Tokyo 2020: Poster boy Kanoa Igarashi ready to ride wave of excitement as surfing debuts at Olympics

Tokyo 2020: Poster boy Kanoa Igarashi ready to ride wave of excitement as surfing debuts at Olympics
One of the most unpredictable events at the Games on account of the whims of the wind

The last thing these troubled Games needs is a tropical storm, unless you’re Kanoa Igarashi.

He surveys the horizon and whispers a word to the weather Gods, Igarashi hoping that Storm Nepartak, currently gathering speed and momentum over the Philippine Sea, is ready to show its teeth.

Surfers enjoy nothing more than moaning about the weather – it’s ingrained into their DNA – and those gathered for the first-ever Olympic competition at Tsurigasaki Beach have certainly been frustrated by tiny swells during training.

This is their big moment and they want to – in their chosen vernacular – to go big before they go home.

For Igarashi this Olympic journey has been 24 years in the making, starting before he was even born.

His parents, Tsutomu and Misa, left Japan for California’s Huntingdon Beach when they learned of his impending arrival, determined to raise their child in America’s ‘Surf City’, living their own dreams through their still unborn child.

When he announced his intention to represent Japan at these Games, rather than the USA, there were tears of pride that roots would be respected and honoured.

Brazil boasts the top three surfers in the world rankings, which is harsh on Filipe Toledo because he’s at home while Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira seek history.

With just two spots per country, some believe Igarashi’s decision was a hedging of bets, to secure selection, a claim he vigorously denies.

“This is the place my father learned to surf and fell in love with the sport, there was never any doubt that I’d be here on the Japanese team,” said Igarashi, who is ranked sixth in the world.

“I know there’s a Japanese flag next to my name but America has shaped me too, I genuinely feel I’m representing both countries.

“I’ve had this moment in my mind for four years, ever since we knew surfing would be part of the Games. I’ve felt that pressure every day but it’s also made me strong. Bizarrely now the moment is nearly here, the pressure has gone. It’s just excitement and that’s all positive.

“In many years the extra year has just helped me focus, take a deep breath before the biggest moment of my career.”

Igarashi is a rock star in Japan, the LeBron of surfing according to some. With his silver-dyed hair, pearly white teeth and boy band looks, his face stares down from billboards on Japan’s Shibuya Crossing. He’s every stereotype of how a surfer should look and sound, he’s almost too flawless.

In contrast, Ferreira learned to surf standing on the foam box that his father sold fish from. It was only the generosity of friends and neighbours that supported his early career, as he took on the world with second-hand surfboards.

At the last World Championships his car was stolen with all his travel documents, a frantic dash followed and he arrived at the venue with nine minutes to spare, winning gold in borrowed t-shirt and shorts.

“The one thing I’ve always had is a desire, “ he said.

There’s no doubting the all-USA credentials of Carissa Moore, whose showdown with Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore in the women’s surfing could be one of the head-to-heads of the Games.

Born and raised in Honolulu, she’s been welded to a surfboard since she could walk, earning four world titles while topping this season’s World Surf League rankings.

However, still chasing the perfect wave is 31-year old Gilmore, who won her first competition aged 17 and hasn’t slowed down since, winning a record-equalling seven world titles, though the most recent was 2018.

“The Olympics was never part of my plan but now, it’s everything,” said Gilmore, whose Olympic exploits will be broadcast live on Eurosport and Discovery+.

“I would take a gold medal over an eighth world title, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity really, though I’d still like to do both.

“To get the chance to show up and compete on the Olympic stage and bring home a medal, that’s really cool. The Japanese are the maddest surf fans, in the politest way.”

Mother Nature has long played a decisive role in this sport, a reason many within the International Olympic Committee long refused calls for its inclusion.

But when the waves come big they’ll be no more spectacular sight at these Games and clips of big barrels and crunching wipeouts will provide the viral moments Tokyo needs.

The appliance of science is everywhere at these Games, as athletes seek out ever improbable marginal gains, in what some have dubbed ‘technological doping’.

All of which makes the purity of surfing a cleansing antidote, a sport where the elements can both giveth and taketh away, where instinct and timing combines with skill and luck.

There are still those that question surfing’s place, sports decided by the subjective whims of judges combined with the quirks of time and tide divide opinions.

However, when the Olympics are long gone and their competitive careers long over, Igarashi, Moore, Gilmore and Ferreira will still be out among the swells, still chasing their own Big Wednesdays.

The sport, not the very temporary pursuit of gold, silver and bronze, is their true passion and you can’t get more Olympic than that.

Stream every unmissable moment of Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 live on discovery+, the Streaming Home of the Olympics.

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