Kanoa Igarashi was preparing for the biggest year of his life when 2020 decided it had other plans. The COVID-19 pandemic not only put the World Surf League Championship Tour on hold, just as Igarashi was really starting to make — well, ride — major waves, but also forced the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.
Once the initial shock of it all wore off, though, Igarashi decided he’d just get back on his board and make 2021 even greater than 2020 could’ve been.
That began in earnest on Wednesday, with the start of the 2021 Championship Tour. Igarashi is also looking forward to chasing a gold medal at the long-awaited Tokyo Games next summer, where he’ll represent Japan while riding waves his father once surfed.
“In the moment, when everything was called off, it was a giant shock,” Igarashi told The Japan Times. “Having my original offseason, having everything go to plan, I felt more ready than I’d ever been. This was supposed to be the biggest year of my life. I had everything gearing toward it.
“That moment of shock lasted for a couple of weeks. But then, as soon as that shock faded away, I put the work hat back on and it was a continuance of the offseason. It’s been a blessing in disguise.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Igarashi to wait longer than expected for his Olympic moment, but that moment could be transcendent when it comes. Born to Japanese parents in California, he will represent Japan at the games, but his ties to the U.S., affable personality and TV-ready looks could make him a household name in both countries if the waves break right for him.
He’s also got the skills.
Igarashi qualified for the Championship Tour in 2015 and, at age 18, was the youngest rookie on tour in 2016. He really turned heads in December 2016 when he posted a second-place finish in his last event of the season. In 2019 he became the first Japanese surfer to win a Championship Tour event when he took the title at the Corona Bali Protected in Indonesia. He ended that year ranked No. 6.
“Generalizing it, I feel a lot of pressure,” he said. “I feel like I’m trying to represent a lot of different things, in a positive way. I feel like I represent the country I surf for, which is Japan, but I also represent California, in America, where I grew up.
“I feel like I’m representing this new generation as well. I feel like in sports in general, but especially in surfing, there’s definitely a new age. It’s a wave of younger kids really, really stepping it up. So I feel really proud to be a part of that movement and to be kind of a changing of the guard. So I represent that.
“Obviously I represent the sport. That’s a huge deal for me. We’re representing our sport on the biggest stage of competition. So I just want to do my best to represent surfing and to make it appealing to the rest of the world. Hopefully I’ll be able to show how great surfing is and get to keep coming back to the Olympics.”
Family, ultimately, is why Igarashi chose to represent Japan over the U.S., a decision he made in 2018.
“It was definitely a hard decision, but I just felt like my heart was with Japan,” he said. “I really owe a lot to my family, for everything they’ve done for me. Their sacrifices are what made me who I am today. That was the ultimate way of me being able to represent them and kind of carry them with me.”
When Tokyo 2020 does arrive, Igarashi’s family story will come full circle in a way.
His father, Tsutomu, loved surfing. In his younger years, he and friends would hop a fence and beat a path through the grass on their way to the water at Tsurigasaki Beach (also known as Shidashita Beach), in Chiba Prefecture.
Tsutomu wasn’t just passionate about surfing, he was good. Kanoa says while his father isn’t very competitive and wasn’t really into surf competitions, he nevertheless posted good scores. Kanoa says Tsutomu, despite the countless stories he’s told his son through the years, has never really come clean about his own skills as a surfer.
“His friends always told me how talented he was,” Kanoa said. “He was just naturally gifted, and never the type to really spend time in the gym and stuff like that. He was just a natural for the sport. So, yeah, knowing that I have that kind of in my blood.”
Igarashi’s mother, Misa, was also a surfer — which is how his parents met — and she and Tsutomu would drive for over an hour from Tokyo to Chiba to go surfing together.
When they found out Kanoa was on the way, they packed up and moved from Japan to Huntington Beach, California, aka “Surf City, USA,” so the father could pass the baton to the son.
“Whatever he did to get me into surfing, it worked,” Igarashi said. “He kind of just fed it into me as a young kid. He never forced it. I never felt like surfing was a forced option. He did it in a way where I just fell in love with the sport and I owe him everything for it. The ocean is my second home now and he made me feel comfortable in the ocean.”
Igarashi’s 18-year-old brother, Keanu, is also a surfer.
In July, Tsurigasaki will serve as the Olympic surfing venue, meaning the family will watch Kanoa surf for a gold medal at the same beach Tsutomu hopped over fences to get to all those years ago.
“It’s huge,” Igarashi said. “The place where my dad grew up surfing is the Olympic venue. Sometimes it feels weird, it feels like destiny in a way. It’s definitely special for my dad and for my family and for me. He’s told me stories about jumping fences and kind of making a path to go out and surf. Now here we are, who knows how many years later.”
Before the games, however, Igarashi is focusing on getting off to a good start in the Championship Tour, which resumed Wednesday after a year off. The WSL announced the cancellation of its 2020 season in July due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last event of the previous season took place in December of 2019, meaning the athletes have had a very lengthy break.
Before this recent stretch of inactivity, the longest Igarashi had gone without competing was around four months after breaking his leg when he around 14 years old.
“Pretty much about a year without competing for points, it’s definitely unique for us,” he said. “It’ll be exciting to see which surfers kind of thrive off of that off time and used that time wisely compared to the others. So we’ll see how it all pans out.”
The WSL is also returning with a new wrinkle. This year marks the introduction of the WSL Finals, a single-day event where the top five surfers in the men’s and women’s rankings will vie for the title at the end of the season.
“It’s gonna add a lot of extra spice,” Igrashi said. “It’s going to be so much on the line for that final event. Everything leading up to it is going to be super exciting. I just hope I’m a part of it. This is pretty much the Super Bowl for us.”
Igarashi begins this season at No. 6 in the rankings.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a number, but that number gives you a lot of confidence,” he said.
Igarashi is standing at the precipice of what could be a life-altering year. As a Japanese kid growing up in the U.S. he often felt stuck between two worlds until he was in the water.
“I just always stuck out,” he says. “I was always the different one. Surfing was my way of escaping that kind of strangeness that I had and kind of fitting in also. At the same time, it was kind of this international language.
“For me, that’s how I like to compete. Surfing is my international language and I get to go out there and I compete and I feel like I represent not just the country that’s on my shoulders but many other things. It’s this new wave generation. We’re hungry, we have nothing to lose, everything to gain, everything’s in front of us. We surf with a lot of pressure on our backs, and especially mine.
“The main goal is to win a world title and get a gold medal and make my parents proud. I just know I’ll be giving it my all in every single heat and I’m looking forward to finishing the season knowing that I gave it my all.”
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