As a brewing storm stirred up the waves Monday during day two of surfing’s historic Olympic debut, there was a collapse of the favorites with some of the sport’s biggest stars failing to make their mark.
The second day of competition at Tsurigasaki beach, about 60 miles east of Tokyo, began with a stunning upset in the first heat in the women’s contest. Venerated Australian Stephanie Gilmore was eliminated by the 17th-ranked Bianca Buitendag of South Africa.
Gilmore, 33, is the most decorated surfer competing at these Games, and she had won the first day of Olympic competition with the highest ride and heat score.
The 27-year-old Buitendag said she initially had a “heart attack” when she saw what she was up against: the world’s greatest female surfer with seven world championship titles.
Eventually, though, the younger surfer came to terms with just enjoying what she figured would be her one last Olympic ride.
“I’ve got no pressure — it’s like the best spot ever. I obviously want to do my best but with no great expectations weighing on my shoulders, I’ve got the freedom to surf the best that I can,” Buitendag said. “The further I go, the more I’m an underdog.”
Gilmore’s shocking dethroning set the tone for the day and from there, each enthusiastic blaring countdown to start the subsequent 1-on-1 heats felt like a notice to fans everywhere that anything could happen.
International Surfing Association competitions assign the red jersey to the highest-seeded competitor in the water, with white, yellow, and green signifying the rest of the order.
Other red-shirt heat leaders including Johanne Defay, 27, of France, and Tatiana Weston-Webb, 25, of Brazil, were also eliminated in the women’s game.
Both were hampered by wave selection priority, as their underdog competitors ran out the clock before they could find a good final wave. It’s a strategy that’s similar to the four-corners offense in basketball before the shot clock or a football team taking a knee at the end to prevent their opponent from getting the ball back.
The surf conditions were better Monday, as surfers were gifted 6-to-7-foot waves that were twice as good as the day before because of a predicted typhoon in the region whose effects should be felt in Japan on Tuesday. The conditions should set the stage yet again for an explosive air show during the third day of competition.
Whether it’ll have the same choppy winds as Monday is unknown but it proved to be a challenge for some surfers in Day 2.
Reigning world champion Carissa Moore, 28, did win her heat but has struggled to gain momentum. Moore is used to shredding the best waves in the world from her home base in Hawaii and is still trying to adapt to the Florida-like surf conditions here.
“It wasn’t my best performance but sometimes you’ve just got to take those heat wins and roll with it,” Moore said. “It was crazy to see some top seeds bow out earlier this morning. It just goes to show that these conditions are very tricky.”
These kind of waves are benefiting fellow American teammate Caroline Marks, who delivered the best performance for the women Monday.
And homefield advantage was clearly on display when three of the four Japanese surfers won their heats, putting the host country on the same footing as the mighty American team.
The most competitive heat to watch Monday featured two superstar U.S. surfers, Kolohe Andino, 27, and John John Florence, 28, who jumped into the water after a 90 minute weather delay caused by low tide.
Both came back to competitive surfing after months away from the waves due to significant injuries and surgery. In the end, it was Florence, the Kelly Slater protégé and among today’s greatest surfers, who was eliminated.
His performance was no match for Andino, who landed a massive 8.5 air reverse with a front-handed slob grab of his board in the first 30 seconds of their heat, the best overall ride and heat score for Day 2 of competition.
“Obviously losing to John wouldn’t be that big of a deal — (he’s) a two-time world champ and probably the best surfer of our generation,” Andino said. “I haven’t done a maneuver like that in like eight months. I kind of surprised myself.”
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