Photo/IllutrationKanoa Igarashi wins the silver medal at the Urban Research ISA World Surfing Games held in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, in September 2018. (Takeshi Teruya)

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Surfer Kanoa Igarashi was making waves long before he became a top Japanese contender for the Tokyo Olympics.

The 21-year-old, born to Japanese parents, learned to surf in Huntington Beach, California, and became a U.S. champion at the age of 12.

Igarashi joined Team Japan last year and is hoping to represent the country at the 2020 Games, where surfing will be added as a medal event.

“I hope many people will see my performance at the Tokyo Olympics and think that surfing looks interesting,” he said.

Igarashi's extraordinary journey started when he was just 3 years old and accompanied his surfer father, Tsutomu, to a surfboard shop in Hawaii.

The boy kept pestering him to buy a yellow board and refused to leave the shop without one.

The $750 (81,000 yen) price tag gave Tsutomu pause for thought, but he gave in anyway.

By the time the day was out, little Kanoa had stunned his father, now 55, by standing on the surfboard.

Kanoa means "freedom" in Hawaiian language, which proved to be an apt name as the father said, "I wanted my son to grow up to make the world his stage.”

Tsutomu noted that sometimes in Hawaiian culture, outsiders are not welcome to ride the waves.

"But with a name like Kanoa, I thought he might be mistaken for a local kid and be able to surf.”

The father’s wish came true during a visit to Hawaii by the Igarashi family to celebrate Kanoa’s third birthday.

It was the day the boy became transfixed by the goodies on offer in the surfboard shop.

“Growing up with my father, I had always thought surfing looked interesting. It was cool, so I wanted a surfboard, too,” said Kanoa.

Tsutomu and his wife moved from Japan to the United States in 1995 to start afresh in Southern California.

Kanoa came along two years later and grew up idolizing his father.

Still, Tsutomu was skeptical of his son’s sudden enthusiasm for surfing at such a tender age.

He recalled thinking, “It is expensive. Will he really do it?”

Tsutomu’s coaching principle was simple: Let my son have fun, lots of fun.

“You shouldn’t scare a 3-year-old kid,” Tsutomu said of his coaching style. “He may feel hungry. He may want to go to bathroom when the water gets cold. So I made sure he was able to focus on practice as much as possible.”

The Igarashi family made their home in Huntington Beach, an international surfing community located south of Los Angeles. Legendary surfers like Kelly Slater, an 11-time world champion, regularly came to ride the waves there.

“I spent my play time in the ocean. That’s what it was like,” Kanoa said.

Recalling his daily regimen, Igarashi said school started at 8:35 a.m. and finished at 2:38 p.m.

“I hopped into a car at 2:42 p.m. and had changed into a wetsuit by 2:53 p.m. In winter, it became dark at 5:43 p.m. I remember all the times I surfed. It was that much of a fun time.”

Igarashi made dramatic progress. At the age of 11, he chalked up 30 victories a year at amateur tournaments in the United States, setting a record for the most wins and grabbing the national attention.


Tsutomu had a dream, too.

“I wanted my son to become a beloved figure, not limited by national boundaries.”

Before moving to the United States, Tsutomu worked as a trainer at a gym in Japan.

In those days, few surfers in Japan bothered to perform muscle and stretching techniques before getting into the water.

“If I incorporate elements of fitness and train even harder, I can be a better surfer.”

That thought was the deal-breaker that prompted Tsutomu to leave for the United States and learn about fitness.

“People may have a glamorous image when they hear ‘American-raised,’” said Tsutomu, talking about his son growing up in the United States.

“But it was far from it. It was a life of struggle,” said Tsutomu, recalling how he struggled to find stable work. For a while, he bought stylish sneakers and shipped them to Japan to make ends meet.

By the time Kanoa was born in 1997, Japan’s overheated stock and real estate markets had collapsed. The asset-inflated economic boom was over.

Demand for gyms dwindled.

Tsutomu did what he could to support his family, driving a limo and working as a tour guide for visitors from Japan.

But the paychecks stopped coming after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

"I was desperately trying to get by every day,” Tsutomu recalled of those dark days.

The Internet was still in its infancy and the Igarashis struggled to enter their son into surf tournaments.

Desperate for information, the family made the rounds of surfing shops to collect fliers, read magazines and maps, and then made telephone calls to ensure Kanoa was entered into competitions.

“When I was little, we did everything together," Kanoa said. "The family has made me strong.”

