Just 16 and still afraid of the water, hot-shot Japanese surfer Minori Kawai has set her sights on Olympic gold after a stunning victory at the venue for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Kawai won last month’s Chiba Open in her own backyard and feels she will have a psychological edge when the sun-swept sport makes its Olympic debut three years from now.
“It’s given me a huge lift in confidence,” the schoolgirl star told AFP in an interview before surfing next to the Olympic venue at Tsurigasaki beach, an hour outside of Tokyo.
“I never imagined I could win such a big competition,” added Kawai after becoming the first Japanese woman to win a World Surf League 3,000 qualifying series event despite her tender years.
“It was like a dream and it took a while to sink in. But to win at Tsurigasaki, where I surf every day, was amazing. I got a taste for how the Olympics will feel and I’m sure it will give me an advantage.”
Kawai, who began surfing at just seven in her native Tokushima, western Japan, admits she still has to battle her phobias in the water after fearing she might become shark bait on more than one occasion.
“When I was surfing in Australia once, I saw a flash of a dorsal fin and thought: ‘Uh-oh, I’m going to get eaten’,” said Japan’s top female surfer, whose style combines lightning speed and seemingly effortless grace.
“They told me it was only a dolphin that time, but then in Gold Coast I got stung by a nasty jellyfish and couldn’t breathe so they rushed me to hospital.”
Just when she thought it was safe to go back in the water, Kawai had another brush with disaster at a competition in Indonesia.
“In Bali, I saw this big shark fin when I was paddling and carried on surfing in a bit of a fluster. I was petrified.
“The sea can be scary,” added Kawai, who signed autographs for adoring young fans after finishing practice.
“When you go out alone and the waves are massive, sometimes you think you could die out there.
“But you can’t become a better surfer if you don’t get in the water.”
Her recent victory was all the more remarkable given that she surfed on a sprained ankle and took painkillers before beating fellow Japanese Hinako Kurokawa in the final.
“To win at Tsurigasaki has given me extra incentive for 2020,” said Kawai, whose 3,000 qualifying points lifted her 95 places to 23rd in the series rankings.
“The waves in Japan are pretty small, which will be a big help to Japanese surfers. But I don’t really feel any pressure.
“Being able to travel the world at this age is a privilege so I take every competition very seriously.”
Kawai, whose next goal is to compete on the elite championship tour and win a world title, only caught the surfing bug after getting fed up of watching her father surf from the beach.
But she quickly became “hopelessly hooked” and the omens look good for Tokyo 2020.
“It’s incredible the Olympics are coming to Japan, and that surfing was included as an Olympic sport,” said Kawai, set to compete in Los Angeles later this month.
“Plus I’ll almost be the perfect age so I really got lucky. Already when I’m surfing in Tsurigasaki, I sometimes catch myself thinking about winning an Olympic medal — obviously gold.”
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