FUJISAWA, Kanagawa >>
Surfer Nao Omura had long dreamed the sport she loved would one day become an Olympic event.
Her dream has become reality, as surfing will debut at the Olympics in about two years at the Tokyo Games.
“Surfing became an Olympic sport while I was still an active athlete, and it’ll be held in Japan. It’s really amazing and still hard to believe,” Omura, Japan’s top female surfer, said. “In Japan, surfing is considered a recreational activity. I think many people will recognize the attractiveness of competitive surfing at the Tokyo Olympics. I’m so excited.”
Omura, 25, has competed at an international level since taking part in the world junior championships at age 13. She finished fifth at the women’s ISA World Surfing Games in 2013 and 2014, and 7th last year.
As Omura travels around the world to compete in world surfing tour events, she only spends about three months in Japan each year. With her eye on a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, she moved her training base this year to Australia.
“I’m learning technique and strategy under an Australian coach. I train with Australian surfers and can experience various types of waves,” Omura said. “There’s a lot to learn, and I can sense myself changing.”
Omura, who lives in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, first encountered surfing at age 10 when she joined a surfing class during a family trip to Hawaii. The experience captivated her. “I was just standing on a board, but also moving on the ocean — it was so entertaining. I still remember what I could see in that moment,” she recalled.
Omura visited Hawaii again the next year, which deepened her love for the sport. After returning to Japan, she received a surfboard from an acquaintance of her father and started surfing by herself as her parents watched from the beach.
She was soon noticed by local surfers and began surfing with them. Omura watched a number of surfing DVDs, attempting maneuvers she learned from the programs.
When she was 12, a surfer suggested she join a local competition. “Until then, I didn’t even know surfing had competitions,” she said.
Omura lost in the first round but won a fighting-spirit prize. “I was happy to win a prize and learned the joy of competing against others,” she said. The experience prompted her to enter more competitions.
A year later, she was chosen to represent Japan at the world junior championships. It was the first time she competed against surfers from other countries such as Brazil, France and the United States. “They all had advanced techniques, and they looked so cool. I thought, ‘I want to continue surfing at this kind of level,’” Omura said.
After graduating from high school, she began to travel around the world more frequently, learning how to secure cheap airline tickets and accommodations. “I developed a habit of asking questions when I encountered something unknown by stringing together English terms I learned at school. Making friends at competitions is also important,” Omura said.
Omura believes the beauty of the sport lies in the fact that surfers not only compete against rivals, but also have to battle nature.
“Surfers have to choose their waves, and every wave is different. That’s the difficult part of surfing, but it also makes it interesting,” she said.
“The ability to grasp the condition of the sea is important. Sometimes you have to make a bet.”
In surfing, a panel of judges determines who wins, with scoring based on variety and difficulty of maneuvers, along with speed, power and flow.
“It’s pretty simple — the surfer who gives the coolest performance wins,” Omura said.
Omura is 5 feet tall, which is small compared to non-Japanese surfers, many of whom are taller than 5-1/2 feet. However, she does not think her height is a handicap. “I have techniques that make me look big through my performance,” Omura said.
The Olympic hopeful is known for her powerful, dynamic moves. She also confidently makes big, beautiful splashes during turns.
Her goal this season is to perform consistently at the world tour and win a medal at the World Games in Tahara, Aichi Prefecture, in September. “I want to gain more confidence and experience and apply that at the Tokyo Olympics.”
Before starting surfing, Omura did not like the ocean that much. “I thought it was better to swim in the pool, as I hadn’t experienced the joy of playing in the waves,” she said. “I learned the beauty of the rising and setting sun, and the joy of finding the first star of the evening. I learned many things through surfing.”