The contemporary global phenomenon known as Kanoa Igarashi dates back to 2018, when the International Olympic Committee ad that surfing would be included for the first time at the Tokyo Games in 2020. Forty surfers will participate 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 professional surfers. Japan was guaranteed only one male location and one female location to be the host country. Igarashi had a high chance of claiming one of the American slots, but would have to go up against guys like Slater and Florence to lock it down. Japan, on the other hand, didn’t have a single athlete of Igarashi’s caliber, making them a spearhead.
The only catch is that Igarashi would have to change his official national affiliation to the World Surf League, which is the flag under which he surfs the Championship Tour.
Igarashi says he and his parents had been talking about this possibility for years. “The conversation was still there,” he told me. “Obviously the whole national thing was, like, my family, honor, the sacrifices they made for me. And then it was just like, ‘Hey, I wanna do this for you guys.’ “
In February 2018, Igarashi made it official via Instagram. He concedes that the social media chatter featured predictable criticism. “The image that some people have of me may have changed for the good or the bad,” he says. “But for me, my feelings are still the same. You know, in my heart, I’m all American. I love America. I live in Huntington Beach, for god’s sake.
As part of this change of national affiliation, however, Igarashi joined the Japanese national team for the 2018 ISA World Surf Games in Tahara, Japan. When the Japanese surprised everyone by winning gold, Igarashi told Australian surf magazine Stab that he was taken to a safe place on top of a tall building, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe landed in a helicopter. After security officers searched Igarashi for weapons, Abe said something like, “I put my faith in you. Japan is counting on you to win Olympic gold.
Igarashi was taken aback, “I said to him, ‘I feel like you are sending me to war.’ “
In Igarashi’s account, Abe replied, “I hope you take it as a war.”
Which brings me back to the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters and Igarashi’s oddly relaxed performance. At this point in history, it should be mentioned that the upper echelons of the Championship Tour of Surfing have, for several years, been totally dominated by the same three indomitable Brazilians: Gabriel Medina, Italo Ferreira and Filipe Toledo. It’s also worth mentioning that these Brazilians are all in their mid-twenties. In other words, they’re not going anywhere.
Igarashi always surfs with powerful precision, tearing waves and taking off as well as anyone. But his performance in the contest, unlike the Brazilians’ relentless super-predation, ranges from fiercely inspired to curiously impartial. When Igarashi beat Slater and the Brazilians at the Corona Protected Pro 2019 in Bali, for example, he adopted the old attitude, delivering a superb demonstration of high speed slash and soar.
By the time Pipeline rolled, however, the contemporary balance of the nature of surfing had reasserted itself, with the top five slots being re-occupied by the three Brazilians, a South African named Jordy Smith and the American Kolohe Andino. This left Igarashi out of the title challenge. Despite the possibility of Pipe fame, Igarashi surfed as if self-respect only required finishing the season with dignity, which he did exactly, bowing to a fellow French surfer in the third of the seven rounds of the competition. Subsequently, high enough in the standings to feel on track for his overall life plan, too low to win the whole tournament and with a secure Olympic place, he said: “I didn’t feel my aura. . I didn’t feel that kind of … thing. Which is kind of a disappointment. But at the same time, I did my best.