Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool
Igarashi will compete for gold on behalf of family and country at his own father’s home break. (Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

Is Kanoa Igarashi the LeBron of Surfing?

Born in Surf City USA, and the descendant of an actual samurai, Japan’s surfing superstar is ready for the sport’s debut on the world stage.

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Barefoot on the sand among adoring fans at the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters surf contest on the North Shore of Oahu, Kanoa Igarashi looked mostly like what he was: a smooth-muscled, 22-year-old pro surfer with peroxide-blond hair and the youthful beauty of a boy-band teen idol in a comic book about young rock stars who become space warriors to save the galaxy.

As Igarashi psyched himself up to compete, though, and watched ten-foot barreling blue waves spit great gobs of white foam into the bright Hawaiian sun, he looked like something else, too: a star-kissed man-child who’d already won everything and couldn’t decide how he felt about it.

Allow me to back up. Igarashi has dual Japanese and American citizenship. He grew up in Huntington Beach, California, a.k.a. Surf City, with a Japanese mother and father in the role of hard-driving American sports parents. Igarashi got so good at surfing so fast that in 2016, at just 17 years old, he became the youngest rookie to qualify for the Championship Tour of the World Surf League. He won the U.S. Open, the largest surf competition in the world, in 2017 and 2018, and by early 2019 was the tenth-ranked surfer on earth, the second-ranked American, and absolutely huge in Japan.

That’s really the big story about Igarashi: Japanese pop-cultural superstardom. In 2018, he officially switched his national identity on tour from American to Japanese. His new country has around two million surfers and not a single serious challenger for the title of best and most famous Japanese surfer of all time. As a result, Igarashi, now 23, has had his image plastered on gargantuan billboards in Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo’s equivalent of Times Square. And for several years he has ridden a tsunami of sponsorship money in the neighborhood of $2 million a year from so-called endemic surf brands like Oakley, Quiksilver, and Red Bull, as well as more mainstream outfits like Beats by Dre and Japanese cosmetics and construction companies. Visa has fun ads in which Igarashi quite literally surfs a wave of cash cards.

More recently, Igarashi’s choice of flag has made him the single biggest human-interest story going into surfing’s Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Because, see, Igarashi’s mother and father not only surfed in Japan before moving to the United States but also claim to have moved precisely to give their unborn child the best possible shot at becoming a professional surfer. As if that weren’t awesome enough, Igarashi’s father is pretty sure that he and some friends were the first surfers ever to ride waves at the break in Japan where the Olympic competition will be held, 90 minutes outside Tokyo at Shidashita Beach, in the town of Ichinomiya. Meaning that Igarashi will compete for gold on behalf of family and country at his own father’s home break.

Destiny, anyone?

Nevertheless, on that sunny December day at the 2019 Pipe Masters, Igarashi could have seen his upcoming heat as a very big deal. Pipeline is still the most photographed surf spot on earth, grinding over coral reefs shallow enough to have killed at least 11 surfers and maimed the bodies and egos of countless more. And the Pipe Masters is still the biggest annual event in the sport, the jewel of the globe-trotting nine-event Championship Tour.

Igarashi tucking in at Pipeline
Igarashi tucking in at Pipeline (Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

The way that tour works, each athlete accumulates points based on how they finish at each event. At tour’s end, the final point tally determines everything from who gets crowned world champion to whether or not a given surfer even gets invited back. With Pipeline as the tour’s most prestigious single contest, and the final event on that year’s tour, the stakes were especially high because overall world-tour points were also being used to determine slots on the first-ever U.S. Olympic surfing team.

Indeed, the scene all around Igarashi buzzed with the frantic intensity of a young nutjob chugging his tenth Red Bull before BASE-jumping without a parachute. Hundreds of board-shorted enthusiasts crowded beach blankets while Kelly Slater, 47 years old and the 11-time world champ but several places behind Igarashi in the overall rankings, chased one last brass ring before retirement: a slot on the first U.S. Olympic team. Out in the water, eternally craven in his competitive will to win, Slater rocketed through a big watery tube and back into the sunshine with his fists clenched, as if mind-blown by his own brilliance. The crowd went wild as contest judges tallied fractional wave scores and announcers drawled out color commentary in the nasal surf-bro twang that seems to be their only real job requirement. Palm trees fronted a beach home owned by Slater and a bigger one owned by Jack Johnson, Slater’s musician buddy. Still other beach homes had back decks brimming with Quiksilver marketing reps and Red Bull athlete-managers—foot soldiers of the surf-industrial complex—all nibbling pupus and sipping artisanal cocktails while trading surfy bons mots.

