Canadian surfers Young, Zelasko carving an Olympic path at Pan Am Games

One of the sports making its Olympic debut next year is creating waves so large they're being felt in Peru —and two Canadian athletes are hoping to ride them all the way to Tokyo. Surfers Cody Young and Bethany Zelasko are at the Pan Am Games, where the event they are competing in offers direct qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Tokyo 2020 will be the first Olympics to feature surfing on the programme

Canada's Bethany Zelasko, shown in this 2016 file photo, is at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, looking to qualify a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. (File/AFP/Getty Images)

LIMA, Peru — One of the sports making its Olympic debut next year is creating waves so large they're being felt in Peru — and two Canadian athletes are hoping to ride them all the way to Tokyo.

Surfers Cody Young and Bethany Zelasko are in Lima at the Pan Am Games, where the shortboard event they are competing in offers direct qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Young won his first heat on Monday morning — the first in Pan Am Games history — at the Punta Rocas surfing venue against Kevin Schultz of the U.S. Young had a score of 10.43 to the American's 7.50.

"Feels amazing to win the first heat ever at the Pan American Games," Young says. "I didn't surf as good as I wanted but I was able to get the job done, so that gives me a lot of confidence moving into the next round tomorrow, especially with the waves forecasted to get bigger."

Zelasko also moved on to the second round of competition, scoring 9.57 points to top the 5.14 put up by El Salvador's Vanessa Cortez.

"It's amazing to surf really good waves and get a chance to qualify [for the Olympics]," she says. "I really want a spot and I'm looking to do it here [in Lima]."

Young, 20, and Zelasko, 18, have been surfing competitively since they were both about 10 years old and have spent most of that time outside of Canada — Young lives in Maui, Hawaii and Zelasko in Dana Point, Calif. — but both say they're honoured to wear the Maple Leaf into competition.

Canada's Cody Young, shown in this 2018 file photo, won his first heat at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, on Monday. The sport offers direct qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (File/Getty Images)

"It means the world to me to represent such a beautiful place," Young says. "I don't live there now, [but] I've spent so much time up there and all my family is up there.

"I've been watching the Olympics since I was a little kid, my family all around the TV watching [Canada] win. It's cool that I could potentially have the same sort of thing happen for me and compete at the Olympics."

"I'm representing something greater than myself," Zelasko says. "Representing Canada is an opportunity not only to show what I have, but the gift that they've given to me."

Surf Canada coach Shannon Brown has been working with both athletes for over a year now, and says they're both well-suited for success on the world stage.

"They're both really good people and great athletes that are committed to their craft," Brown says. "They've both grown up in hyper-competitive areas where surfing is a big part of daily life, where it's kind of a more legitimate sport that people grow up doing and competing in.

"They've both excelled from a very young age, so they've been around the scene for such a long time they just know the ins and outs of the sport so well. Cody [has] developed a very strong and powerful surfing style, which is great for [Pan Am] since the waves are similar and he's used to them."Bethany kind of grew up competing on the U.S. junior circuit and she was always one of the top five girls in her division."

Canada's Bethany Zelasko, shown in this file photo, has been surfing most of her life, but was 15 when she found out she could compete in her sport at the Olympics. (File/AFP/Getty Images)

Zelasko's Olympic dreams began in 2016 when the sport was officially added in Tokyo, a moment she remembers as a 15-year-old high school surfer.

"My initial reaction was excitement... and as time passes, and you get closer and closer [to 2020], you think 'this is more attainable than I first thought.' It became a goal of mine — 'this is something I want to do, so I'm going to do it and I'm going to achieve it.'"

Plenty on the line in Lima

The ramifications of their performance in Peru may place some extra weight on their shoulders, but the Canadians' coach thinks any added stress is easily outweighed by their desire to become Olympians.

"The fact that this is a direct path, a win here gets them to the Olympics. They're both really, really hungry for it, it's their dream," Brown says. "So it would be impossible for them not to feel a little bit of pressure, but I think they're both well capable of handling it.

Surfing is new to both the Pan Am and Olympic programs, which broadens the reach of the sport and means that Lima will offer a chance for first-time surfing watchers to learn the basics, including how the sport is scored.

Canada's Cody Young, shown in this 2018 file photo, says what he enjoys the most about surf competitions is the strategy and tactical decisions needed during each heat. (File/Getty Images)

Every wave a competitor catches is rated on a 10-point scale by a panel of judges. During their heat, they have a set period of time to catch as many waves as they can, but only the two best waves of each surfer is counted, giving them a score out of 20.

During a heat, Young has three things on his mind.

'Basically [it's all about] speed, power and flow," he says. "A combination of manoeuvres on a quality wave, [making] critical manoeuvres on critical sections of the wave."

A chess match on a surfboard

What many might not know is that surfing is a highly-tactical sport — and that the mental aspects match, if not exceed, the physical demands.

"There's so much strategy involved in surfing and competition really brings that out a lot," Young says. "That's what I like the most about competing — you have to use your head a lot, it's a lot of mind games."

Brown says you need to have a good head on your shoulders to make it in competitive surfing.

"The surfers who do the best are the ones who are able to stand up on their wave with a clear head," he says. "Quiet the noise of the actual contest, and everything surrounding it: the clock, your opponent, expectations and all that.

"Having the ability to stand up, put all of that aside and be in the moment and surf that wave that's right in front of you. That's really hard to do, but that's what makes it so special."

There will be more chances for Young and Zelasko to qualify aside from the Pan Am Games, but this competition offers something unique: experience surfing at a major, multi-sport event. That's something Young will be taking from the competition in Punta Rocas, but he also says he's set on winning now.

"I'm looking to prove to myself that I can do well in a high-pressure atmosphere," he says. "I know I've done well in the past with that kind of event that's really a big deal, but this is the biggest deal. The biggest event.

"That's the one and only goal."

With files from Surf Canada