Hawaiian surfer Carissa Moore blew a kiss up to the sky before taking a victory lap, getting in a few last turns on a wild wave propelling her toward shore where she would be greeted by supporters celebrating her milestone gold-medal Olympic moment.
Hoisting Moore on their shoulders were USA Surfing CEO Greg Cruse, of San Clemente, and Huntington Beach surf coach Brett Simpson – it was a moment of victory not only for Moore, but also a win for her Orange County team along for the ride, her Hawaiian heritage and young female surfers.
While surfing’s much-awaited debut in the Olympics happened on the other side of the globe on the shores of Japan, local surfers in Southern California had much to celebrate.
Huntington Beach’s Kanoa Igarashi, surfing for host country Japan, earned a silver medal.
And, San Clemente makers created the surfboards ridden by Moore and the men’s winner Italo Ferreira.
The three days of competition saw 40 surfers competing at Tsurigasaki Beach. A tropical cyclone brought the waves needed for the competition to run, but the final day on Monday, July 26, (Tuesday in Japan) saw big, messy and challenging conditions.
The start of the finals day featured two Orange County men still in contention for medals, Igarashi and San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino. The two longtime rivals rose up the ranks together as young prodigies to become among the world’s standouts, but after a surf off Andino was knocked out and Igarashi made his way to the semifinals.
It was there Igarashi matched up with Brazilian Gabriel Medina, a two-time world champion considered one of the world’s best aerialists. The surfers went toe-to-toe on the waves, punting to the sky and turning above the lip, but it was one massive maneuver that earned Igarashi a high 9.33 to overtake his opponent.
But Igarashi would have no such luck in the finals, meeting up with Brazil’s Ferreira, the reigning World Surf League champion, who dominated the finals heat, despite a broken board at the start, and became the eventual gold medal winner.
Though Igarashi didn’t get the gold he was after, local surfers were stoked on his silver medal finish.
Along with finally watching surfing on the Olympic stage, surfer Artie Castro said he was stoked on Moore capturing gold for the U.S., and he was rooting on Igarashi, a two-time US Open of Surfing champ who is well-known among local surfers.
“Once it came to the finals in the men’s surfing and the US was not going to be in the finals, I was cheering for our hometown surfer, Kanoa Igarashi, and stoked on his silver,” Castro said.
Ferreira, in an interview with the International Surfing Association, talked about the gravity of his gold medal.
“All of my accomplishments have been important to me, but I think this Olympic Gold means the most because I was the first one,” he said. “But all surfers made history here. Every surfer has a piece of this gold medal.”
He talked about his journey to the Olympics from humble beginnings.
“I started surfing on a cooler top when I was a kid before I got my first real board and won my first event. Because of (my upbringing), I have a lot of passion for the sport,” he said.
For Bob Mignogna, former publisher of Surfing Magazine and former director general of the International Surfing Association, it was an incredible moment for surfing around the world, the ISA and medalists – but also the board makers, he said.
Ferreira rides boards made by San Clemente shaper Timmy Patterson and Moore has her boards shaped by San Clemente’s Matt Biolos.
“Those two helped earn the two gold medals,” Mignogna said. “San Clemente should be very proud of them.”
Moore, who has four WSL world championships and took gold by defeating South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag, said the scale of the Olympics felt so much bigger.
“Getting to share the sport with so many people that maybe have never even watched surfing was super special,” she said to the ISA in an interview. “It’s a big time for surfing to be recognized on this level.”
In addition to Igarashi and Buitendag’s silver medals, Australia’s Owen Wright and Japan’s Amuro Tsuzuki earned bronze.
The inclusion of the sport was more than just a moment for the athletes who earned medals, but potentially a cultural shift for the sport.
Igarashi said the Olympics have sparked an evolution for surfers in Japan and other Asian countries.
“My dream one day is to use this boost to push more Japanese surfers, more Asian surfers, to be on tour,” he said. “Hopefully one day we have just as many top surfers as America, Australia and Brazil.”
For Moore, it was a moment to pay homage to her Hawaiian roots and surfing’s birthplace, speaking about gold medal Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku’s dream back in the 1920s when he was competing for surfing to be included into the games.
“I recently watched a documentary about him and really got to learn about his life, how he treated people unconditionally, with love and kindness. He brought surfing to many parts of the world, and it was his dream to have surfing in the Olympics,” she said.
Huntington Beach surfer Louis Rice, owner and chiropractor at Atlas Wellness Center in Costa Mesa, was stoked for Ferreira, who he helped recover from a hamstring injury during the US Open of Surfing in 2018, the same year the Brazilian went on to clinch the world championship.
But for the contest itself, Rice had mixed feelings about the sport’s debut. On one hand, it was amazing to watch the historic moment of surfing being an Olympic sport, setting a precedent for generations of surfers to come.
But the coverage, at least in the United States, was “absolutely atrocious, woeful at best.”
“It was a golden opportunity to showcase our sport, and the ball was not only dropped, it was crushed, stepped on, and decimated,” he said.
Then, there were the waves, poor-to-fair at best, a problem that wave-pool technology could solve for future events.
For surfer Joe Cohen, also from Huntington Beach, it’s a moment to think back to when he was a kid and people told him he was wasting his time surfing. Now, maybe that perception will change.
“To see how far surfing has come and what people are doing to earn a living while chasing waves is wonderful,” he said. “I am so proud of our USA surf team and all of the other countries competitors for representing our sport.”