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Italo Ferreira leaves the world in his wake to become surfing's first Olympic champion

·5-min read
Underdog Italo Ferreira is surfing's first Olympic champion (Picture: Reuters)
Underdog Italo Ferreira is surfing's first Olympic champion (Picture: Reuters)

From James Toney in Tokyo

Italo Ferreira has never been one to follow convention, which makes this boy from Brazil just the sort of champion these Games need.

In recent days we've been force-fed all the IOC-speak lines about how these Olympics are a tribute to the power of resilience or a demonstration of how sport can shine a light on lives in troubled times.

Ferreira actually walks that talk and he does it on water.

From the toddler who learned to surf on the polystyrene boxes from which his father sold fish in the sleepy village of Baia Formosa, to the biggest stage, the 27-year old Brazilian seemingly revels in doing things the hard way.

When he won the world title in 2019, which qualified his place for Tokyo, he arrived at the venue with minutes to spare, missing his original flight when his passport was stolen and then seeing his replacement grounded by a freak typhoon. Wearing the clothes he travelled in, he amazingly claimed gold.

In his Olympic final, the odds were similarly stacked against him. Japan's Kanoa Igarashi is one of the host nation's biggest sporting stars, pulling off a gravity-defying 360 to make the final at Tsurigasaki Beach, where his father had learned to surf and a place where destiny would surely be delivered.

Seconds in, Ferreira wiped out, his board broken, he frantically paddled back to shore and then rode the 'slow' replacement to a series of scores that left Igarashi in his wake.

"The dream came true," he said, in event live on Eurosport and discovery+.

“It's one of the best days of my life. I was so nervous at the beginning but I just tried to surf and have fun because two months ago I was busy with training and thinking and dreaming and now I've got the gold medal.

"I broke my good board on my first wave. That board gives me good speed, the other one is more slow.

"It's super hard out there, but I knew that there was a lot of opportunities around. That's why I started to catch a lot of waves and get scores.

"I was super confident. When I broke a board I was like, 'let's get on the beach and get another board, go back and try again'.

"This moment is special, I can't begin to explain the pure joy of this feeling."

Igarashi's parents left Japan for California's 'Surf City' before he was born, so determined were they that he'd have a chance to enjoy their sporting passion.

At Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing his face stares down from two giant billboards, all teeth and tan, the pin-up of the Games, advertising everything from skincare products to credit cards and his 'favourite' cup noodle.

He whispered a prayer to the surfing Gods as he entered the water but the invocation ultimately went unanswered.

“It's so tough to swallow a loss, especially in an event like this, in a moment like this," he said.

"I've been so close and it's pretty heartbreaking, but I guess this is the reality of competition.

"I had some pretty big adversities throughout the event, throughout the last few years, and I'm pretty proud to finish up here and to be on the podium and get a medal for the country.

"It's a special moment for our sport, but I've got mixed feelings. It's so hard to gather that into words but I'm proud of myself."

The remnants of Tropical Storm Nepartak had churned up the seas on Japan’s northeast coast, forcing organisers to bring forward finals by 24 hours - denying copy mentions of that seminal 70s surfing flick Big Wednesday.

But the weather produced some spectacular surfing, Igarashi pulling off a semi-final showstopper that will go straight on the Games highlights reel to beat world number one Gabriel Medina.

"Time sort of stood still when I was in the air, I could feel my heartbeat and my hair in the wind, when I landed it I knew I'd downed something special," he added.

There was less drama about the women's final, won by Honolulu's Carissa Moore, a girl who learned to surf about the same time she walked, and boasts her biggest claim to fame is that she's an alumnus of the same school as Barack Obama.

This win may just top that - along with Ferreira she will always be secure in the history of the sport as its first Olympic champion.

In three years, surfers will pack their boards for the famous breakers Tahiti in French Polynesia, about 10,000 miles from Paris - arguably the plum Olympic assignment of all-time.

With the Games that follow in the surf meccas of California and Queensland, surfing's Olympic place seems secure.

But in a sport in which borders are constantly pushed in a never-ending and never-achievable search for perfection, no-one will ever be able to match Ferreira and Moore.

Stream every unmissable moment of Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 live on discovery+, The Streaming Home of the Olympics.

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