By the time Igarashi hit the warm baby-blue water, paddling his pointy white surfboard with jaunty freshness, Slater’s performance had given way to yet another showdown, this one between two-time world champion John John Florence and a Hawaiian named Ezekiel Lau.  The former was chasing an Olympic spot of his own, and the latter needed a win to avoid getting bumped off the tour altogether.

And sure, Igarashi had already enjoyed a heck of a year on tour. In just the third contest, in Bali, he’d beaten Slater in the final to claim first place. That left Igarashi with a serious shot at the world title, a crown that has thus far eluded him. He’d kept that hope alive through several more events, including a third-place finish in Portugal. A handful of ninth- and 17th-place finishes since had sent him into the Pipe Masters in sixth place, with the world title out of reach. But victory at Pipe could still have given Igarashi a top-three overall finish and, because Pipe is still Pipe, bathed him in the greatest glory of his career. And yet, as if already kissed by God and disoriented by the divine gesture, Igarashi rode his first milky-blue left-hander with the technical competence of a man chasing nothing at all.

Celebrating a second straight U.S. Open win
Celebrating a second straight U.S. Open win (Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

Igarashi has done so many hundreds (thousands?) of softball interviews for the global surf media that his life story pours from those pouty lips in a smooth stream of burnished inevitability and performative surprise, as if he himself were still learning amazing new details that make his tale even more delightfully perfect.

In a sunny open room of a luxury oceanfront home on Oahu with views of a wind-tossed sea, Igarashi politely offered me a glass of water and sat dutifully at a table while explaining that his mom, Misa, came from a wealthy soba-noodle family that counted among its ancestors “a really, really, really, really famous samurai.”

His dad, Tsutomu, came from a similarly wealthy family in the construction trade and fell in love with surfing as a kid. Tsutomu was in his early thirties and pursuing a career as an aerobics instructor when Igarashi’s mother-to-be, who led aerobics classes of her own, got pregnant. According to Igarashi, “It was like, ‘How cool would it be for our kid to be a surfer?’ And then, like, ‘Oh wow, imagine if he was, like, a pro surfer.’”

Thus, the classic transition from Act 1 to Act 2 in the so-called hero’s journey: accepting the call to adventure. In the case of the Igarashis, that adventure involved pulling up roots and leaving behind affluent but tradition-bound families and lives, chasing a dream for their unborn child by moving clear across the Pacific to Huntington Beach in time for Igarashi’s birth on October 1, 1997.

It is a lovely and wholesome image: young Misa teaching aerobics in Los Angeles while Tsutomu manages a Japanese restaurant to make ends meet; little Kanoa waking up every morning at 5:30 for surf practice with Dad; sunrise in the water at the beach; cookies from a local bakery for breakfast before school. To this day, Igarashi, who clearly adores his dad and holds his mom in something closer to reverential respect, describes it as joyful father-son time.

It paid off, too—a local surf shop sponsored the cute little Japanese American grom when he was just six. (“Grom,” or “grommet,” being the technical surf-culture term for any very young ripper; “ripper” being, in turn, the technical term for any great surfer, as in “one who rips.”) Igarashi won his first youth contest at seven and started getting free shoes and sunglasses from Spy Optics and Vans by eight. From nine onward, with all expenses paid by sponsors, Igarashi and his parents passed weeks each winter on the North Shore of Oahu, the proving ground for all serious aspiring pros.

Back home in California, the Igarashis spent weekends being the surf-cultural equivalent of the archetypal American sports-obsessed family of high achievers: driving epic hours to contests everywhere from San Diego to San Francisco.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, Igarashi is at his most winning when he talks about how much his parents did for him and what an entitled little peanut he was along the way.

“It still eats me up to this day just knowing what my parents were doing,” he says. “I remember my dad waking me at 3 A.M. to drive because check-ins were at seven.”

Little Kanoa always slept fully laid out in the back of the car, with a mini mattress and pillow, while Mom and younger brother Keanu slumped in the passenger seat and Dad drove.

“I wake up and I’m there,” says Igarashi, burning with indebtedness. He even recalled times when they drove all that way in the wee hours only to see Kanoa lose in his first heat and immediately demand to be driven home.

“Almost psychopath stuff,” he says. “That’s one thing that I can never repay my parents. It’s crazy. I lose sleep over it.”

(Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

Igarashi says he was 13 when he decided he was ready to move up to the Pro Junior Circuit with athletes as old as 21. He found a contest in Florida and asked permission to go. Mom refused, quite sensibly: long way, expensive, adult men fighting for their careers. Igarashi says he waited until Mom fell asleep, found her credit card, and used it to pay his entry fee, book plane tickets, and reserve a car rental and hotel. (He knew how to do all this because, as the family member who spoke the best English, he had long handled logistics for the entire clan.) Mom was furious but came around and even chaperoned Kanoa to Florida.

“I remember thinking, This is the first time I ever felt pressure in my life,” Igarashi says. “The amount of anger my mom had, and then translate that into, like, understanding why she was mad, and then translating to, like, we’re there and imagine how bad it would be if I didn’t do good.”

He rewarded her by winning the whole damn contest and claiming an $8,000 prize check.

Back home, with a taste of just how successful he might actually become, Igarashi says, he asked his father why he hadn’t pushed him even harder as a kid: “Like, ‘Why weren’t you screaming at me to go surf more?’ I kind of thought maybe, Did he not care that much?”

Tsutomu’s reply, in Igarashi’s telling: “Well, you know, it’s not that I didn’t care. It’s just that I want you to live your dream, not my dream.”

One might argue that this particular ship—Kanoa living out Tsutomu’s dream—had sailed quite a long time before. But that would also require admitting that fathers and mothers have been putting their own dreams onto children from time immemorial, that a father could imbue a kid with a dream worse than life as a pro surfer, and that nobody becomes as good of a surfer as Igarashi without an authentic hunger of his own.

By the time Igarashi was 16, sponsors were sending him on so many all-expenses-paid surf trips to so many gorgeous and ultraglamorous beaches and islands with other super-hot pro surfers that Igarashi was missing an awful lot of school. Mom, ever the sensible one, argued for backing off surfing in order to finish up. Igarashi, having none of it, chose instead to drop out of high school, get his GED, and join the World Surfing League’s so-called Qualifying Tour, a lower-tier circuit of contests all over the world.

One year later, when Igarashi qualified for the major leagues—the 2017 Championship Tour—he told his father, “Dad, stop working. I want to spend more time with you. I want you to come.”

Igarashi honing his technique at a wave pool in England
Igarashi honing his technique at a wave pool in England (Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

The contemporary global phenomenon known as Kanoa Igarashi can be traced to 2018, when the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing would be included for the first time in the 2020 Tokyo Games. Forty surfers will compete in the event, 20 men and 20 women. It was immediately clear that the United States was likely to get two slots each for male and female athletes, given the prowess of American pro surfers. Japan was guaranteed a single male slot and a single female slot for being the host nation. Igarashi had a strong chance of claiming one of the U.S. slots but would have to battle guys like Slater and Florence to lock it down. Japan, by contrast, didn’t have a single athlete of Igarashi’s caliber, making him a shoe-in.

The only hitch was that Igarashi would have to switch his official national affiliation in the World Surf League—the flag, that is, under which he surfs on the Championship Tour.

Igarashi says that he and his parents had talked about this possibility for years. “The conversation was always there,” he told me. “Obviously, the whole national thing was, like, my family, the honor, the sacrifices they did for me. And then it was just like, ‘Hey, I want to do this for you guys.’”

In February 2018, Igarashi made it official via Instagram. He concedes that social media chatter included predictable criticism. “Some people’s image of me might have changed in a good way or a bad way,” he says. “But for me, my feelings are always the same. You know, in my heart I’m fully American. I love America. I live in Huntington Beach, for Christ’s sake.”

As part of that switch in national affiliation, though, Igarashi joined the Japanese national team for the 2018 ISA World Surfing Games in Tahara, Japan. When the Japanese surprised everyone by winning gold, Igarashi told the Australian surf magazine Stab that he got whisked off to a secure location atop a tall building, where then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe landed in a helicopter. After security guys searched Igarashi for weapons, Abe said something like, “I’m putting my faith in you. Japan is putting its faith in you to win Olympic gold.”

Igarashi was taken aback: “I told him, ‘I feel like you’re sending me off to war.’”

In Igarashi’s telling, Abe replied, “I hope you take it as a war.”

Which brings me back to the 2019 Billabong Pipe Masters and Igarashi’s curiously easygoing performance. At this point in the tale, it bears mentioning that the uppermost echelons of surfing’s Championship Tour have, for several years, been utterly dominated by the same three indomitable Brazilians: Gabriel Medina, Italo Ferreira, and Filipe Toledo. It also bears mentioning that these Brazilians are all in their mid-twenties. In other words, they aren’t going anywhere.

