An experimental 2023 led to poor competitive results but the biggest growth year of his career. And now, for the first time, is he ready to declare himself a World Title Contender.
Kanoa Igarashi was born to be a pro surfer. His father Tsutomu “Tom” grew up surfing in Japan as a huge fan of the sport. When Tom and his wife Misa found out Kanoa had an incredible talent, they up and moved to California with the singular goal of giving Kanoa a shot at his dad’s dream.
Speaking very little English, they settled in Huntington Beach, California and at first struggled to make ends meet. However, their tireless sacrifice paid off. Kanoa became a top-ranked junior and qualified for the Championship Tour in 2016, aged just 18. With his talent and maturity, he requalified with a remarkable runner-up finish at Pipeline.
In 2018 he cracked the top 10, and in 2019 the affable and articulate natural footer broke through for his maiden CT victory at Keramas, Bali. He ended the year as the World No. 6 and booked a spot for the Tokyo Olympic Games, where he claimed a silver medal for Japan at the very beach where his dad learned to surf. In 2022 he finished a career-best World No.5, booking himself a slot at the WSL Finals.
Yet in early 2023, the wheels seemed to fall off. A run of poor results saw him facing relegation from the CT. He went into the 2023 Margaret River Pro in 17th, under intense pressure to make the cut. Was it poor form, bad luck or worse? It turns out the poor start and results were simply a small part of a much, much bigger picture.
“It was a great experience to be under that pressure after a slow start. I think I really needed that more than ever,” Kanoa told Ocean & Earth in October from his overseas base in Ericeira, Portugal. “I feel that I’m in a transition phase in my career where I maybe go from a top 10 or top 5 surfer into a World Title contender.”
In 2023 Igarashi decided to mix things up. He experimented with everything from boards with more foam, to fins to training, diet and coaching. One of surfing’s best surfers had set about being a better surfer than ever before.
“I discovered some things that worked and a lot that didn’t but I feel I gained so much more than any other year,” he said. “Sure, the results weren’t where I wanted them to be, but it was the biggest growth year of my career.”
At Margaret River, with a clutch win over his hero Kelly Slater, he just made the cut, and courtesy of a semi-final result at J-Bay, would end the year at 14th. It was his worst finish since 2017, but that wasn't the point. The experimentation phase was essential. A platform was being built.
“That transition took its time, and now I need to dial that down and concentrate on what worked, buckle down and make a plan,” he said. “Instead of just surfing good every heat and trying to do my best, I’ll have a plan. And with that plan, for the first time in my career, I can realistically say I want to go for a World Title.”
It’s not a bad time to reset. 2024 will be a massive year for Kanoa. He has qualified for the Olympics in Teahupo’o in August and will aim to upgrade from silver to gold. The month after is the WSL Finals in September, a combo that only happens every four years. And yet, while the next 12 months are huge, that is too short-term thinking for a surfer who has zoomed out and seen the big picture.
“I feel I’m heading into my peak as an athlete. I think the time between 26 and 32 is the best mix of experience and physicality,” he said. “So that’s why I had to reset this year and make a plan for those next six years. I’ve wanted to be a World Champion since I was a little kid. I’ve never been in a better place to make that dream happen.”
Kanoa Igarashi O&E Q&A
The most scared you've been in the ocean?
The first time I surfed Teahupo’o. I was only 13 or 14, and it wasn’t crazy big, maybe six to eight feet, and it was terrifying.
What person has paddled passed you on the inside more than any other?
It would have to be Leo Fioravanti, without a doubt.
What is your most treasured possession?
The time you needed a leash the most?
We were surfing Cloud break and I had a bad wipeout. When I hit the water I burst my ear drum and I couldn’t tell what was up or down. And the first thing I thought was my board would take me up. So I went to my ankle and trusted that the leash would be pointing in the right direction and I climbed to safety. That leash saved my life that day.
What piece of O & E kit do you rely on the most?
Man, everything that O & E provides is a massive part of my lifestyle. From the wetsuit bucket to the leash, to the tail pad. Everything I have from O&E is essential. I need it, otherwise, I can’t do what I do.
Which living person do you most admire?
My parents. I really admire the way they raised me and my brother. They pushed us, but just enough to not feel overwhelmed and have always supported us.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I’m a sucker for açai. I suck it down like oxygen.
What is your happy place?
It has to be in the water. Whenever I’m in the ocean, it cures all worries and anxiety that I have.
What is the phrase you say the most?
Sleep when you are dead.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
I had a job part-time working at the Huntington Surf Shop and had to carry the big soft top surfboards from the main shop to the beach. And I’d do that all day. I swear I thought my arms were going to fall off every day.
When were you happiest?
I’m happiest whenever I am with my friends and my family. It’s a simple equation, but it works.