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'Praying for a typhoon:' Will Olympic surfing's debut be ruined by small waves?

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/16/2021 Josh Peter, USA TODAY
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Last month Carissa Moore sat on the deck at Surf Ranch, a wave pool in central California where the superstar surfer had just ridden artificial waves. But her mind was more than 5,000 miles away — in Tokyo, site of the Olympics.

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the water: Carissa Moore finds some waves to her liking during practice at Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California. © Gary Kazanjian, AP Carissa Moore finds some waves to her liking during practice at Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California.

“All the surfers are praying for a typhoon," said Moore, a four-time world champion, “because a typhoon brings swell and hopefully more opportunity for us to perform."

That moment captured the risk and suspense surrounding the Olympic debut of surfing.

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In Tokyo, the ocean might not cooperate at Shidashita Beach, site of the competition and at times site of lackluster waves.

In 2014, the waves were so weak, there was only one day of contestable surfing during the same dates when the Olympic competition will be held, said Kurt Korte, lead forecaster for the Olympic surfing competition.

The riders will be at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“Fundamentally, in order to get surf, you have to have strong winds blowing over a big area of ocean over a long period of time,’’ said Korte. “If you don’t have any one of those factors, the surf can be pretty small.’’

The bigger the waves, the more spectacular the rides. By contrast, lackluster waves lead to lackluster surfing.

The doomsday scenario: No rideable waves.

That is never a concern at Surf Ranch in Lemoore, California where last month Moore and the world’s top surfers competed on the World Surf League championship tour.

The wave pool was created by Kelly Slater, the 11-time world champion surfer and a legend in the sport, and his team at Kelly Slater Wave Company.

After the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in 2016 to include surfing in the Tokyo Games, Slater made a pitch: hold the surfing completion in a wave pool.

“The Japanese added surfing because they wanted to promote their surf culture and their beaches,’’ said Greg Cruse, CEO of USA Surfing. “But at the same time, you have the advent of the wave pools.’’

There are more than a dozen wave pools around the world, with more under construction, and land was secured near Tokyo for a wave pool that Slater was eager to help build.

No thanks, said Olympic officials.

“We are looking at a natural beach for surfing,’’ Kit McConnell, the IOC sports director, announced in 2016. “Japan has a number of strong surfing areas and strong existing surfing culture.”

Slater expressed his doubts, the IOC commenced the hunt. It hired Surfline, a company that provides surf forecasts around the globe, to lead the effort.

Surfline studied 40 years of climatology of surf for about a half dozen sites in and near Tokyo. The recommendation was Shidashita Beach, about 40 miles outside Tokyo. Data showed an average of three-foot waves during the same period when the Olympic surfing competition is scheduled to be held.

But there also was 2014.

“You can get skunked,’’ said Korte, the forecaster. “It’s the ocean."

In Tokyo, a minimum of 3½ days will be needed for 40 surfers to complete the competition. The scheduled window for competition is eight days — July 25 to Aug. 1.

So last month there was Moore, the gold medal favorite, talking about praying for a typhoon while sitting at Surf Ranch, where the artificial waves reach speeds of 20 mph and heights of eight feet.

On Wednesday, Korte sent out an update.

“And it is a positive one when it comes to surf size," he wrote. “Something called a monsoon gyre looks to be setting up over the West Pacific, which is going to put us in a pattern where tropical cyclone development is very likely."

That could mean waves head higher or taller — at least six feet — according to Korte. But he also added, “The devil, of course, is in the details.”

The key detail is the location of the typhoon or other tropical weather.

“You want it to be a couple of hundred miles away on the coastline where you’re not impacted by those rainbands and the wind that comes with it,’’ he said, “but close enough that it’s going to send you a lot of big surf.

“I’m pretty conservatively optimistic that we’ll see some of those conditions we’ve been hoping for.’’

As the lead forecaster, Korte will work with the contest director to select the days with the best surf during the eight-day window. Each day, the competition can begin as early as 6 a.m. and go as late as 7 p.m.

“So you have to be flexible, and competitive surfers are," said Cruse, CEO of USA Surfing.  "They know the drill. You want to surf when there’s surf."

Fernando Aguerre, who as president of the International Surfing Association lobbied for more than 20 years to get surfing into the Olympics, offered some advice concerning the waves.

“You’ve got to paddle hard and hope the wave breaks,’’ he said. “If you paddle hard, you’ve got a chance."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Praying for a typhoon:' Will Olympic surfing's debut be ruined by small waves?

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