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Kanoa Igarashi finds his groove in the water

Kanoa Igarashi finds his groove in the water
Defending champion Kanoa Igarashi goes backside off the top of a wave while warming up at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach on Wednesday. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Kanoa Igarashi, the Wave Whisperer?

Don’t laugh. If you saw his first heat in round two of the U.S. Open of Surfing on Wednesday, you’d swear there was something to it.

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He looked like a man among boys surfing the small shore break waves on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier. When in fact, it is Igarashi who is the youngster, just 20 years old and already in the midst of his third season on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour.

In his first heat in defense of last year’s U.S. Open title, Igarashi didn’t show any signs of feeling pressure to repeat and join fellow Huntington Beach native Brett Simpson as the only surfers to win back-to-back men’s Open crowns. It was just the opposite, and his scores reflected as much.

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Igarashi had three scores better than seven — 7.33, 8.07 and 7.57 — when the other three surfers in the heat combined for only one score over six. That was Santa Cruz’s Nat Young, who scored a 6.83 in the waning seconds of the heat to move into advancing position with a second-place finish.

Igarashi looked like someone who has been surfing those south side waves since he was 5, but it was more than that. It wasn’t that he knew where to sit, anticipating where the waves would be. It was more a case of wherever Igarashi would sit, the wave would come to him.

At least, that what Igarashi believes, and it’s hard to argue.

“It’s the ocean, so you never know what the ocean’s going to hand you and what it’s going to do,” Igarashi said. “I think it’s more about just about being comfortable. All my friends are here, all my family is here, the crowd knows me. It’s about having that mindset of, ‘OK, I’m at home.’

“I think that’s what funnels waves toward me. I feel like waves just come to me out here. I think it’s a combination of all the energy around me.”

Igarashi seems to embrace words like “energy” and “momentum,” those intangible, invisible things that can affect the direction of his journey. He finished 20th in the world in his first year on the CT and 17th last year. Through six of the 11 CT contests so far this year he is ranked No. 17 and is coming off his best finish of the season — an equal-third at the J-Bay Open in South Africa.

“I feel like I’ve had momentum ever since the U.S. Open win last year,” he said. “I got a good result in J-Bay, I just feel everything’s good right now. I went to the World Cup finals. I had a lot of fun [watching soccer in Russia]. It’s like, life couldn’t get any better right now. I’m 20 years old and I’m [on] tour, and I get to make the most out of it. Whether the results are good or bad, I’m having the best time of my life.”

After his impressive round two heat to start the Open, Igarashi had a squeaker in round three on Thursday, advancing with a second-place finish behind Alejo Muniz of Brazil, just .23 points (11.90 to 11.67) ahead of third-place Davey Cathels of Australia, who was eliminated.

Huntington Beach's Kanoa Igarashi surveys the lineup after winning his heat in round two at the U.S Open of Surfing on Wednesday.
Huntington Beach's Kanoa Igarashi surveys the lineup after winning his heat in round two at the U.S Open of Surfing on Wednesday. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In round four on Friday, Igarashi won his heat against Florida’s Evan Geiselman and San Clemente’s Pat Gudauskas. Gudauskas, ranked No. 29 on the CT, was eliminated.

By winning and advancing in round four, Igarashi reached the round of 16 heading into the weekend with his goal of winning back-to-back U.S. Open titles that much closer to reality.

“For me, this is when I get motivated, because this is where the business end of the competition is,” he said. “The first few heats are always important — you can’t win the event but you can definitely lose the event. But once you’re here, this is where I feel like I can buckle in and where I do my best surfing. The contest just started for me.”

Hall of Famer Brett Simpson

Simpson put his handprints and footprints in cement in front of Huntington Surf & Sport as part of his induction into the Surfing Hall of Fame on Friday morning.

Simpson, however, was hoping to last a little longer in the U.S. Open, eight years after winning his second Open crown. Instead, Simpson finished in fourth place in his four-man round two heat, falling short of placing in the top two required to advance.

