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Australian Surfing Team Tokyo Games 2020 – Preview

Tokyo 2020 Surfing Preview – Team Australia

The 2020 Games will soon get underway, roughly a year after they were initially scheduled, and for the first time the best surfers in the world will get the chance to earn a Gold Medal for their country. With a few spots still to be filled there are currently 12 countries set to be represented at the event, which will be held at Tsurigasaki Beach just to the east of Tokyo, and we’re going to kick off our preview of the event with a look at Team Australia.

The Team

Australia has a long and storied surfing history, so it’s little surprise that they filled the maximum of two spots which each nation is allowed on both the men’s and women’s side of the draw very quickly. All four Australian surfers set to compete in Japan qualified through the Championship Tour route, with Sally Fitzgibbons and Steph Gilmore making it in for the women and Julian Wilson and Owen Wright set to compete for the men. 

For the men, the top ten surfers at the end of the 2019 CT advanced, and both Wright and Wilson only just scraped through. Wright finished that year in ninth, while Wilson was in 11th and qualified because both Brazil and the USA had three surfers in the top ten, and only two are allowed per country. The women made it a little more easily – Gilmore finished in fourth in 2019 and Fitzgibbons in fifth. Nikki van Dijk was unlucky to miss out having finished tenth that year, while Tyler Wright spent most of the year injured – she would otherwise have almost certainly qualified for Australia.

So, how are they likely to fare?

The Women

It’s the women who most likely have the best chance of earning a medal for Australia at Tsurigasaki Beach. Had Tyler Wright been competing that would have been even more true, but with Fitzgibbons and Gilmore there is still certainly a good chance the Aussies will earn at least a Bronze.

Steph Gilmore is one of the most successful surfers in history, having claimed seven world titles throughout her illustrious career – Kelly Slater is the only person to have won more, while Gilmore is tied with Layne Beachley for the most in women’s surfing. There’s no doubt that she’s no longer at her peak – six of her seven titles came during a dominant period between 2007 and 2014 – but she won as recently as 2018, and will head to Tokyo having been in solid form on the Championship Tour. 

She started the season in decent albeit unspectacular form, securing three consecutive fifth place finishes to begin the season. At Margaret River in early May, however, she took it up a notch and reminded everyone that she’s still got it by making it through to the final. She certainly doesn’t dominate in the way that she used to, but the style, power and surfing nous are still well and truly there, and it would be a surprise if she’s not in the final few left standing in Japan.

Likewise Sally Fitzgibbons. She is another seasoned campaigner, having spent a decade on the Championship Tour, and while she hasn’t nearly reached the heights of Gilmore – she’s never won the world title – she has been a very consistent presence in the upper echelons of the world rankings.

At 30 she is still surfing well, though she has struggled a little in recent years to win events. Rarely does she fail to advance through the initial rounds on the Championship Tour and she typically wins when expected to, so against competitors at the Olympics who aren’t on the CT, she should have no problem advancing. Once it gets down to the business end of the event and medals are up for grabs, however, there must be some question marks surrounding whether she can beat the likes of Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks and indeed Gilmore. Still, she should be there in the final eight, and from there a medal is just a couple of wins away.

The Men

Like their female counterparts, both Julian Wilson and Owen Wright are on the wrong side of 30, and they have no doubt surfed better in their career than they are at this point in time – but that doesn’t mean they go into the Olympics without a chance of snaring a medal.

Wilson is probably the better hope of the two. The 32-year-old for a long time seemed like a world champion in the making, and while he got very close when finishing second in 2018, he has never achieved that goal. 

In 2019, the last full season to date after 2020 was cancelled due to COVID, he showed some signs of regression, dropping back to 11th place at the end of the Championship Tour season. Things haven’t improved so far in 2021. He has struggled mightily, managing just two ninth place finishes and two 17th place finishes through the first four events, results which have seen him fall a long way out of the top ten. At 32 he should still have plenty of good surfing left in him, but he’ll need a big turnaround in form to earn a medal at Tsurigasaki. 

Wright’s career has probably never reached the heights of Wilson’s, but as his best he has proven to be a dangerous surfer and is capable of extracting plenty out of medium-quality waves, which we are likely to get in Japan. Ten years ago he was a legitimate world title contender, finishing seventh in 2010 and third in 2011, and he got reasonably close with a fifth in 2015 as well. However, at the end of that season he suffered a serious brain injury surfing at Pipeline, and had to relearn how to walk, talk and obviously surf as a result. 

He returned in 2017 and incredibly finished sixth at the end of the season, a feat he repeated in 2018. He dropped down to ninth in 2019 and so far, it’s been an unflattering 2021 season – after withdrawing from the first event, he finished ninth, 17th and 17th in the next three. In a similar vein to Wilson he’s more than capable of competing if he’s at his best, but he only has a couple of months left to find it.

The surfing team the Aussies will take to Japan certainly doesn’t look as dominant as it might have in the past – this exact same team ten years ago would have been more dangerous, while you also could have added the likes of Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and a couple of others to the mix back then. As a result they head into the inaugural Olympic surfing event with a team which is inferior to that which Brazil and the USA will boast, but that doesn’t mean they can’t earn at least one medal. The women, in particular, have a good chance of sneaking into the final three, if not winning, but on the men’s side, Wilson and Wright will need a significant uptick in form to match it with the likes of Medina, Florence and Ferreira.

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