With a backstory ripped from a Hollywood script, crossover charisma and surfing skill that would impress Duke Kahanamoku, Kanoa Igarashi is riding a wave of opportunity that could carry him to Olympic gold and the sport to new heights.
A year ago, Igarashi was a talented wave rider competing in a niche sport carving out a decent living on the World Surf League (WSL), but a mostly anonymous figure who most people outside the sport would not recognize if he washed up on their front lawn.
With surfing set to make its Olympic debut, that is about to change.
Today, the Japanese-American surfer is nicely positioned to become the face of a sport crying out for a new look.
Long before the public has caught onto to the next big thing, sponsors and marketers have seen the future and are already shaping and selling it.
Last year with surfing’s Olympic introduction picking up buzz, Igarashi’s income hit US$2 million, according to Bloomberg.
This year, with new sponsors like Visa lining up at his door looking to catch the Igarashi wave, those earnings are sure to skyrocket should he win Olympic gold for Japan.
“There are a lot of us who don’t really know what to expect yet with the Olympics and how it is all going to pan, but my main sponsors definitely see the value in the Olympics,” Igarashi said. “For surfing is a young sport, a hip sport, a social sport and I think Japan hasn’t realised that yet.”
Duke Kahanamoku is widely regarded as the father of surfing, even though he won five Olympic medals in swimming including gold at the 1912 and 1920 Games, while American Kelly Slater is seen as its greatest champion with 11 world titles.
However, in between there has been no transcendent figure, and the sport is hungry for its next one.
Now 48 years old and still competing, Slater is now the sport’s elder statesman, leaving the position of surfing poster boy he once filled up for grabs.
It is a role Igarashi seems ideally suited for and one he is willing to take on.
Underscoring his crossover potential, you are just as likely to spot Igarashi in a GQ magazine photograph spread as on surfing Web sites in ads for surf wear apparel company Quiksilver.
“It’s truly fun and interesting for me but, you know, what I want to do is shape the image of surfing in Japan to be more youthful and to bring a younger crowd,” Igarashi said.
Igarashi began surfing with his father when he was just three on the breaks outside of their Huntington Beach, California home. He qualified for the WSL Championship Tour in 2015.
Igarashi finished last season sixth in the world rankings and won his maiden Championship Tour event in May in Bali, beating Slater in the semifinals.
“I know I’m capable of doing it,” Igarashi said of his gold medal chances in Tokyo. “I know I have everything it takes to become a gold medalist.”
While the Olympics only recently appeared on their radar, Kaona’s father Tsutomu (Tommy) and mother Misa have for decades planned and waited for their son to step into the spotlight.
Tsutomu and Misa left Japan and settled in Huntington Beach with the goal of grooming their unborn son for surfing greatness.
“My dad is so humble he never really mentioned it to me, but what I have pieced together from my dad’s friends and grandparents and my mom, he was super talented but never had competitive drive to go overseas and compete,” said Igarashi, pride clear in his voice. “My dad felt like it was a waste of talent and he felt bad.”
If Igarashi’s story was not compelling enough, the Olympics will bring it full circle when he competes for Olympic gold at the same Tsurigasaki-kaigan beaches where his father surfed growing up.
“He pretty much discovered the waves where the Olympics are going to be held at. To have that kind of spiritual connection [is special],” Igarashi said. “I feel really comfortable there knowing that there’s some sort of connection there with my dad.”
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