Is Kanoa Igarashi the LeBron of Browsing?

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The contemporary global phenomenon known as Kanoa Igarashi can be traced to 2018, when the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing would be included for the first time in the 2020 Tokyo Games. Forty surfers will compete in the event, 20 men and 20 women. It was immediately clear that the United States was likely to get two slots each for male and female athletes, given the prowess of American pro surfers. Japan was guaranteed a single male slot and a single female slot for being the host nation. Igarashi had a strong chance of claiming one of the U.S. slots but would have to battle guys like Slater and Florence to lock it down. Japan, by contrast, didn’t have a single athlete of Igarashi’s caliber, making him a shoe-in.

The only hitch was that Igarashi would have to switch his official national affiliation in the World Surf League—the flag, that is, under which he surfs on the Championship Tour.

Igarashi says that he and his parents had talked about this possibility for years. “The conversation was always there,” he told me. “Obviously, the whole national thing was, like, my family, the honor, the sacrifices they did for me. And then it was just like, ‘Hey, I want to do this for you guys.’”

In February 2018, Igarashi made it official via Instagram. He concedes that social media chatter included predictable criticism. “Some people’s image of me might have changed in a good way or a bad way,” he says. “But for me, my feelings are always the same. You know, in my heart I’m fully American. I love America. I live in Huntington Beach, for Christ’s sake.”

As part of that switch in national affiliation, though, Igarashi joined the Japanese national team for the 2018 ISA World Surfing Games in Tahara, Japan. When the Japanese surprised everyone by winning gold, Igarashi told the Australian surf magazine Stab that he got whisked off to a secure location atop a tall building, where then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe landed in a helicopter. After security guys searched Igarashi for weapons, Abe said something like, “I’m putting my faith in you. Japan is putting its faith in you to win Olympic gold.”

Igarashi was taken aback: “I told him, ‘I feel like you’re sending me off to war.’”

In Igarashi’s telling, Abe replied, “I hope you take it as a war.”

Which brings me back to the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters and Igarashi’s curiously easygoing performance. At this point in the tale, it bears mentioning that the uppermost echelons of surfing’s Championship Tour have, for several years, been utterly dominated by the same three indomitable Brazilians: Gabriel Medina, Italo Ferreira, and Filipe Toledo. It also bears mentioning that these Brazilians are all in their mid-twenties. In other words, they aren’t going anywhere.

Igarashi always surfs with powerful precision, gashing wave faces and taking flight as well as anybody. But his contest performances, unlike the relentless super-predation of the Brazilians, vary from the ferociously inspired to the curiously dispassionate. When Igarashi beat Slater and the Brazilians at the 2019 Corona Protected Pro in Bali, for example, he brought the former attitude, putting on a superb display of high-velocity slash and soar.

By the time Pipeline rolled around, though, the contemporary balance of surfing nature had reasserted itself, with the top five slots reoccupied by the three Brazilians, a South African named Jordy Smith, and American Kolohe Andino. That left Igarashi out of title contention. The possibility of Pipe glory notwithstanding, Igarashi surfed as if self-respect demanded only finishing the season with dignity, which is exactly what he did—losing to a journeyman French surfer in the third of seven rounds of competition. Afterward, high enough in the rankings to feel on track for his overall life plan, too far down to win the whole shebang, and with an Olympic spot secure, he said, “I didn’t feel my aura. I didn’t feel that kind of… thing. Which is kind of a bummer. But at the same time, I did my best.”



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