Kolohe Andino is currently the top-ranked surfer in the world, yet early Tuesday morning he roamed the Huntington Beach Pier without fanfare or autograph seekers, as though he was just a regular dude.
His relative anonymity, however, may be short-lived, considering one year from now, the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan will include surfing for the first time.
Though Andino and other world-class surfers who are vying for Olympic spots are celebrities in the surfing world, the Olympics bring in a mainstream audience that is sure to change the way some surfers go about their daily lives. Simply strolling the pier, any pier, may never be the same.
San Clemente’s Andino and fellow Championship Tour surfer Conner Coffin of Santa Barbara spent a couple of hours on the pier Tuesday morning doing interviews with KNBC Los Angeles for its live morning show. Andino and Coffin will surf in the U.S. Open of Surfing, which begins Saturday in Huntington Beach.
The World Surf League, which runs the CT, and USA Surfing, which is the governing body of the U.S. national team, helped put Tuesday’s event together, knowing that one year will fly by quickly.
In the middle of it all was Greg Cruse, USA Surfing’s CEO, a life-long surfer and Marina High graduate.
“Anxious,” Cruse said when asked how he’s feeling. “I just got back from the test event in Japan and it went really good. The waves were good. The biggest concern within the surf world is, are the waves going to be sufficient enough to showcase the sport?
“I’ve been to Japan seven times in the past 2½ years doing logistics and there’s been good waves every time I’ve been there. It’s a beach break, the waves have a little more close interval. It’s like the east coast of the United States but more consistent. So there’ll be good waves in our eight-day waiting period, and we’ll be able to showcase the sport in a good light. … But we’re not guaranteeing anything; it’s Mother Nature.”
While surfing’s Olympic debut in Japan next year is a big deal, Cruse also has his eye on 2024 in Paris and 2028 in Los Angeles. Huntington Beach, it seems, is the odds-on favorite to host the surfing competition in 2028.
“Obviously Huntington Beach has the consistency, they have experience hosting large events like the U.S. Open [of Surfing], they have the hotels,” Cruse said. “And the pier and the beach make a natural amphitheater for the spectators.”
Other potential sites would be Lower Trestles and Malibu, and possibly the Surf Ranch wave pool in the central California farming town of Lemoore.
For now, though, the focus is on Japan, and for the CT surfers, qualifying for the Games is just another aspect of competing at the highest level. The top two ranked men and women surfers on the CT per country by season’s end will determine who will make the trip to Japan.
Based on the rankings now, Andino (ranked No. 1) and John John Florence (No. 3) are the top two U.S. surfers. Florence, however, suffered a torn ACL in his knee and had surgery, greatly reducing his chances of finishing as a qualifier.
Next up in the CT rankings is 47-year old Kelly Slater (ranked No. 8), the 11-time world champion. If Slater qualifies, simply his presence on the team would draw even more attention considering his mainstream recognition, something Cruse can appreciate.
“Just everything he’s done for the sport,” Cruse said. “He’s the greatest of all-time. He’s the greatest athlete of all-time, let alone surfer of all-time, with the longevity of his career. He was the youngest world champion [at age 20 in 1992] and the oldest world champion [at age 39 in 2011]. I think it would be fitting for him to be one our Olympians and I would love it.”
For Andino, 25, after the most recent CT contest at J-Bay in South Africa, his equal-third finish moved him up to No. 1 in the world for the first time. Five of the 11 contests still remain on the schedule in his quest for a world title, with an Olympic berth being icing on the cake.
“It was looking like me and John were going to be together, so I was excited for that just because we’re good friends and I love competing against him,” Andino said of a potential Olympic experience. “But I am more excited about walking [during opening and closing ceremonies] with guys like Kevin Durant and more mainstream sports guys, because I’m a really big sports fan. I consider myself a jock.”
Coffin, 26, sits at No. 12 in the world, four spots behind Slater in the race for the second Olympic qualifying spot. But he said he won’t be paying extra attention to Andino, Slater or any of the other U.S. surfers as the season progresses.
“My goal going into the year was to do everything I’ve been doing and up my game on tour and finish in the top five,” said Coffin, who finished No. 7 in the world last year. “If I give myself that opportunity, you’ve got a pretty good chance of qualifying for the team. That’s like a cherry on top. I’m trying to keep that mindset because if you get wrapped up in a results mindset, the wheels fall off. Just trying to do my thing and see where the dust settles at the end of the year.
“For me it just comes down to coming prepared for every event and surfing my best.”
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