Sea mon­sters no sweat for Ja­pan’s teen surf queen

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

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.

SHARK ALERT

“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.” —AFP

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