In the absence of an Australian contender, Kanoa is the sort of underdog Oz fans might follow.
If an Aussie doesn’t win a world title soon, I’m cutting ties with the WSL. It’s been far too long since a mongrel Aussie battler has been anywhere near the title. After J-Bay, there isn’t even an Aussie in the top 8.
Although, for the good of the sport, I’m happy to put my personal grievances aside and be satisfied if Kanoa Igarashi takes the world title in 2019.
Now let me explain my treason.
Last Friday, Kanoa was bundled out in the J-Bay quarterfinals by an almost unstoppable Italo Ferreira. While it wasn’t Kanoa’s day, his J-Bay campaign was indicative of the surfer that he has become in the last two years.
“He really is becoming one of the most consistent and reliable surfers on the Championship Tour,” said Ronnie Blakey during Kanoa’s round of 32 clash with Frederico Morias.
His form and connection with J-Bay was such that no-one really expected him to lose his quarter. Many even expected him to win the whole event.
“I’m here to interview you because I think you’re going to win the whole thing,” said Tracks’ Craig Jarvis in a pre-finals interview with Igarashi.
“I have a good feeling about this one,” said Kanoa in the same interview. “J-Bay is one of the waves that really suits my surfing. It’s a wave where when I look at the calendar at the beginning of the year, I definitely bank on this one.”
Despite his earlier than expected exit from J-Bay, his 5th place finish keeps him at number 5 on the Jeep Leaderboard. In a year where Kanoa’s has made a noticeable performance leap, his cache of 2019 results includes three 9ths, one 5th alongside his memorable maiden win, at Keramas. As the beach car-park punter might put it, “He’s turning like a man now, not a boy”.
If the California-born, Japan representative continues with his current form, he will be a serious title contender. While Teahupoo will be a major test, he made the semis at the wave-pool last year and posted a quarter-final finish in Portugal. Back in 2016 he finished second in the Pipe Masters, so there is much to suggest that Kanoa knows his way around the back end of the tour.
Igarashi winning the title could ignite a 126 million Japanese fan base. The Japanese are famously diehard supporters of their heroes and Igarashi would become an instant mega-star if he claimed the crown. Igarashi winning the world title would also put the spotlight on Japan, an island nation with huge potential for both surf travel and talent development.
Igarashi’s strong performance on tour is also timely given the 2020 Olympics are just around the corner. Surfing will gain centre-stage attention if there is a world champion, Japanese contender in the sport.
Kanoa’s calculated decision to surf for Japan on tour was initially met with some backlash. He was born as a US citizen and is a product of the USA surfing system. Many saw his nationality switch as a conspicuously strategic play to be the top rated Japanese surfer in the world. Given the top two surfers from each country automatically qualify for the Olympics, and with John Florence, Kelly Slater and Kolohe Andino as major US competitors, Kanoa deduced it was too great a risk to qualify as a US representative. Can you blame him for wanting to lock in a place to represent Japan in front of a home crowd?
In his junior years Kanoa was sometimes booed at competitions because other American-born surfers resented the kid with the Japanese heritage claiming the prizes. It’s the sort of memory that might stay with you.
"It felt like a higher power put this opportunity in front of me to make my family proud,” said Kanoa in an article on Magic Seaweed. “It was one of those things where everything came together. I believe in signs and there were signs everywhere saying, ‘Do it, do it!’ It’s at my dad’s spot and will probably be my grandparents last Olympics they’ll ever see."
Kanoa was born for the Olympics and clearly he believes that it was written in the stars for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Japan. In a recent interview, he talked about how the 2008 Beijing Olympic games had him glued to the screen and guzzling content featuring his favourite athletes, Usian Bolt and Michael Phelps.
“There is something different about top-rated athletes, something in their appearance and the aura they give off,” Kanoa said. “Naturally, I started thinking about how I could become like them.”
Given that surfing hadn't yet been announced as an official Olympic sport during his 2008 Bolt obsessed days, he said he had "never dreamed [he] might have a chance” to represent his country at the Olympics. Now Kanoa wants to serve as a source of inspiration, radiating an aura of his own to those watching around the world.
“I hope many people will see my performance at the Tokyo Olympics and think that surfing looks interesting,” he said.
When trying to grasp the impact that a local hero competing for gold would have on surfing, one might find some parallel with Cathy Freeman’s run in the 400m at the Sydney Olympics.
Freeman’s 400m gold is a striking example of the hometown hero winning in front of a massive crowd –112,000 people in the stadium and millions more watching at home.
Admittedly, Freeman’s famous sprint had broader political implications than the event itself, but there’s no denying the impact of her victory still strikes a chord with Australians today.
“Life’s a movie” said Kanoa on Instagram after being (literally) crowned with Japan’s first ever WSL victory at Keramas. Maybe this film will reach its climax with him as the reigning world champ at Tsurigasaki Beach, with an Olympic gold to boot.
With a top surfer in Japanese colours looking to bring home the gold, the TVs will be on, the beach will be packed and our little sport of surfing might just become one of the biggest sports in Japan for a moment or two.
For now Kanoa needs to keep crushing it on the WCT in 2019. In the absence of an Aussie contender I’ll be doing the Australian thing and cheering for the underdog who surfs for the land of the rising sun.