Simpson was in first place for most of the heat, but a flurry of waves in the final few minutes gave everybody plenty of opportunities to put up scores. Gudauskas won the heat and Hawaii’s Ethan Ewing also advanced with a second place finish. Brazil’s Lucas Silveira was third and eliminated.

Court is back in session

It was good to see Sage Hill School graduate Courtney Conlogue ripping up waves in the women’s contest, which is designated as a CT event, the seventh of 10 in the championship season.

Conlogue, who finished second in the world in 2015 and 2016, and fourth last year, has missed four contests this season because of a broken bone in her foot. Conlogue, from Santa Ana, doesn’t have a realistic chance to win a world title this year, but she definitely can stir things up.

And she did just that Friday in round one of the women’s contest, winning the heat and beating former world championship Carissa Moore in the process. She is a U.S. Open winner herself, taking the crown in 2009 when she was just 16.

Holy Toledo

Some Brazilian surfers have made San Clemente their home away from home, most notably Filipe Toledo, who is ranked No. 1 in the world, and No. 3 Gabriel Medina.

Neither competed in the U.S. Open this year, and it was especially disappointing not to see Toledo, who has developed a rivalry of sorts with Igarashi, particularly at the Open.

Two years ago, the two matched up in the semifinals with Toledo winning and then winning the contest. Last year they matched up in the semis again, but Igarashi returned the favor and also went on to win the contest.

That second semifinal also included a little extra drama, as Toledo was called for interference in the heat, something that didn’t go over too well with Toledo’s father, who expressed as much on social media after the event.

So where was Toledo this past week? Instead of trying to win the $100,000 first-place prize money, Toledo was surfing in Tahiti, site of the next CT contest that begins next week.

Must be nice.

Slater said so

Somewhere in Lemoore, or on the North Shore, or wherever Kelly Slater is at the moment, he’s saying, “See? That’s why we have the Surf Ranch!”

For most of the U.S. Open, the waves have been almost non-existent on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier, making things challenging for the surfers, who rode a lot of shore break waves in shallow water.

You know it’s bad when you look north and south from the pier and see nobody free surfing, but kudos to the pros who have a remarkable knack of making something out of nothing.

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As for Slater, he can guarantee when the Surf Ranch in Lemoore is the site for the CT contest in September that the waves will be pumping, as long as there are no mechanical glitches with the wave machine.

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Coffin Bros.

Conner and Parker Coffin, surfers from Santa Barbara, found themselves matched up in the same round two heat early in the week, forced to compete against each other and two other surfers.

Older brother Conner is currently on the CT and ranked No. 11 in the world, but younger brother Parker, working his way up the ranks on the Qualifying Series, out-pointed Conner 10.36 to 10.30. Problem was, however, that both were eliminated, finishing third and fourth.

Another possible matchup between brothers — Pat and Tanner Gudauskas — disappeared when Pat was eliminated in round four. Tanner, though, won his round four heat and reached the round of 16.

San Clemente dominance

Tanner Gudauskas is not on the CT, but San Clemente’s Griffin Colapinto (ranked No. 10) and Kolohe Andino (No. 15) are, and both advanced to the round of 16.

Some observers were looking forward to a possible showdown between Colapinto and Igarashi, who have competed against each other since they were groms.

And then there’s Kade Matson, just 16 and potentially a CT surfer in the future. The San Clemente native reached Saturday’s Junior Men’s Final.

Reef is smokin’ hot

Talk about getting on a roll. Australia’s Reef Heazlewood surfed in the Open Men’s Trials, which essentially is a 32-man contest with the winner getting the last spot in the 112-man men’s contest.

So you have to win a 32-man contest, just to get in to the main event. Heazlewood did just that, but he didn’t stop there. He advanced through rounds one through four, reaching the round of 16 where he was matched up against Andino.

Along the way, Heazlewood, currently ranked No. 32 on the QS, beat CT surfers like Yago Dora, Mikey Wright and Colapinto.

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