Hometown Hopefuls: Carissa Moore on ‘breathing life’ into Hawaii’s surfing legacy
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
In a history-making showing at the Tokyo Olympics, Honolulu, Hawaii native Carissa Moore delivered on the promise of the pre-event favorite, winning gold in women’s surfing in the event’s Olympic debut. Next summer, surfing returns for the 2024 Paris Olympics but will take place almost 10,000 miles from the host city itself, in Tahiti in French Polynesia, the furthest away any Olympic medal competition has been held from the host city. Teahupoʻo, on Tahiti’s southwestern coast, is known as the home of one of the world’s most challenging reef breaks, with stunning clear waters, major waves, and a shallow reef for riders to navigate. With the Games less than a year away, Moore would arrive in this beautiful and demanding venue with the unique pressure of reigning Olympic champion. But for the 30-year old, currently top-ranked on the World Surf League Championship Tour, that pressure is far from top of mind.
“I think my biggest goal for the rest of the season is to have fun and make it as enjoyable as possible,” Moore told NBC Sports this summer. “I’ve realized winning is great, but I feel like that’s a byproduct of really being in the moment and surfing well and having a good time. I want to just look back at [this season] and just be like, ‘Wow, I had a really good time, you know, and I hung out with the people that I loved. And I made good memories. And I surfed hard, and I gave it everything I had.’”
It’s a mindset shift that’s come with experience on the circuit for the five-time WSL champion.
“It’s easy to get caught up in in the results, but I feel like I lose the joy there,” Moore said. “That’s when all the pressure and anxiety come in. In the beginning of my career, the motivation was maybe a little bit different. But I found that maybe I wasn’t as happy, or it was easier to get burned out that way. So this has been a lot more sustainable, and a lot more fun, too.”
Having the support of her community in her native Hawaii, where she first took up surfing on the waves of Waikiki in Honolulu with her father Chris, has helped too.
“I remember just getting to come home [from the Tokyo Games] and seeing the stoke on my family,” Moore recalled. “I remember driving home for the first time and like everyone in my neighborhood put up signs. So that was super memorable, I still have the pictures on my phone. They painted like a huge mural of me on a building, which was like, really, it’s kind of bizarre and overwhelming, but super rad and something that I feel very honored to be a part of.”
The mural, the work of local Hawaii artist Kamea Hadar, stands some 12 stories tall at the intersection of Pensacola and South King Street in downtown Honolulu. Moore is joined on the mural by Duke Kahanamoku, a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming even more famous as the pioneer of modern surfing, who was born in Hawaii in 1890, just three years before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Hadar’s intention in celebrating Moore and Kahanamoku, and in pairing them on the mural, has echoes of Moore’s approach to her competitive career.
“Hawaii is a special place, and the people here are full of ‘aloha,’ which is that love, that friendliness,” Hadar told CNN in 2021. “Carissa and Duke are very much ambassadors of aloha, and they spread that aloha around the world. I try to do the same with my art. I think that with positivity and aloha, you can make the world a better place – a happier place.”
Maintaining positivity can be a challenge for anyone, and elite athletes are no exception. Moore has been open throughout her career about her struggles with body image and self-confidence, how far she’s come since her early days as a pro, and how she’s spun forward her own experience as a female athlete.
“Growing up as a young, young girl and young woman, our bodies go through so many changes, and I think at that time of my life, I maybe didn’t have the all the positive tools and resources to embrace those changes,” she said. “I think there was a lot of comparison and negative self-talk. I was really hard on myself. Now I just see that hey, there isn’t this perfect mold that we’re all supposed to fit into. We all have beautiful bodies and things to celebrate. I’m not stick thin; I definitely have a few more pounds on me than maybe I’d like, but I try to appreciate that. My legs are giving me the strength to surf a long wave here at the Surf Ranch, my arms help me give good hugs, and just learning how to celebrate my imperfections rather than tearing myself down.”
Moore started her foundation, Moore Aloha, in 2018, inspired to find strength in service at a time when she herself was at a significant mental low. The foundation is focused on organizing events in and around the water for young women.
“Moore Aloha is really sharing that love with other girls and other women, using surfing, using mentorship, using the Aloha values to really help women find that positive path in life, to find their passion and live it,” Moore said.
Thanks to three wins and three third-place finishes, Moore leads the WSL standings heading into the 10th and final event of the 2023 season before September’s final – the SHISEIDO Tahiti Pro on August 11th, which will provide riders with a test of the Paris 2024 experience. She’s already mathematically qualified for the Games, with the official team designation still to come, and has the chance to further cement her place in surfing history, for herself and for Hawaii.
“I just really felt like it was a win that was bigger than myself,” Moore said of her victory in Tokyo. “It felt like it was really for all of Hawaii. It was really special to be able to bring it back to where the birthplace of surfing is, and to honor Duke and breathe life into his legacy.”