By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – With a back story 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 recognise if he washed up on their front lawn.
With surfing set to make its Olympic debut, that is about to change.
Today, the mop topped bleach blonde 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 $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 rise and will 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,” Igarashi told Reuters. “But my main sponsors definitely see the value in the Olympics.
“For surfing is a young sport, a hip sport, a social sport and I think Japan hasn’t realised that yet.”
Engaging, cool, distractingly polite, multi-lingual and accomplished, Igarashi is an endorser’s dream.
So much so that the 22-year-old surfer could be the tide that helps raise all boats.
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.
In between, however, there had been no transcendent figure, and the sport is hungry for its next one.
Now 48 years old and still competing, Slater was surfing’s first bonafide crossover star. He played the role on the hit television series Baywatch.
An entrepreneur and philanthropist, 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 photo spread as on surfing websites in ads for surf wear apparel company Quiksilver.
‘A LOT OF THINGS GOING MY WAY’
“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 Surf City USA, Huntington Beach home. He qualified for the WSL Championship Tour in 2015.
Igarashi finished the 2019 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.
Taking a page out Richard Williams’ master plan that took Serena and Venus from the Compton ghetto to tennis superstardom, Tsutomu and Misa left Japan and settled in Surf City USA 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,” recalled Igarashi, pride clear in his voice. “My dad felt like it was a waste of talent and he felt bad.
“He wanted to give his son the best opportunity to be a professional surfer and that when I was born, he wanted to have me in America to give me the best opportunity,” Igarashi said.
“They put everything they had aside for me.”
If Igarashi’s story wasn’t 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),” said Igarashi. “I feel really comfortable there knowing that there’s some sort of connection there with my dad.
“I feel like there’s a lot of things going my way and I just want to take advantage of it,” he added.
“I can’t wait to see that moment when I’m catching my first wave in the Olympics with my dad watching.”
(This refile adds dropped words)
(Additional reporting Omar Younis, Editing by Bill Berkrot)