18-year-old Huntington Beach surf prodigy heads to first World Surf League championship tour

A dripping wet Kanoa Igarashi was stopped on the pier by a news reporter as he got out of the water in Huntington Beach.

At the time, the then 6-year-old surfer couldn’t think of anything but getting out of his wetsuit and making it to his kindergarten class on time. The waves were good that day, and he was already running late.

But the newscaster had a question for the kid, who had already been surfing half his life. That’s right, he started when he was 3.

“I think you’re going to be a world champion, what do you think? Are you going to be a world champion?”

Igarashi answered in his sweet child’s voice without hesitation, with all the confidence of a kid with big dreams.

“Yeah.”

Fans from around the world will be rooting for the now 18-year-old Igarashi on as he lives out his lifelong dream as one of the top 34 surfers from around the globe next month on the World Surf League championship tour. The big leagues of the sport, the tour will give him a chance at his childhood dream: to be world champion.

At 18, he’s the youngest to make the cut this year. On the other end of the spectrum is the oldest: 44-year-old Kelly Slater.

“I’ve had the same clear goal since I started surfing,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to be the best.”

The Huntington Beach surfer has been dubbed a prodigy since he was a tiny tike, garnering sponsorships from top surf companies such as O’Neill by the time he was 7, and Quiksilver when he was just 12.

He’s a superstar in Japan, where he had a reality show in his younger years. Japanese television will start filming again this year to document his rookie year on tour, where he is the first Asian surfer to ever make the cut among the world’s best.

He’ll do his best to forget that the guys he’s paddling out with and surfing against are his hero.

“I’m scared to surf against every single guy there,” he said.

A kid’s dream

Most 3-year-old kids want action sports figures or cars or dinosaurs for their third birthday. Igarashi wanted a neon yellow surfboard he couldn’t get off his mind.

Soon, his father Tom, also a surfer, was taking him out once a week, and by the time he was in kindergarten, it was his everyday routine.

Then, he started winning contest after contest and breaking records. While surfing the National Scholastic Surfing Association circuit, he set a record of 30 wins in one season.

NSSA executive director Janice Aragon remembers when Igarashi first started doing events. He would travel the entire coast, as far up as Santa Cruz, every single weekend.

“He was one of the earliest kids I saw it click for, because he worked so hard for it,” she said.

In the surf world, he’s a celebrity.

“I don’t have any more room on my passport,” he said with a chuckle.

A lucky break

In 2013, Igarashi got his first big break. And not in a good way.

His leg split in two spots while surfing in Australia, after landing wrong. The road to recovery was tough physically and mentally.

The following year, 2014, was frustrating. Contest after contest he wasn’t getting the results he needed to move up.

But after regaining strength and confidence, he hit his stride. His goal last year was to make it in the top 100 of the World Qualifying Series, the minor leagues of the sport.

He came close to winning a big event early in the year, followed by a semi-final result at the U.S. Open of Surfing in his hometown. Suddenly, he was top three in the Qualifying Series rankings. The top 10 Qualifying Series surfers make the World Tour list.

He continued on his hot streak. It was announced at the end of the year that he made the cut.

He’s carefully watching San Clemente’s Kolohe Andino, the only other Orange County person on tour, for guidance.

“He had a really hard first year and success his second year. I learned a lot from that, you have to keep your head high,” Igarashi said.

Emotions are mixed as he prepares for the first event of the year, the Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast in Australia, scheduled for March 10-21.

“It’s just constantly changing. I’m excited, nervous, scared, everything. It’s a whole new chapter of my life.”

Then he tries to remember that he’s doing the same thing he’s done his whole life – putting on a jersey and competing.

“It’s just against different people,” he said. “I’m trying to forget that the people I’m going up against are my heroes.”

Contact the writer: lconnelly@ocregister.com

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