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Huntington Beach’s Kanoa Igarashi returns to try for third U.S. Open of Surfing title

Kanoa Igarashi
Kanoa Igarashi competes in the men’s semifinals of the 2018 Vans U.S. Open of Surfing.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been a while since there’s been a surfer in the water on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier wearing a jersey that had “U.S. Open of Surfing” emblazoned across the chest.

Two years, one month, two weeks and two days, in fact. But hey, who’s counting.

Yago Dora of Brazil and Sage Erickson of Ojai won the men’s and women’s titles, respectively, on Aug. 4, 2019, not knowing it would be a while until one of the world’s biggest and most popular surf contests would return.

But it’s back, the U.S. Open of Surfing presented by Shiseido is now underway with new champions to be crowned on Sunday. A total of 96 men and 64 women are competing for the prestigious title and a cash prize of $25,000.

Huntington Beach’s Kanoa Igarashi is back at his home break after being busy surfing around the world, including winning a silver medal in the Tokyo Olympics earlier this summer, as surfing made its Olympic debut.

He also finished No. 8 in the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, an impressive result but short of his goal of finishing in the top five — needed to qualify for the Rip Curl WSL Finals held earlier this month at Lower Trestles, where Brazil’s Gabriel Medina was crowned world champion.

Immediately after the Olympics, Igarashi jumped back into the CT title chase for the final two events. He ranked No. 6 going into the contest at Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca, Mexico, but had a subpar finish there (equal 17th), dropping him to No. 8 overall, and then learned that the final CT contest in Tahiti was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

“It was tricky,” Igarashi said. “I had a really hard time finding my feet after the Olympics, it was such an emotional high. When I went into Barra, I’ll be completely honest, my head wasn’t completely there. I was still mentally recovering from the Olympics.

“I kind of backed myself into the last event of the year in Tahiti, and when that was canceled, I kind of felt a little bit lost.”

So after the high of the Olympics and the disappointment of the CT finish, Igarashi did what any of us would do to regroup — take a vacation with friends.

“I went to Mexico and just kind of got away a little bit and found myself, wanted to not think about the Olympics, wanted to not think about the top five and just wake up every morning and ask myself what I wanted to do and what I felt like that day,” he said. “I had an amazing trip to Mexico, and I just reset and refreshed.”

A refreshed and motivated Igarashi is not good news for the other 95 men’s surfers in the Open. Igarashi, who won the Open in 2017 and ’18, knows the south side wave like nobody else, and he also has an opportunity to make history and join Rob Machado (1995, 2001, 2006) as the only three-time US Open men’s champion. Tom Curren won three times when it was called the OP Pro.

World surfing champions stay true to their rankings and prevail in competition held at Trestles.

This year’s Open is different for Igarashi and other CT surfers because it is taking place after the CT season has been completed.

“That’s why this year’s U.S. Open is really different for me,” Igarashi said. “I’m really excited for it, I’m in a much different headspace because it’s pretty much my last event of the year. I’ve got this really relaxed mentality, but at the same time I’m super motivated to win.

“I feel the prior years that I’ve won, I haven’t done my best surfing that I know I can do. This year, I’m totally in the present, totally in the moment. I’m pretty excited to see how this kind of mentality and headspace will work out for me this week because I know it’s a lot healthier than what I’ve had in the past.”

On the women’s side, Santa Ana’s Courtney Conlogue hopes for continued success at the Open after some struggles on the CT recently. This year she finished No. 9 in the world but failed to qualify for the WSL Finals.

She is, however, like Igarashi a two-time U.S. Open winner (2009, 2018) and she nearly got a third in 2019 when she lost in the final to Erickson.

“It feels like the game’s back on now with the U.S. Open returning,” Conlogue said. “I think COVID-19 taking it out last year was quite a bummer. It’s an event where the locals get to come down, cheer on their favorite local surfers and see the international field, which I think is really special.

“I’ve competed in the U.S. Open since I was 11 or 12 years old and it’s a contest that I hold really close to my heart.”

The contest typically runs in late July/early August, when the conditions aren’t always all that great. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater hasn’t competed in the contest for several years, in part because “The problem is that time of year the wind every day is predictable,” Slater said. “It does the same thing every [darn] day.”

Late September, though, can be different. And better.

“Honestly I’m stoked for people to see Huntington at this time of the year,” Igarashi said. “From September into October is our golden time of the year when people get to see the real Huntington. There’s the nice temperatures, beautiful sunsets every day, and crystal clear mornings with light winds all day — and there’s always a good combo swell in the water.”

Costa Mesa’s Meah Collins, daughter of former OP Pro winner Richie Collins (1989), will compete in the women’s contest.

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