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Surfers eye 2020 Games while enjoying the ride

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

A long Golden Week holiday period had just ended the previous day.

Not surprisingly, Tsurigasaki Beach wasn’t crowded with spectators on Tuesday, the final day of the inaugural Japan Open of Surfing, which was organized by the Nippon Surfing Association. But when the sport makes its Olympic debut here at next year’s Summer Games, the view is expected to be much different: full of spectators and with a more entertaining setup.

And many of the elite Japanese surfers are thrilled to potentially have a chance to showcase their skills in it.

In the summer of 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing would be one of the sports added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics program.

Shino Matsuda, who has devoted herself to the sport for about a decade, felt that she was a long shot to compete at the Olympics when the announcement was made, feeling that she was a little too young at that time.

But now, a little over a year away, the 16-year-old desperately wants to represent Japan at the sporting extravaganza.

“Surfing was selected to be included in the Olympics for the first time,” Matsuda said after she captured the Japan Open title last weekend and was chosen as one of the three female athletes for the Naminori Japan national team to compete at September’s ISA World Surfing Games in Miyazaki. “And the competition will be held here at Ichinomiya, Chiba Prefecture. I definitely want to compete in it.”

The World Surfing Games will serve as a trial event for the Tokyo Olympics.

In the women’s final, Matsuda scored 9.66 points to beat runner-up Kana Nakashio, who had 8.47 points.

Shun Murakami, the men’s winner of the event, had not originally been too concerned about the Olympics. But he has recently changed his mind about wanting to secure a spot for the 2020 Games so that he can raise his profile as a pro surfer.

“I’ve decided to shoot for the Olympics,” the 22-year-old said. “You’ll get the spotlight (at the Olympics), so I want to compete at it.”

The easygoing athlete continued: “I thought I’d be able to have my name known better, so I should compete at it.”

In the men’s gold-medal match, Murakami earned 17.47 points, while Kaito Ohashi received 9.37.

In surfing, athletes compete in a natural environment and have to deal with different waves and climate conditions depending on the venue. Some of the surfers at the two-day Japan Open were familiar with Tsurigasaki and it could be an advantage for them at the Olympics if they make the national team.

Matsuda, who is based in her native Shonan region of Kanagawa Prefecture, said that she often comes to the site to practice.

“Since I started going to high school, I’ve come to Chiba to practice even on Saturdays and Sundays,” said Matsuda, who studies via a correspondence school. “When we don’t have waves in Shonan, I’m staying here for a few nights to practice.”

Nakashio moved to Ichinomiya with her family from Sendai in 2012 because she and her older brother, Yuki, who’s also a pro, could not continue training there after the Great East Japan Earthquake the year before.

During the competition on Sunday, the 15-year-old said she identified the tendencies of the waves at Tsurigasaki, indicating she has a better knack for reading the waves there than at other surfing locales.

But not all Japanese surfers are making the Olympics their top priority.

Ohashi was thrilled to hear the sport will be included in the Tokyo Olympics. But he personally thinks there are a lot of other ways to enjoy it and promote it other than the Olympic Games or other competitions.

For the 27-year-old, riding on the waves is more like “playing in the schoolyard” and he said he never wants to lose the innocent feelings.

“That’s something I want to keep in myself,” said Ohashi, who frequently goes to surfing spots around the world and highlights them via videos posted on the internet. “It’s not just about the national team or contests. My motivation lies in introducing real surfing.”

Murakami shares the same sentiment as Ohashi. He insisted that as fun as it is to win competitions, it gives him irreplaceable stimulation to be able to challenge waves he has never seen.

“Seeing waves I’ve never seen — I’m excited just by itself,” said Murakami, adding that he has not forgotten the feeling of riding waves for first time. “I want more people to know about surfing.”