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Surfing, Japan and the Olympic Games: How Kanoa Igarashi has come full circle


Hawaii is widely regarded as the birthplace of surfing, but it is Japan that will be remembered as the place where, after decades of trying, it became an Olympic sport.

Back in 1912 while receiving one of three swimming gold medals at the Stockholm Olympics, Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku spoke of his dream that one day surfing, his sport of choice, would be contested at the Games.

Surfing exploded in Australia after ‘the Duke’ visited in 1915, giving a famous demonstration of board riding at Freshwater Beach with local girl, Isabel Letham.

One hundred and six years later it is Australia that boasts more world surfing champions, men and women combined, than any other nation.

But when the surfers paddle out at Tsurigasaki Beach on the Chiba Peninsula, signalling the start of the sport’s Olympic history, it is Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi that will be shouldering the biggest burden.

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The 23-year-old professional is ranked number five in the World Surf League, currently competing at Newcastle’s Merewether beach.

He is a man of the world — Japanese born, schooled in the Californian surf mecca of Huntington Beach and spends much of his time these days living in Portugal.

“I never thought surfing would lead me to something that is much bigger than just the sport, the Olympics is much bigger than that,” he told The Ticket.

“I feel like I’ve kind of found myself with the Olympics.”

In an interesting twist of fate, the waves where the Olympic surfing competition will be held, are the waves his father, Tsutomu, grew up riding.

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“Well, it’s funny, you know, it’s not just that … my dad found that wave with his group of friends,” Igarashi said.

“Back in the day when my dad was surfing, surfing was not a big thing, a lot of people looked down upon it to be honest.

“For him to find that wave and build that connection with that wave he called it the ‘dojo’, you know, the arena, because it was the most consistent stretch of beach pretty much in the whole country of Japan.”

Kanoa Igarashi crouches down on his board as he rides a wave that breaks over his head
Kanoa Igarashi finished in fifth at Pipeline earlier this year.(

Instagram: Kanoa Igarashi

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Both father and son are at home in the waves of the Pacific Ocean — one brought up surfing Tsurigasaki, Chiba, the other, almost 9,000 kilometres directly east, at Huntington Beach, California.

Same ocean, different beach break.

“[My dad] just said it’s a crazy coincidence.

“For him it must be crazy. For me it’s crazy.

“But for him it must be an overwhelming feeling with all of that coming together and I’m sure that moment’s going to be very special for him.

Igarashi was introduced to the sport by his father, surfing “before I can even remember,” he says.

“I grew up with it, like taking a shower, it’s just something that you do … and in saying that it’s given me everything that I have.”

He admits to feeling pressure “I’ve never felt before”.

“I feel it from just everyday news,” he said.

“Every time I heard the word ‘Olympics’ there’s a bit of butterflies that come through my blood … every day I get a little bit more excited.”

Walking the streets of Japan now he is frequently stopped by fans wanting photos with the man who’ll be flying their flag.

Kanoa igarashi signs autographs
Kanoa Igarashi will carry the hopes of Japan at his home Olympics.(

Instagram: Kanoa Igarashi

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“I feel like my voice is stronger and I never thought I could be this strong where I feel I can do a lot of positive things for the world and especially for our ocean that’s given me, and other people, so much,” he said.

“The Olympics has pretty much given me a loudspeaker.

“It’s done something I can never really explain in words, for me and my family.

“Now I just feel like I’m at a stage in my life where we all know that the ocean and mother nature need us more than ever.

“We’re pretty much in harmony with mother nature, we are playing with the ocean.

“I just feel like we can all make a change and make the ocean a cleaner place … for our future generations.

“It’s being a part of a lot of hard-working people behind the scenes who do just small things — picking up trash off the beach, reducing single use plastics, there’s many things that we can do.

“If we all just change that one percent and be better, I think we can make a big change and I think it’s just that simple action, simple motivation that I can kind of speak about with the help of the Olympics and yeah, make the future a better a place.

Duke Kahanamoku standing poolside in his USA team blazer
Duke Kahanamoku won five Olympic medals, three of them gold, for the USA in swimming, but always believed in surfing’s potential.(

Supplied

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Igarashi will be the same age as Duke Kahanamoku was at his first Olympics, but it’s not the only thing they share.

The young Japanese surfer exudes the same statesmanlike qualities as the Hawaiian who first believed surfing could be an Olympic sport. 

“You know, this is a huge moment, I’m sure not just for me but I can speak on behalf of all the other surfers we’re going to feel pressure that we’ve never felt before,” he said.

“You have Brazilians, you have Australians, you have Americans all feeling pressure from their country and we are all really proud to represent our flag.

“But there’s something about it being in Japan and I feel like in a way I am representing our country to the world of surfing, and also representing surfing to the Olympics.

“So, in a way, I feel I have a lot on my hands,” he says, “but this is what I feel like I was born to do.”



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