In a few days time the likes of Kelly Slater, Carissa Moore, Filipe Toledo and more will compete in the ISA World Surfing Games presented by Vans in Miyazaki Japan – marking the first time a roster of the world's greatest surfers have taken part in the annual competition. Why now? Olympic qualification, of course, as this year's event is the first that will have serious ramifications if you want to represent your country in Japan 2020. And as many of the top tiered surfers have emerged to lay claim to their Olympic spot, so too have the underdogs risen.
This year, more countries than ever before have entered the ISA World Surfing Games, on their path to potential Olympic glory. And boy, do we love an underdog story. Countries such as American Samoa, Lebanon and Thailand have all fielded teams this year, hoping to place highly enough to qualify for the Olympic stage. In total, there will be 240 athletes from 55 nations all bidding for a seat at the table. *Scroll down for the Olympic qualifying criteria.
How the forecast looks for ISA World Surfing Games, HERE
What blipped on our radar was young, 16-year-old ripper Liam Wilson, who grew up on Oahu but his family are from American Samoa, who Liam will representing at the games, which run from Sept 7-15. Liam's heading into battle as a lone soldier, the Samoa team being made up of him, the athlete, and his father, the coach/manager.
For those who aren't sure where American Samoa is, or, what it is; the country's a US territory made up of seven South Pacific islands, covered with dense tropical rainforest, stunning reefs and beaches – and of course, there's waves. Indeed, American Samoa is around 1,500-miles north west(ish) of Tahiti and around 800 miles from Fiji.
Mr Wilson's likely a name you haven't come across. Understandable. Despite learning to surf at Laie, Oahu, Liam actually stepped in to the surfing game relatively late for a grom on the North Shore, not planting feet to foam until he was 8-years-old. “It didn’t stop me from wanting to catch up to the other kids,” he says. “They’ve always pushed me to become better.”
Although Hawaii runs deep in his blood, the opportunity to compete for his homeland is too attractive a prospect to turn down, and likely the only way he'd be able to even participate. “My dad was born in Alao and he is full Samoan which makes me half. I still can’t believe it. It honestly doesn’t feel real yet and I’m just really grateful for this opportunity to represent my country, American Samoa. Being the only one on the team is pretty heavy, but I am going to do the best I can to represent my country.”
A daunting prospect for any competitor. American Samoa isn't a place many would associate with being top of the surfing bucket list though, despite its close(ish) proximity to some of the best waves in the world. And flipping nations isn't a new thing, many athletes have called on their dual nationality to put them in the best possible qualifying position. Kanoa Igarashi is representing Japan, having spent most of his life in California. Tatiana Weston-Webb will rep Brazil and etc etc.
Spot guide: American Samoa
Given American Samoa is kind of off radar, I ask Liam about the conditions there. “Well, most of the spots are really far out and you need to catch a boat,” he says. “The surf is really fun and you’ll be stoked because you and whoever else is with you are the only ones out. So you’ll score if you go to Samoa.
“Peeling rights and slab lefts. There’s one right called Tutuila and it’s probably one of my favourite waves. Just a barrelling right with nobody out. Not a lot of people surf in American Samoa and I hope that I can introduce the sport and spread it around American Samoa. This is just the beginning.
“I really hope I get a solid result and I am just really trying to get myself out there. I want show the world that American Samoa is ready.”
And let's ask you this, who is the pressure really on here? The 16-year-old with the world at his feet, or, say, Sir Kelly Slater, who may just have the entire nation on his shoulders who are expecting him to outperform 90 per cent of the competitive field. That's a tough call. Yet, every one of us enjoys the rise and rise of an underdog.
It's a sentiment echoed by Joob Aiyarak, president of Surfing Thailand: "To surf with Kelly and other elites in the same heat… it is like a dream come true. This is the first time ever that we are part of the ISA World Surfing Games since joining the ISA in the year 2010. This is very exciting for all of us and Thailand's surf community. We do have some good local talents here but are still far from the best surfers around the world, so this will be good opportunity for our team to learn from top level athletes. We hope that this event will be a memorable event for our team and hope that they will have the best fun surfing."
If there's one thing we've noticed, it's the rise in finding untapped surf locales across Thailand. I ask Joob about this: "There are new surfing spots being discovered everyday here in Thailand," he says.
"Phuket used to be known as the only surfable place in Thailand but now both our east and west coastlines are fun spots for local surfers. We also see a lot of young children and teens are picking up surfing as their new favourite sport. I am very excited to be part of this growth and hope to see our surfing community getting stronger and everyone sharing the fun of surfing everywhere." Not up the standard of the elite aside, Thailand sure as hell is bringing heart to their heats.
Yves Bright, Lebanon born but raised in LA, is hoping to elevate his home country to a global audience. "I was born in Lebanon but the war forced my family out when I was four-years-old," he tells MSW. "I’ve been living in LA, where I get tons of practice in small waves. I've seen footage of world class waves in Lebanon. Getting a chance to qualify for the Olympics is a dream for both me and Lebanon."
Of the extra nations competing in this year's games, ISA President Fernando Aguerre said: "It is incredible to see that a record number of countries across all continents will come to Miyazaki to surf as national surfing teams. The visible growth in participation of non-traditional surfing nations is a direct consequence of the ISA's strategy for the global development of the sport.
"With a record amount of national teams, participation of the top athletes of the sport, and Tokyo 2020 qualification in play, this is hands down the most significant World Surfing Games in history.
"I am also particularly proud to see that our efforts to promote gender equality are producing great results, as we will welcome a record amount of women in the event for the second consecutive year. Between offering equal competition slots for each gender and providing scholarships to young girls around the world, we have been fully committed to working towards a future that features 50/50 participation between men and women in surfing.
"I am more than ready for nine days of passion, camaraderie, and inspired surfing with Tokyo 2020 in sight."
The ISA World Surfing Games runs from Sept 7-15 and you can tune in when it's on by going here.
Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification criteria
20 men, 20 women.
Maximum of 2 surfers per gender per National Olympic Committee (NOC).
Qualification spots will be earned on an individual basis, by name.
In accordance with IOC guidelines, the qualification events have been determined in hierarchical order of qualification, as further explained below; If two surfers of a gender have qualified through the first hierarchical order, that NOC will not be able to qualify more surfers of that gender through qualifying events lower in hierarchical order.
All surfers selected by their respective National Federations for their national teams must participate in 2019 and/or 2020 ISA World Surfing Games in order to be eligible for Olympic qualification. The final details of the eligibility requirements are still under review by the ISA and the IOC.
The hierarchical order of qualification will be as follows:
2019 World Surf League Championship Tour: First 10 eligible men and first 8 eligible women.
2020 ISA World Surfing Games: First 4 eligible men and first 6 eligible women.
2019 ISA World Surfing Games: 4 men and 4 women selected based on their continent. Top finishing eligible surfer of each gender from Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
2019 Pan American Games: First eligible man and first eligible woman in the surfing competitions.
Host nation slot: One man and one woman slot will be guaranteed for the host nation of Japan, unless already filled through the above hierarchies. Should athletes from Japan qualify regularly, their slots will be reallocated to the highest ranked eligible surfers from the 2020 World Surfing Games.