By Andrea Swayne
A new class of prospectors—armed with surfboards and athleticism instead of pick axes and shovels—staked their claim and then struck gold on Sunday, Oct. 18, winning the International Surfing Association World Junior Surfing Championship for the first time in history.
The team fought through seven days of competition—Oct. 12 through 18 at Oceanside Pier—and more than 300 of the best surfers from 35 other countries, to become ISA world champion gold medalists, a title that has historically eluded the United States team.
With five surfers still in the competition—along with the strong finishes in repechage rounds by their teammates—team USA was in a great position going into the finals. The deal was sealed in the second finals heat of the day, Boys U16, with an individual gold medal performance by Stevie Pittman (North Carolina), whose points contribution put them out of reach by their closest contenders, France, Hawaii, Australia and Japan. Pittman’s individual gold was also the first in ISA World Junior Championship history for the U.S.
Team USA’s final point total was 7,536 out of a possible 10,240. Runner-up France had 6,565, followed by Hawaii in third place (6,385), Australia in fourth (5,516) and in fifth, Japan, with 5,140 points.
The team included two surfers from San Clemente—Colt Ward and Kei Kobayashi in Boys U18—as well as Jake Marshall (Encinitas) and Nolan Rapoza (Long Beach) also Boys U18; Luke Gordon (South Carolina), John Mel (Santa Cruz), Ryland Rubens (Pacific Beach) and Pittman in Boys U16; Tia Blanco (Oceanside) and Frankie Harrer (Malibu) in Girls U18; and in Girls U16, Alyssa Spencer (Encinitas) and Tiare Thompson (La Jolla). Team USA is led by head coach Ryan Simmons and assistant coach Micah Byrne.
The five athletes in the final—Blanco (silver), Harrer (bronze), Marshall (bronze), Mel (copper) and Pittman (gold)—earned the most individual ISAWJC medals ever for team USA.
The most a U.S. team had ever earned was four in 2004 in Tahiti and four in Ecuador in 2014. In the years in between, team USA struggled at ISA Worlds.
The previous best result for the country came in 2004 when the team brought home silver, competing in a field of 175 surfers from 23 countries. That year’s individual medalists were Karina Petroni, Erica Hosseini, Jeremy Johnston and San Clemente’s Tanner Gudauskas.
Kobayashi, who despite a string of quality performances in the first four days of competition went down in a tough repechage round, counted the team’s first-ever gold medal as the biggest honor in his surfing career so far. And although he said he was a bit disappointed with his performance, he believes the coaching, camaraderie and support of Surfing America—the San Clemente-based ISA-recognized national governing body for surfing in the U.S.—made all the difference.
“I’m really stoked and it is such an honor to be a part of this team and competing in my first ISA,” Kobayashi said. “It meant a lot to all of us, not just to win, but to win it for Coach Simmons. We are all so stoked! This meant a lot to him and for all of his hard work, picking the team and believing in us, we can’t thank him enough.”
Colt Ward, who ages out of junior-level competition next year, agreed.
“To bring home the team gold is amazing,” Ward said. “It’s what all of us wanted to do, going into this contest, and we did it! We all worked super hard to get here, had a bunch of training camps through the year, and it paid off. Our team was so strong and even though I’m not going to be here next year, I think they can keep it going.”
“Hopefully we can back it up next year in the Azores,” Kobayashi added. “We are sure going to try.”
Team alternates, Malia Osterkamp (San Clemente), Nick Marshall (Encinitas) and Luke Marks (Florida) joined Jake Marshall and Kobayashi to win a copper medal in the Aloha Cup—a special 50-minute event where four boys and one girl from each country surf three waves apiece. All three waves count and all five surfers’ scores contribute to a team score.
Coach Simmons referred to the gold-medal victory as “one of the best feelings of (his) life,” when asked how he felt to stand on the podium with his team as ISA President Fernando Aguerre presented them with the championship trophy and then went down the line, placing a gold medal around each of their necks.
“This was a really good team with everyone coming together and supporting each other. It was truly a team effort to get it done, and that’s why we won,” Simmons said. “We had some kids who had experience and the new kids were kind of taken under the wings of the veterans. The rookies learned from them all week long. We started strong and we never let up, never thought we had it won, so I think that was kind of the key. We kept our noses down and kept pushing forward to make sure that we got the gold.”
Surfing America Executive Director Greg Cruse said that although garnering funding for the team has historically been a challenge, the coaching, training and strong camaraderie among team members, built over the last three years, figured heavily into the win. Also figuring in was the team’s determination to compensate for the loss of three top performers—Griffin Colapinto (San Clemente) and Caroline Marks (Florida, recently moved to SC) to injuries right before the event, along with Kanoa Igarashi (Huntington Beach), who didn’t qualify because he didn’t surf the USA Champs.
“The alternates chosen to fill those spots were scrappy and they really wanted it. They gutted it out, did what they needed to do and we made it to the top of the podium,” Cruse said. “This victory is awesome. It’s been a long hard road and we kind of ‘MacGyvered it’ with bubblegum and bailing wire, to have the resources to do it. But we all pitched in together and with amazing surfers, amazing coaches and amazing parents, we pulled through in the end.”
This first-time team gold for the U.S. could prove to be a historic triumph for another reason—team members could very well be among the first surfers ever to compete for the U.S. in the 2020 Olympics.
Last month the 2020 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee officially requested the addition of surfing, a move the International Olympic Committee is expected to approve in August 2016.
7. South Africa-4270
8. Costa Rica-4233
15. New Zealand-3096
20. Puerto Rico-2569
31. El Salvador-940