TOKYO: Brazil’s Italo Ferreira learned to surf standing on the foam box that his father sold fish from – now he’s eyeing gold in the sport’s first-ever Olympic appearance.
The 2019 world champion will start among the favourites as surfing makes its debut in Tokyo as one of four new sports, alongside skateboarding, climbing and karate.
And it could be a spectacular competition, with a tropical cyclone set to whip up big waves at Tsurigasaki Beach, 100 kilometres west of Tokyo.
But the Olympic spotlight will be a far cry from Ferreira’s humble beginnings in the sleepy village of Baia Formosa in northeast Brazil.
It was there that he first learned to ride waves, bobbing up and down on top of his fisherman father’s foam cooler box.
“It sounds incredible, because it didn’t give any balance on the sea,” Ferreira told Brazilian media in 2019.
“However, I could catch a wave on it.”
A few months later, his family managed to scrape together enough money to buy him a second-hand surfboard.
But he still had to go door-to-door asking his neighbours to help support his surfing, and his troubles didn’t end even after he made it as a professional.
In 2019, four days before leaving for Japan to take part in the World Surfing Games, Ferreira’s car was stolen with his travel documents inside.
He had to apply for a new passport and arrived at the venue with nine minutes left in his heat – but he still won the gold medal, wearing a T-shirt and shorts he had borrowed from another surfer.
“Each victory gives you a lot of grit, a lot of perseverance, that makes you more professional and gives you more desire to win,” he told AFP.
Now Ferreira is aiming to add Olympic gold to his list of achievements, but he will have to overcome compatriot Gabriel Medina to do so.
The current world number one has a high-flying style that will likely endear him to TV audiences watching the sport for the first time.
But he also has a steely side, which he showed in a 2019 competition when he intentionally blocked another surfer and picked up a penalty to safeguard his victory.
“If it’s in the rules, you’ve got to play the game,” Medina told reporters.
But the Brazilian duo are unlikely to have things all their own way among the 20-strong Olympic field.
John John Florence and Kolohe Andino will lead the US challenge, edging out surfing legend Kelly Slater for the maximum two spots granted to each team.
But the 49-year-old Slater, an 11-time world champion, is on stand-by should injury rule Florence or Andino out of the competition.
Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi carries the host nation’s hopes at a beach where his father grew up surfing.
“It’s such a crazy, full circle,” Igarashi told redbull.com last year.
“It’s definitely a wave that suits my surfing. It’s technical and precise. It’s just in my blood, being Japanese, to be precise and technically sound.”
In the women’s event, American Carissa Moore is the 2019 world champion and holds the number one ranking, while team-mate Caroline Marks is another strong contender.
Australia is also likely to be in the mix for medals, with seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore competing alongside current world No. 3 Sally Fitzgibbons.
“I used to draw the Olympic rings on myself back in school – to have the rings on my shirt now, to have it legit is so cool,” said Fitzgibbons. – AFP