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Surfing debuts at 2020 Olympics — and Canada is a surprising contender

Surfing debuts as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo 2020 Games and Canada is, surprisingly, a contender. Peter Devries, 36, and sixteen-year-old Mathea Olin of Tofino, B.C., secured their spots on Team Canada after podium finishes in the Olympic team trials earlier this month.

Surfing debuts as Olympic sport at Tokyo Games in 2020 and Canadians hope to be part of 1st wave

The waves that break in Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island are not unlike those found off Shidashita Beach, in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture, where surfing will make its debut as an Olympic event next July. While not internationally famous for their surfing acumen, Canadians have a shot at qualifying for the upcoming Olympic Games. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While many wave riders might not consider Canada a top international destination, surfers from British Columbia say they have a good shot of making it to the 2020 summer games in Tokyo for the sport's Olympic debut.

Surfers Peter Devries and Mathea Olin took their first steps toward the Olympics when the pair from Tofino, B.C., secured spots on Team Canada earlier this month.

The Surf Canada Team Trials, held in May on Vancouver Island's Wickaninnish Beach, pitted Canada's top surfers against one another in challenging conditions similar to those competitors may face in Japan next year.

Devries, who has won the Canadian national championship nine times and is one of Canada's best bets for a medal in Tokyo, said it would be a thrill to represent his home country at the Tokyo Games.

"Just the thought of being able to represent Canada at something so big is incredible. So, yeah, I'm excited for the challenge of trying to get there."

At this point, no one from Canada or any other country has qualified for the 2020 Olympics in surfing. 

Seated on his back porch, not far from the beach, the 36-year-old full-time surfer has the casual ease of a man comfortable in his environment and in his own skin. A self-described "proud Canadian," and avid hockey fan, Devries is also a pragmatist.

"At this stage for Canada to get an athlete, or two, into the Olympics would be a huge win. But once you're there, you never know what's possible."

Peter Devrie, 36, has won the Canadian nationals nine times. Now he has his sights on the Olympics. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Yes, there's surf in Canada

Canada is not known internationally as a surfing nation. But it has assembled a surprisingly strong team for when surfing debuts at the Tokyo Games in 2020, according to Surf Canada's executive director Dom Domic.

Olin is a big part of that success by helping Canada climb to 10th place in International Surfing Association rankings after the 2018 World Surfing Games. The rest of the heavy lifting has been done by dual passport holders from the U.S., who, along with their homegrown Canadian teammates, are vying for a chance to wear the maple leaf in Tokyo next year.

Still, when it comes to Canadian surf, many are surprised it's even possible in this country.

"That's one of my favourite things about being Canadian," Olin said. "When I travel and people ask where I'm from they're like, 'That's incredible. I had no clue there was surfing there.'"

Tofino teenager Mathea Olin placed third in the women’s division of the Olympic team trials on May 13. Her younger sister, Sanoa, won the silver medal in the national under 16 competition a day earlier. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Olin, 16, has already been making a splash on the world stage. She won the gold medal in the longboard division at the PanAm Qualifiers in Peru in 2017 and the bronze in the shortboard division of the same contest. 

When it comes to the Olympics, the bronze is most noteworthy because only shortboard surfing will be contested at Tokyo 2020. The difference in disciplines is, as the names suggest, related to the length of the boards. Competition shortboards tend to be under two metres long to allow for quick, snappy turns and aerials.

In order to qualify for the Olympics, however, Canadians will need to beat powerhouse teams like the U.S., Australia and Brazil in the upcoming World Surfing Games

Devries, fists raised, glides toward the beach after landing an aerial manoeuvre most surfers only dream about. The frontside air reverse, delivered in the final 30 seconds of the heat, secured a come-from-behind victory and his ninth national title. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

U.S. talent, Canada's gain

One of the dual citizens who made Team Canada is 19-year-old California resident Bethany Zelasko. She placed second ahead of Olin in the team trials. "Making the Olympics is my No. 1 focus," she said.

In Domic's mind, Canada is benefiting from the injection of U.S. talent. 

"Our surfers are, you know, Canadian. We're polite. We stand in line," Domic said.

And about Zelasko? "Don't let that smile fool you. She's a pit bull. She will not back down to anybody. We need a little bit more of that fire." 

Watch Canada's top surfers compete for a spot on the national team:

Domic hopes Canada's dark horse reputation will play to his advantage. "We've always been on the fringe here in Canada and I just want to prove that we can do it when no one thought that we could," Domic said.

Here's a breakdown of who made the women's team:

  • Paige Alms, 31, of Victoria, B.C., who now lives on Maui.
  • Bethany Zelasko, 19, lives in Huntington Beach, Calif.
  • Mathea Olin, 16, was born and raised in Tofino.
  • Hannah Scott, 28,  will serve as an alternate should one of the top three women get injured.

On the men's team:

  • Shane Campbell, 24, of Vancouver who lives in Australia.
  • Cody Young, 21, was born on Maui and has a Canadian father.
  • Peter Devries, 36, is born and raised in Tofino.
  • Sean Forester, 20, is a Costa-Rican Canadian and will serve as the men's injury alternate
Dual U.S.-Canadian citizen Bethany Zelasko, 19, rides the victory chair up the beach after successfully defending her national title. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)


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