In surf competitions, victory and defeat are the prerogatives of a panel of judges. It wasn’t easy for a Japanese kid to win in the United States, Tsutomu recalled.

In early years, spectators booed when Kanoa won and let out huge cheers when he lost.

But Igarashi was “too busy to worry about such things back then.”

He kept racking up victories and became a U.S. champion at the age of 12.

“I never thought that an Asian would be given a chance to win in the United States,” Tsutomu reflected.

Kanoa’s learning curve far exceeded his father’s expectations.


Aside from English and Japanese, Igarashi is fluent in Portuguese, French and Spanish.

“It’s easy. Friends taught me,” Igarashi laughed when he was asked how he accomplished the feat. “I have friends all over the world. It’s like the world is my home.”

Igarashi’s ability to make friends anywhere is rooted in his childhood.

“He was never shy from the first time we met,” said Yuji Yoshimura.

The 49-year-old representative in Japan of Quick Silver, a surfing brand headquartered in Huntington Beach and one of Igarashi's sponsors, has known the surfer since he was 12 years old.

Igarashi joined the team of certified athletes for the United States at the age of 9.

He was selected at the age of 12 to be part of Quick Silver’s global team, an elite group of five surfers chosen not only for their surfing skills but also their language and academic abilities.

With fellow surfers such as Slater, Igarashi began traveling the world to take part in competitions.

He always asked locals about little-known spots with the best waves.

It was through such conversations that Igarashi befriended people in Brazil and Portugal and mastered their native tongues.

Igarashi views himself as a global athlete.

Partly because of that, perhaps, Igarashi’s announcement that he would represent Japan in December 2017 shocked many fans.

The International Surfing Association (ISA) gave the nod to Igarashi’s request to surf on Team Japan at future world championships and potentially the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The move took him away from the restricted U.S. surfing circuit, and understandably, some American fans expressed their disappointment on social networking sites.

But Igarashi took it in his stride.

“Had they not been disappointed by my decision, then that would have disappointed me,” he said.

Igarashi decided he wanted to surf on Team Japan before Tokyo was named as host city of the 2020 Olympics.

“My parents are Japanese, so I thought it would be more natural for me to represent Japan,” Igarashi said. “Winning is my goal. That remains unchanged.”

Igarashi had no problems fitting in with Japan’s national surfing team.

At the Urban Research ISA World Surfing Games held in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, in September 2018, Igarashi took on the role helping teammates relax before competitions with one gag after another.

“Kanoa creates a positive mood for those around him,” said fellow Team Japan surfer 22-year-old Hiroto Ohara.

Igarashi became the first Japanese surfer to win the silver medal at the competition.

“Representing the Japanese national flag was a motivation for me. I am a little frustrated (with the silver medal), but I will go for a first-place win in the Olympics,” Igarashi said.


The 2008 Beijing Olympics fired Igarashi's aspirations to participate in the quadrennial sports extravaganza.

Then aged 10, he was glued to the TV in his California home, in awe of spectacular performances by superstars such as sprinter Usain Bolt and swimmer Michael Phelps.

“Living in the United States, it is pretty much the norm to watch the Olympic Games. I always turned on the TV,” Igarashi said.

He read books on Bolt and was much taken with the sprinter’s famous pose of biting the gold medal on the victory podium.

But surfing was not an Olympic event.

Igarashi was aware of that, saying, “I never dreamed I might have a chance myself.”

Tsutomu used to take his young son to the Staples Center to watch NBA basketball and to Dodger Stadium for major league baseball games. They always arrived early because Tsutomu wanted to show him how top-class athletes practiced and warmed up before a game.

“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.”

Igarashi, who stands 180 centimeters tall, goes to the gym four to five times a week to build up his core strength and enhance his physique.

Taking a leaf out of Slater's book, Igarashi pays attention to his diet and rarely drinks soda or eats snacks.

Keanu, his 17-year-old brother and also a promising surfer, observed: “Kanoa spends two hours on training that normally takes only one hour. He is always thinking how to win.”

In May, Igarashi became the first Japanese to win an event of the world’s top surfing competition Championship Tour, which holds 11 events a year.

But it was just a passing point for Igarashi, whose goal is to finish in the top five overall when the Championship Tour wraps up this year.

He has another goal.

Like his idols Bolt and Phelps, Igarashi envisions himself as standing in the middle of the podium at the Olympics in Tokyo.

That will surely be a proud moment for his father, who taught him how to surf.