The way Kanoa Igarashi sees it, this is his town, his wave, and now he wants to make it his contest.
The U.S. Open of Surfing, the biggest surf contest in the world, is set to begin Saturday and crown men’s and women’s champions Aug. 6 at the Huntington Beach Pier.
For those days in between, the place known as “south side” to the thousands who have surfed there, becomes Igarashi’s turf, so to speak, and he’s ready to defend it.
Igarashi and several others who are competing in the World Surf League’s Championship Tour (CT) will step away from the world championship chase for a moment to surf the Open.
But for Igarashi, still just 19 and in his second season competing on the CT, the Open means everything. More specifically, winning the Open means everything to him.
Igarashi flew home to Huntington from the most recent CT contest in South Africa on Tuesday night, and Wednesday morning he was in the water at south side, reacquainting himself with the wave he knows so well.
It didn’t matter that the waves were not very good; he was home.
“To me, this contest means the most out of all them,” he said. “Yeah, I compete throughout the year, but this is the one I look forward to the most. It’s not because of the waves, but because it holds a very special place in my heart. It’s the first professional contest that I watched as a kid. This contest inspired me to want to reach my goals. It all grew from being down here as a little kid and a fan.
“Fast forward, 10, 14 years later, and here I am now. That’s why it’s such a special event for me.”
While Igarashi is quick to keep things in perspective, knowing that he can’t win every contest and every heat, this contest lights a fire in him. Two years ago, at age 17, he reached the semifinals before losing to the eventual champion, Hiroto Ohhara of Japan.
Then last year, at age 18, Igarashi again reached the semis before losing to eventual champion and fellow CT surfer Filipe Toledo of Brazil.
“That just fuels the fire even more. It’s going to make it taste that much sweeter when it comes,” Igarashi said. “Everything happens for a reason. Those two times that I lost, it made me a stronger surfer and a stronger person in general. When that win comes, I know it’ll come from those two losses, so I can’t wait for it.”
Igarashi won’t deny that he has a home break advantage.
“For sure,” he said. “Huntington’s such a tricky wave, a really hard wave to surf. Being confident in what waves I want to catch and how I want to surf is a big part of it. And having my family around and being able to sleep in my own bed, it’s an extra little bit of comfort.
“I have a lot of fun doing this event, the whole vibe of it. I love the crowd and I love all the people that come down and give it a stadium feel. I thrive off that, and that’s what keeps me going. Two third (places) in a row, it’s about time for me. I’m really excited for this week.”
Igarashi qualified for the CT in 2016 at age 18 and had a strong rookie season, finishing No. 20 in the world and requalifying in 2017. He was consistent if nothing else — he advanced beyond Round 2 in every contest and finished equal-13th in nine of the 11 CT contests.
He placed equal-ninth in the first contest of the season, and he reached the final heat at the prestigious Billabong Pipe Masters at the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu in the final contest of the season, taking second place.
Other than winning it, his performance at Pipe could not have gone any better, considering he beat both Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith not once, but twice during the contest.
“For me, I thought I could have done better, my goals were higher,” Igarashi said of his rookie year. “But at the end of the day I was 18 years old last year, and I feel like I’m ahead of schedule right now. So everything I do now is a bonus. I wanted to qualify (for the CT) when I was around 20, and now that I already have two years under my belt earlier than I expected, it’s helped me so much as a person, as a competitor and as a lover of surfing.”
Now in his second season on the CT, things haven’t gone quite as smoothly. He’s ranked No. 29, with one ninth-place finish, one 13th-place and four 25th-places.
“Going into the second year is a little bit different,” he said. “The first year you’re kind of winging it in a way; all you’re thinking about is going out and surfing. Second year you kind of overthink it a little bit. That’s what I think I’m doing.
“In general, the first part of the year isn’t my favorite part. I really like the second half of the year, and now we’re doing the turn. Starting with this event is where I feel the most comfortable, and where I love to compete the most.”
As competitive as Igarashi is, he seems to continually check himself, keep things in perspective and realize that he’s living the dream.
“I’ve had a few mixed results this year, but I don’t mind it as long as I know I’m surfing good,” he said. “And I feel I’m surfing a lot better than last year. That’s all that matters. The moment I stop having fun is when I’ll start worrying about it. Bad results are not going worry me. I’m still so young; all this is just a bonus. The year I really want to buckle down and go for the world title, I’ll do that. But for now I’m just soaking it all in and enjoying the moment.”
Those moments include opportunities like Wednesday morning, when younger brother Keanu, 15, was right along side Kanoa in the water.
“That also inspires me, to be able to push my brother and help set goals for him, and be someone for him to look up to,” he said. “I love surfing with my brother. I’d love to compete with him and go on tour with him years from now. Hopefully within the next five years or so I can be the veteran on tour and he can be the rookie.”
JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.