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Costa Rican and Italian Surfing Teams Tokyo Games 2020 – Previews

Just eight nations will send multiple women to the first edition of Olympic surfing, and Costa Rica is almost certainly the most surprising of them. Brisa Hennessey and Leilana McGonagle will be the only two Costa Ricans heading to Tokyo, however, with no males qualifying for the Games. Meanwhile, Italy will send zero women but one man after Leonardo Fiorivanti got the latest of call-ups. Let’s take a look at how these two nations might fare.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s best chance at a surfing medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics undoubtedly lies with Brisa Hennessey. A 21-year-old from Matapalo on the southern side of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, she had her first full season on the Championship Tour in 2019 – the year in which Olympic qualifiers were determined – and performed consistently enough to finish 11th come season’s end. You may remember that it was the top eight women who qualified for the Olympics through the Championship Tour, but fortunately for her there were five Americans ahead of her, and given only two can qualify she got nudged into the final starting spot.

Hennessey, who had seemingly the most charmed childhood in history, splitting her childhood years between Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, Oahu’s North Shore in Hawaii and Fiji, first competed on the Championship Tour in 2016, but it wasn’t until 2019 that she earned herself a fulltime spot. She started that year solidly, making the quarter-finals at Bells and Margaret River and the semi-finals in Bali, but faltered in the back half of the year. 

So far in 2021 she has consistently struggled against the best, making it through the first round only to be eliminated in the second in five of the six events. The names of those who have beaten her in the second round are: Steph Gilmore, Caroline Marks, Carissa Moore, Tyler Wright and Tatiana Weston-Webb. Losing to these names is certainly no blight on Hennessey’s surfing, but it does suggest she has a bit of work to do before she can match it with the best and will be hard-pressed to make it to the podium in Japan.

But while she may not exactly be a favourite to take out the event, she nonetheless represents her country’s best hope given her experience at the top level. Their other competitor is Leilana McGonagle, another 21-year-old who grew up surfing the same world-class point break as Hennessey but who lacks the Championship Tour experience of her Costa Rican teammate.

McGonagle qualified through the ISA World Surfing Games. A goofy-footer, she’s been surfing pretty much full-time in the Qualifying Series since 2017, gradually improving her performance year on year. She’s managed to secure a victory in each of the last three full, uninterrupted seasons, and this year is in seventh place after five events. There’s no doubt that there is some talent there and she may be able to work her way onto the Championship Tour in the years to come, but for the moment, earning a spot in Tokyo is an achievement in itself.

Both Hennessey and McGonagle still have plenty of time left in their young careers. Aged just 21, they’ve both shown plenty of ability, with Hennessey in particular already going toe to toe with the world’s best, even if she’s struggling to beat them. Potential won’t win an Olympic Medal though, and while they could cause an upset or two, these two are more likely to be genuine threats at the 2024 Olympics than this one.

Italy

Just a few weeks out from the Tokyo Olympics, it didn’t look like Italy would have any representatives at the inaugural Olympic surfing event. When Jordy Smith pulled out at the last minute due to injury, however, that all changed, with Leonardo Fioravanti securing the final spot at the event. Technically this means that he qualified through the 2019 Championship Tour, even though he is the last surfer to get a call-up. 

He was a fair way back that year – in fact, that he qualified at all is testament to just how dominant a handful of countries currently are on the men’s side of the Championship Tour. As you’ll remember, the top ten men that year qualified for the Olympics, with a maximum of two per country allowed – Fioravanti finished in 31st. Ahead of him were ten Brazilians, eight Americans, seven Australians, three Frenchmen, plus Kanoa Igarashi and Jordy Smith. Clearly the majority of those Brazilians, Americans and Australians missed out because of the limits on each country, and Fioravanti is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of that.

He is, however, a better surfer than that 31st place finish suggests, and his low ranking was in part a product of him missing numerous events through injury. In fact, when he first burst onto the scene in 2017 he was something of a prodigy; the then-19-year-old didn’t have the best of debut seasons but a couple of ninths to finish the season and a quarter-final appearance in Fiji hinted at his ability. He dropped off the CT the year after, then bounced back onto it in his aforementioned injury-riddled 2019 season, meaning he hasn’t really had a full crack at things since his first season on tour. 

This year that’s changed, and he’s worked his way up to 17th in the world rankings. Clearly the Italian still has some work to do to break into the top ten in the world, but he has had an interrupted career to date and has the talent to significantly improve if he gets an extended injury-free run. 

So as for Tokyo? The guy won’t exactly be heading there with a huge amount of expectation that he can beat the likes of Toledo and Ferreira, but his talent is pretty palpable and he has at times shown an ability to surf at an extremely high level. At just 23 years of age he still has plenty of time to improve and could easily become a regular in the top ten in the future, and while he’s a little way off that at the moment he could still ruffle a few feathers in Tokyo.

Neither Costa Rica nor Italy will head to the Olympics with a surfing team expected to leave with a medal. Both of them, however, have talented young surfers in their ranks, all of whom could potentially spring a surprise or two, even if they don’t end up on the podium. The future of all three of these competitors looks bright, and while a medal might be only a very outside chance this year, look out in 2024.