She'll face Malia Manuel — whom she defeated for the junior title a year ago — and Fitzgibbons and Moore will go head-to-head for a spot in the finals later in the afternoon.
"It would be huge to get this event," Peterson says. "I know this wave pretty well and the world is watching, so I'm looking forward to going out and showing what I can do."
Just three years ago, few in the surfing industry had even heard of Peterson. It wasn't until she landed an aerial in San Clemente — the maneuver involves launching off a wave, grabbing the board and flipping it around in midair — that people began taking notice. The feat had never been done before in a female amateur competition.
She was just 14.
Growing up in an athletic family, Peterson had wanted to become a tennis player. Her sister, Whitney, played for USC. Her mother, Sue, was an All-American swimmer there, and her brother, Parker, is on the water polo team at Pepperdine.
But despite living a stone's throw from East Beach in Montecito, nobody in the family surfed.
"A lot of times you'll hear [from] pro surfers that their dads were really into it or their moms," Peterson says. "My family is completely oblivious to surfing — we're still learning. It's always been a really athletic family, but surfing is new."
Peterson first "got pushed into waves" and tried surfing on a family trip to Australia when she was 5. She soon learned how to catch waves on a surfboard, but for a few years it was nothing more than a hobby.
By the time she was 12, Peterson had grown obsessed with the sport and had fared well in several amateur contests in Southern California.
Since landing the aerial in San Clemente, she's worked to add a unique mix of maneuvers to her now accomplished repertoire, something her competitors have noticed.
"She has an incredible amount of power and she sets herself apart from the other girls because of that," said surfer Conner Coffin, who has known Peterson since elementary school. "It's how I want to surf."
With her previous accomplishments, Peterson had already created a stir by the time she joined the tour in February. With her progressive style, she's constantly performing moves that are rarely executed by someone so young.
"I've seen her do some crazy stuff out there. Amazing things for her age," said Australian Nikki Van Dijk, another rising star. "She's definitely pushing women's surfing and all the other girls in the sport."
Now in the final event of this season's tour, Peterson has returned to a spot she loves, less than three hours from home. She has shown a propensity to perform her best at big events, with the spotlight on and the pressure turned up.
"Very few of the top surfers have that," said retired surfer Mike Parsons, who coaches Peterson. "Kelly Slater has it. Not many others do."
A strong finish Sunday could shoot Peterson up the women's rankings heading into next season. It could even set her up for a world championship at an early age.
Peterson said she tries not to think about that. While others may talk about what the future holds for her, Peterson says she just wants to finish out the season with a win.
A win, Parsons said, that would be "the ultimate statement" to the surfing industry — one that would validate her sudden rise in the sport.
And take her a step further after falling short in the final a year ago.