Vasco Ribeiro: he wants the world junior surfing title

Perfect waves, warm waters and friendly environment. The 2012 ISA World Junior Surfing Championship is already showcasing aerials and new school tricks at Playa Venao, Panama.

Midway through the morning, following a pair of big lip-hits, Griffin Colapinto landed an air-reverse to the screaming approval of his American teammates, punctuating a solid ride.

Seconds later Costa Rica's Noe Mar McGonagle took off on a closing-out set wave on his backhand and pumped his way down the line. As the wave prepared to shut down, McGonagle aimed his board upward and soared into the air, rotating 360 degrees without a grab and stomped the landing. Think Kelly Slater at Bells Beach just weeks ago.

A pair of Australian coaches watched in awe. "Did you boys see that?" one asked of his surfers who were sitting near by.

"The wave was a close out, but I wanted to repeat a perfect 10 that I got in a previous Latin American Tour contest here in Venao," said McGonagle, who's score came up short of the 10 (7.17). "[Colapinto] was really good, so if I wanted to get first I had to give everything out there. I'm glad that I was able to advance and earn some points for my team."

The McGonagle-Colapinto heat set the pace for what would be a long day of impressive feats of athleticism.

In the very next heat, Hawaii's Ian Gentil picked up where the Costa Rican left off, combining rail-to-rail surfing with fins-free turns and an array of aerials for an equally impressive effort. He ended up with the highest single-wave score of the event so far, 9.57 out of 10, and a combined heat total of 16.24.

"These contests are always hard, starting from the first round you can't underestimate anyone, everyone surfs so good," Gentil said. "I liked the kid before my heat (McGonagle), he got a nine and a seven. I was paddling outside and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it already started, got to go big.'"

Other standouts in the Under-16s included Max Armstrong (RSA), Elivelton Santos (BRA), Kalani David (HAW) and Takumi Nakamura of Japan. In conversations around the event, many coaches, athletes and officials are picking Team Japan as a darkhorse for a team medal.

The swell that was forecasted by Surfline began to show itself right on schedule on Monday, just as the Girls took to the water for the first time in the event.

All three Hawaiian girls who surfed – Tatiana Weston-Webb, Brianna Cope and Mahina Maeda – won their heats in convincing fashion. Maeda's polished rail surfing led to the highest heat total of the entire event, 18.10.

Though it's still early in the event, the Hawaiians have established themselves as one of the favorites for the Team Gold Medal and the IOC President's Trophy, advancing through the Qualifying Rounds.

Nikki Viesins of the USA was another standout in the Girls division, putting her smooth, powerful style to use for a heat total of 15.67. With the win, she helped Team USA to maintain its strong start in the event. The Americans have never won Team Gold at the ISA World Juniors.

"I learned a lot about competition [last year] in Peru; I learned about heat strategy, to be tough out there, to almost hassle for your waves to get them, and the importance of building scores," said Viesins, who also represented Team USA at the inaugural ISA China Cup in January. "We've come here and hopefully we'll obtain that gold medal – that's what we are aiming for."

Others standing-out in the Girls competition included Constanca Coutinho (POR), Ellie-Jean Coffey (AUS), Mauarii Maro (TAH) and Carol Fernandes (BRA).

The big names in the Boys Under-18 continued to prove that they're not ready or willing to fall victim to a lesser-known surfer. New Zealand's Ben Poulter and Portugal's Vasco Ribeiro looked particularly strong in the early rounds of the event. Other standouts included Paddy Daniel and Will Davey of Great Britain, Tom Cloarec (FRA) and Marcelino Botin (SPA).

"This is just the beginning; with the level of talent competing here in Panama, as the waves continue to get better, the surfing will too," said Fernando Aguerre, the President of the ISA.

"We have the best junior surfers in the world and some kids who are still new to competition, but they're all sharing great waves and creating long-lasting memories. As much as ISA events are about who's winning, it's also about spreading surfing to every corner of the world and the smiles that come with that feat."