Being a Canadian surfer is far more rare than routine.
This may not be the story for long. With surfing being recently included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a whole new door has opened for athletes with a passion to make names for ourselves in our home country. The presence and legitimacy of Canadian surfing will definitely increase thanks to this announcement. It is simply upping the chances for Canada’s surfers to follow their dreams.
I am 18 years old, and I am a Canadian surfer from Tofino B.C. Surfing wasn’t necessarily something I chose out of the blue. I was born to it. I come from a big family, and my mom, Catherine, and her three brothers, Raph, Francis, and Sepp Bruhwiler are all surfers. With three of the four among the biggest names in Canadian professional surfing, it is safe to say I was a bit influenced. At the very least, I owe them credit for a lot of my success. I am biased, but without them, Canada’s surf culture would be years behind where it is today.
Surfing in the Great White North is not without difficulties. As we know, with cold there comes the need to stay warm. The colder your environment, the more gear you need, which is one of the main challenges of being a cold water surfer: you have to wear a thick wetsuit that is clunky, heavy, and slow when compared to surfing in a bathing suit. Another unavoidable fact is that our coastline is so rugged and remote, that we have a smaller pool of locations in which to train, practise, and hone our skill.
Unless, of course, you have the means to travel many hours to places where no roads lead. Truth is, those two drawbacks alone are enough to keep many people away from surfing so far north. And there lies another difficulty; fewer people participating in the sport means less general popularity and less support is given. Fewer competitions are held, which in turn makes it far more difficult and expensive for the elite surfers who are trying to make it as professionals to get the competition experience they need, which means smaller chances of success in high-stress competitive scenarios.
Those apparent drawbacks do hold some hidden advantages for surfers living where we do.
Take the wetsuit for example; when you spend most of your life training in the unwanted heavy-clunkiness of neoprene (rubbers), you tend to get a bit stronger in the most foundational movements of surfing. When you go to compete at warm water venues, you drop the big rubber layer and simply have your swim suit on. You can’t imagine how good that feels. And that remote coastline and crowdless waves? There’s your chance to be a big fish in a small pond.
You have far more opportunity to choose which waves you would like to catch, as opposed to surfing a beach packed with scores of people all fighting for the same swells. Even the lack (compared to the U.S., or Australia for example) of a large community might have a positive side. Fewer people to compete against leaves you with a greater chance at qualification for a team, or at winning a competition. It is not unusual for big-name sponsors to look for athletes who have some sort of niche. If that’s the case, it’ll shine more brightly in a smaller field. In fact, sometimes being an underdog when showing up at an international event can relieve pressure for some athletes.
For all the cold water and rugged coastline, the national scene here in Canada isn’t that different from elsewhere. We lack in sheer numbers of events and competitors, but as far as skill and talent go, we have some internationally proven and praised surfers within our borders. Quantity of competition is our challenge, but we are right on par with the rest of the world in quality. This means that when time comes to qualify for the 2020 Olympics we will not be messing around.
Unfortunately, since the introduction of surfing into the Olympic Games happened so recently, the road to qualification is still somewhat a grey area for countries and for individual team prospects. What we do know, however, is that Canada already has some cards in our favour. Surf conditions here and at the Olympic venue in Tokyo are very similar.
Having just returned from a month in Japan, competing at the 2017 Vissla ISA world junior championships (where Team Canada achieved its best result to date; 13th out of 41 countries!) I can vouch for this fact.
Tokyo similar to Tofino
Most of the beaches we will be surfing at in the Olympics are sandy, long, and flat — very similar to what we surf here in Tofino. Even though these types of locations often yield lacklustre surf, the positive is, that’s what we West Coasters are used to.
So, as Canadians consider Olympic surfing, there are lots of advantages and disadvantages, positives and negatives, to think about.
But in my training and competing I tend to think of these as irrelevant truths. I say this because even though the conditions are true, they are irrelevant to the task at hand.
Whether it’s the finals in an event that could qualify me for the national team or a practice heat with a friend, the big picture goes away. That is not where I choose to put my focus. I reserve that for my next wave, my next manoeuvre, my next score, and my next win. I put aside all the things I have no power over, and squeeze every last drop out of what is at my disposal in that moment.
I call them irrelevant truths, but the facts of Canada’s surfing scene form the foundation of my past, they will shape the path of my future, and they deserve to be addressed. But when it is time to focus, it doesn’t matter if I have every disadvantage in the world. If I can’t control it in the moment, it is nothing but an irrelevant truth.
Everything else is secondary to the task at hand — surfing.
(Large photos submitted by Kalum Temple)