Hawaii’s Carissa Moore defeated South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag to win the gold medal in the first-ever women’s surfing event in the Summer Olympics on Tuesday in Tokyo.
The four-time world champion, who took control at the start and surfed fluidly throughout, found the rhythm of the sea as she has in so many winning waves around the world. The final heat featured cleaner conditions as a typhoon threatening the country moved away. It was a reward after battling through “perfect storm” conditions at Tsurigasaki Beach over the past two days.
The raging winds had backed off, and the water’s surface was “starting to shimmer a little,” in one announcer’s words, as Moore, 28, earned a succession of increasing scores: a 3.17, 3.4, then a 7.33 with a two-turn combo in a discerningly selected wave.
“She found that diamond in the rough,” the announcer said.
— Olympics (@Olympics) July 27, 2021
There was a dreamlike quality to the scene and Moore’s near-flawless surfing, which drew beauty out of chaos the way an artist does. The announcers spoke of how she and every competitor at Tsurigasaki Beach were living the dream expressed by the great Hawaiian waterman and Olympic gold-medal swimmer Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, of seeing surfing become an Olympic sport.
One could imagine how he would feel to see a fellow surfer of Native Hawaiian ancestry win a gold medal in the inaugural Olympic he‘e nalu event.
As Buitendag, 27, after some minutes’ lag, caught waves in both directions for mid-level scores, the announcers spoke of the spiritual similarities between the two young surfers, both of whom, they said, donated their first champion tour event winnings to local communities and continue to give back.
Through her nonprofit, Moore Aloha, Moore mentors young girls in surfing and encourages them to follow their own dreams.
As the raging seas slowly smoothed out, for a moment a rainbow emerged midway through the final heat, an anuenue in Hawaiian and an apt symbol for Moore, whose middle name, Kainani, means “beautiful sea.”
Then, catching her best wave yet, with a big, roundhouse turn back into the pocket, Moore earned a 7.66.
HISTORY for @rissmoore10!
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 27, 2021
Buitendag gamely fought back, but fell well short in points, and conceded, heading for shore, with seconds left on the clock.
Moore was paddling back out when she realized she had won, scoring 14.93 ti Buitendag’s 8.46, and caught a victory wave in, carving turns and ending with her arms in the air.
Exchanging a hug in the shorebreak with Buitendag, who waded out to greet her, Moore was chaired up the beach by her fellow Team U.S.A. members, wrapped in the American flag, smiling through her tears and radiating aloha.
Asked how she felt by Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News as she took the beach Olympic stage “It feels incredible,” Moore said in a happy, clear voice over the roar of the waves. “It’s overwhelming how amazing it feels, I think it’s going to take a few days for it to really sink in what happened.”
In response to Holt’s observation she surfs like she owns the ocean, “I don’t know if I ever feel like I own the ocean,” Moore said. “I felt in sync with the ocean in the finals though, I’m very grateful for that.”
Team USA's Carissa Moore after her historic win: "I think it's gonna take a few days for it to really sink in what happened."
Moore is now the first Olympic women's surfing champion.
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) July 27, 2021
Earlier, Moore prevailed over Japan’s Amuro Tsuzuki in the semifinals, scoring 8.33 vs Tsuzuki’s 7.43 to advance to the final in Tokyo.
It was Tuesday in Japan when Moore faced Tsuzuki in Tsurigasaki’s Shidashita beach break, in the biggest waves of the event’s three days. Storm surf was up to double overhead in size, with side- to offshore winds, not the clean conditions that had been predicted.
The ocean and sky were grey, with rippled brown faces and yellow foam, and the waves were disorganized whitewater for the most part — sloppy and sloshy and heaving, what one announcer called “a washing machine.”
Moore took a few spills, hitting watery moguls on one wave face, having another wave drop out from under her as she aimed for a turn through its lip. At the end of her highest scoring wave in the difficult conditions, she kept her feet while buried in an avalanche of foam.
Tsuzuki’s local knowledge and experience were an advantage in the break where she first learned to surf and has scored some of her most significant victories in qualifying tour events.
She seemed able to conjure waves out of nothing, taking off on what looked like shapeless whitewater, then having a wave with a rideable face emerge, gaining her a 4.5 score.
The score was a tense 8 for Moore and 7.43 for Tsuzuki, with less than 10 minutes left as Moore searched for position to snare a solid wave among the many disorganized peaks washing in in every direction.
Tsuzuki earned the first-ever Olympic bronze medal for surfing by besting Californian Caroline Marks, 19, a powerful goofy-footer ranked #6 on the world championship tour.
On the men’s side, irrepressible aerialist Brazil’s Italo Ferreira, reigning men’s world champion opposite Moore for the women, both having won the most recent World Surf League Championship Tour in 2019, posted lofty scores to take the gold medal over Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi, who took silver, while Australian veteran Owen Wright prevailed over Brazil’s aerial magician Gabriel Medina for the bronze in a victory for classic surfing—big, swooping turns and cutbacks—that eschewed showy air routines.
Earlier, the high-flying air game of Igarashi, a native of Huntington Beach, California whose Japanese father learned to surf at Tsurigasaki Beach, knocked out U.S.A. team member Kolohe Andino in the men’s quarterfinals and outmatched Medina in the semifinals.
In a heartbreak, third-round match that pitted U.S. teammates and friends against each other, Andino’s aerial maneuvers outscored those of John John Florence, Hawaii’s two-time world champion, in the men’s third round.
Overall, with medals spread out among five countries, top-ranked pros and upstarts, traditionalists and innovators, the first Olympic surfing games were an exciting, unpredictable and satisfying triumph for the Hawaii-born sport and its worldwide practitioners and fans.