Igarashi always surfs with powerful precision, gashing wave faces and taking flight as well as anybody. But his contest performances, unlike the relentless super-predation of the Brazilians, vary from the ferociously inspired to the curiously dispassionate. When Igarashi beat Slater and the Brazilians at the 2019 Corona Protected Pro in Bali, for example, he brought the former attitude, putting on a superb display of high-velocity slash and soar.

By the time Pipeline rolled around, though, the contemporary balance of surfing nature had reasserted itself, with the top five slots reoccupied by the three Brazilians, a South African named Jordy Smith, and American Kolohe Andino. That left Igarashi out of title contention. The possibility of Pipe glory notwithstanding, Igarashi surfed as if self-respect demanded only finishing the season with dignity, which is exactly what he did—losing to a journeyman French surfer in the third of seven rounds of competition. Afterward, high enough in the rankings to feel on track for his overall life plan, too far down to win the whole shebang, and with an Olympic spot secure, he said, “I didn’t feel my aura. I didn’t feel that kind of… thing. Which is kind of a bummer. But at the same time, I did my best.”

(Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the entire 2020 Championship Tour and postponement of the Tokyo Games to later this month. To judge by a Red Bull promotional video released in January, Igarashi spent that lost pandemic year doing what most pro surfers always do in Red Bull promotional videos: hanging around his beautiful home (in Igarashi’s case, in Portugal, which he bought when he turned 18); surfing; doing cool extreme-seeming training stuff, like carrying kettlebells underwater; driving a new BMW to pick up a whole bunch of shiny new surfboards that he probably got for free; packing a bunch of surfboards in special luggage for a long flight in pursuit of great waves; making a smoothie and muttering, “Almond butter, banana, granola, Laird creamer, little bit of protein…”

With the Championship Tour back in full swing, though, Kanoa’s 2021 looks very much like a reboot. The Olympics begin July 23, and the window for the surf portion of the event opens two days later, but Igarashi is still vacillating between mostly great contest performances and the occasional savage brilliance. He also seems to be peppering his Instagram feed with selfies—almost always in great sunglasses and clothes—that suggest a truly romantic relationship with his own impressive image. I’m talking about a healthy relationship here, to be clear, not at all stressful or dysfunctional or dramatic, just a really calm and devoted bond that’s bound to keep Igarashi and his own image happily in love for the long haul. It’s kind of beautiful, really. Twitter, too: retweets of an ad for Beats by Dre that feature grainy-cute footage of Igarashi’s father pushing him into waves as a little kid; sweet retweets of posts by young women confessing love for Igarashi himself; inspirational offerings like “The best things in life are for yourself, not for the whole world.”

One way of looking at this, according to Chas Smith, editor of the heinously irresponsible surf tabloid Beach Grit, is that the Tokyo Games are likely to be the apex for Igarashi. “Because any surfer who is worth his salt and reasonable,” Smith says, “looks at all those Brazilians on tour and realizes he is not ever going to beat those guys and be world champion. I think Kanoa is rightly looking at this moment”—when he will represent Japan in the Olympics, the most-watched sporting event on earth—“and thinking, This is when I can be, honest to goodness, for a few days, the biggest athlete on earth.”

Another way of looking at it takes me back to Igarashi’s interview with Stab, when he confessed that as a kid, he dreamed of being a superstar, “like LeBron, Ronaldo, Odell Beckham Jr., … private jets and nice cars, designer clothes, and world travel.”

Kanoa Igarashi of Japan seen at the ISA World Surfing Games in Miyazaki, Japan on September 13, 2019.
In 2018, Igarashi began competing under the Japanese flag, becoming the first Japanese surfer on the World Championship Tour. (Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool)

Igarashi has long since won the game of life on his parents’ terms. He already owns two houses in Portugal and two in Huntington Beach. He fully employs both of his parents and two of his best friends. Both of his grandmothers watch all of his events on iPads that Igarashi bought for them. Thanks to Igarashi’s hugeness in Japan, furthermore, he has even achieved the one little part of that dream that was always his own. “I pretty much just follow waves,” he told me. “I follow my feelings. I do whatever I feel like doing. Like, my whole career, I wanted to be like, Hey, you know what? I want to go to Fiji tomorrow, there’s a swell going. Now I do that.” He’d been surfing so many beautiful places in the months before our last conversation, in fact, that he literally could not recall where he’d been last.

And as if he had his priorities all squared away, Igarashi even agitated for a superstar lifestyle at the Olympics proper. When it emerged that surfers would be housed near the beach venue, 90 minutes outside Tokyo, Igarashi made a play to stay instead in the Olympic Village in Tokyo with all the other athletes and ride a helicopter out to surf every day—because, as he told Stab, “That’s what LeBron would do.”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Red Bull Content Pool