After making a run into the gold medal match at the Tokyo Olympics — and nearly pulling off the kind of ending you only see in movies — Kanoa Igarashi is turning the page.
He’ll have time to admire the silver medal he earned at the Olympics later. Right now, the 23-year-old’s focus is on moving up the World Surf League rankings and qualifying for the Rip Curl WSL Finals, where the world title will be on the line in a winner-take-all event for the first time.
The WSL Final Five will vie for the title during the finals at Trestles in Southern California in September. Igarashi is currently ranked No. 6 with 23,545 points, but is well within striking distance of Griffin Colapinto, ranked fifth with 24,235, and No. 4 Morgan Cibilic, who has 24,610, with two tour stops left.
“I’ve had a good year so far,” Igarashi said during an online interview on Monday from Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is competing in the Corona Open Mexico. “Especially now in the back end of the year, I feel like I’m really finding my rhythm and finding my confidence.”
Igarashi has had three top-five finishes on tour this year, including a third-place finish in his last event before the Tokyo Games.
He got another confidence boost from the Olympics.
Igarashi put his stamp on the Games in his semifinal against world No. 1 Gabriel Medina, who had a sizable lead late in their contest. Needing a big score, Igarashi unfurled a stunning aerial 540-degree spin that gave him enough points to upset the Brazilian. Igarashi ended up settling for silver after falling against Brazil’s Italo Ferreira in the final.
“My two goals for the year were the Olympics and also the top five,” Igarashi said. “Now that we just finished up the Olympics and I got a silver medal, I feel the focus goes all toward the top five, and it makes life a lot easier.”
Winning an Olympic gold medal would have been a storybook ending for Igarashi. His parents moved from Japan to Huntington Beach, California — aka Surf City, USA — shortly before he was born to give their child a better chance of getting into surfing, a sport they, his father especially, loved.
Igarashi did not just get into surfing, he excelled. He reached the WSL Championship Tour in 2016, the same year surfing was added to the Olympic program for the Tokyo Games. He chose to represent Japan at the Olympics to honor his family and competed at the Games on the very same beach where his father had surfed in his youth.
When Igarashi knocked out Medina, it looked as if the stars were aligned for the family story to come full circle with a gold medal. Despite falling short, Igarashi’s visible disappointment and pain over finishing second was quickly shifted to the back burner.
“The reaction of my family, that was to me the biggest trophy I could get,” Igarashi said. “That was the biggest gift. We were able to get together as a family the day after the event and we all just had dinner and were able to just talk and that was so special to me. To see my grandma shed tears of joy looking at the medal, that’s something money can’t buy.
“It’s such a special thing to give to my family.”
Unfortunately, Igarashi also had to face the uglier side of society during the Olympics.
He was bombarded with online abuse following his win over Medina, with some saying the semifinal was rigged and others simply resorting to insults and racism. Many of the messages directed at him were in Portuguese — which Igarashi speaks fluently.
Fans taking issue with the scoring in judged events is nothing new. Igarashi has surfed for most of his life and has become accustomed to seeing the reactions that come when fans take issue with judging. Igarashi says he takes the opinions of his inner circle to heart and blocks out outside noise. He was not impacted by the hate that came his way, but still wants to speak out against it.
“We can’t be living in a world now, in 2021, where racism is still a thing,” he said. “Not just racism, but attacks toward athletes and not understanding the mental challenges that every athlete faces.
“We’re not just here to entertain people. We’re also human. I think some people forget that. It’s understandable, because they only know us as athletes, they only see us doing our sport.”
Igarashi says such messages are often rooted in the passion fans have for sports and their favorite athletes. What he hopes, however, is that fans remain cognizant about not crossing the line.
“I really feel like all the hate and all the negative stuff should stay within the sport, stay within surfing,” he said. “You can’t blame someone for being passionate. As long as it stays within surfing, it’s fine. I think as soon as it goes outside surfing — it goes into race, it goes into nationality, it goes into family — that’s a whole other world. I feel like it shouldn’t go that far.”
Even so, the abuse he received fell on deaf ears.
“One positive message outweighs 30 hate messages,” he said. “For me, I’m fine. I’m a happy person. I have people that love me really close to me. That kept me solid.”
Igarashi has moved on to the next challenge anyway.
Medina has already clinched a spot in the WSL Final Five and fellow Brazilians Ferreira and Filipe Toledo are looking likely to lock down the next two.
Igarashi is hoping to have a big week in Mexico to put himself in position to claim one of the remaining spots for himself.
“I think after this event, possibly one more spot can be sealed up,” he said. “My goal is to win the event here. I think if I win the event here that I’ll secure my spot for Trestles.”
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