King Kelly, step aside. Make room for King Kanoa.
OK, so maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little. But only a little. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater is still on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour (CT) roster, but he’s 45 and likely is out for the season with a broken foot. So that crown may be weighing heavily on Slater’s bald head.
So really, it’s a perfect time to welcome some new royalty, and Huntington Beach’s Kanoa Igarashi could well be the man for the job.
Igarashi, 19, is in the middle of his second season on the CT and is currently ranked a modest 29th. But Sunday on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier may have marked a turning point for the surf prodigy.
Igarashi won the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing with a victory over Brazil’s Tomas Hermes in the men's final in front of thousands of onlookers on the beach and on the pier, taking home a $100,000 check. He saved his best heat for last, putting up scoring waves of 9.63 and 7.60 for a 17.23 to win in a rout over Hermes, who totaled 11.10 on his two waves.
In the women’s final, also Sunday, Ventura resident Sage Erickson, 26, captured her first Championship Tour victory, defeating 2016 U.S. Open winner Tatiana Weston-Webb.
For Igarashi, his 7.60 with about three minutes left in the 40-minute heat all but clinched his victory, giving him time to savor some special moments in the water before being mobbed by fans onshore.
“I was just thinking about what I was going to say in my speech,” Igarashi joked. “I knew at that point it was pretty much impossible (for Hermes to rally) and all the emotions started filling in at that point.
“I woke up hearing a lot of people saying it’s going to be your day, it’s going to be the best year of your life, and I just believed in it, and it ended up being real.”
After the horn sounded, ending the heat and completing the nine-day event, Igarashi got a lift from the support jet ski to the shore, with hands raised above his head.
“It was the best feeling of my life, I’ll never forget that moment,” he said. “It’s one thing to win it, but it made it a thousand times better to do it in front of my friends and family. I felt like we won it as a team, it wasn’t just me. It was all of them; they gave me the strength, they gave me the motivation and excitement to do this. It seriously is the best day of my life and I’ll never forget it.”
By no means was it smooth sailing, however. In the final, Hermes got two waves while Igarashi was still looking for his first, 15 minutes into the heat. Then it came. A set wave, about a four-footer, and Igarashi was in the perfect spot.
The regular-footer took off on the left-hander and ripped three big backside snaps as he glided toward the pier. The wave started to die out, but Igarashi connected it to the inside and threw in one more frontside turn to finish it, then saluted the crowd, knowing it was a potential heat winner.
It was. The judges gave him a 9.63, the highest scoring wave of the event. Despite having to wait for nearly half the heat for the wave to come, Igarashi said he never had a doubt it would show up for him.
“I trusted in Huntington Beach, I trusted in the luck I have out here and I just knew a wave was going to come, I didn’t doubt it for a second,” he said. “And when it came, I just chuckled, here it is, time to step up and make it count. That wave was a really special one.”
Probably the biggest hurdle Igarashi had to clear was the semifinal heat against Brazil’s Filipe Toledo. Not only was Toledo the defending U.S. Open champ, he beat Igarashi in the semis last year on the way to winning it. Igarashi admitted it was a stinging loss, but one that motivated him.
Igarashi ultimately won, 12.26 (6.83 and 5.43) to Toledo’s 11.92 (8.33 and 3.59), but the heat essentially was decided in the opening two minutes on the first wave. Both surfers paddled for the same wave, side by side. Igarashi appeared to be at the peak for the left-hander, but Toledo popped up and went right, cutting off Igarashi, who then went down.
Toledo surfed the wave all the way to shore, but moments later was called for interference. That meant that Toledo’s second-best scoring wave would be cut in half. He had the two best waves of the heat at 8.33 and 7.17, but the 7.17 was cut in half to 3.59, and it was the difference.
“It was a weird mistake on his behalf,” Igarashi said. “That happens. We’re so hungry to win, we’ll do whatever it takes to win, and sometimes, even for me, we just black out in the moment. You have your mind-set and you’re just going to do it, you don’t think of anything else. I had that mind-set and he had that mind-set and in the bigger picture it turned out in my favor. It's not how you want to win a heat, but you take it. I could have turned (that wave) into a score, so you never know. I’m just stoked I won.”
Igarashi started the day with a win in the quarterfinals over New Zealand’s Ricardo Christie, 13.30-11.83. In all, it was a great way for Igarashi to jump-start the second half of the CT season, beginning with next week’s Billabong Pro Tahiti, the seventh of 11 contests on the tour.
“I told myself I was going to use this contest as a springboard to shoot me into a good rhythm,” he said. “But I feel I’ve had rhythm all year. I feel I’ve been surfing really good, the results haven’t showed but I know I’m feeling good. I’m dialing in my boards little by little, I’m just learning and figuring it all out and I know it’s all going to come together eventually.”
JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.