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South Africa and New Zealand Surfing Teams Tokyo – Previews

Neither South Africa nor New Zealand will fill their quota of four surfers at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, meaning they’ll have to share a single preview among each other. Let’s get to it, starting with the Kiwis.

New Zealand

With just a tick over 5 million people living on the two islands of New Zealand, it’s no great surprise that they don’t get a whole lot of surfers competing on the Championship Tour, but with so many great waves scattered around the diverse coastline there are still plenty of quality surfers to be found. Two of them have made their way to the Olympics, with Billy Stairmand and Ella Williams having both won their respective genders’ ISA World Surfing Games of Oceania back in 2019.

Billy Stairmand

At 31 years of age, Stairmand has plenty of professional experience, though he won’t have often competed against surfers of the quality he will face in Tokyo. The regular-footer grew up surfing the world-famous waves of Raglan, so it’s no surprise that he’s pretty useful on his backhand, but the likely mid-size beach break waves at Tsurigasaki Beach will be a little different to what he grew up surfing. 

Nonetheless, Stairmand has made a name for himself for his ability to go aerial, and his powerful surfing style could be suited by the waves in Japan. He also heads to the event in some of the best form of his life; after scratching his way around the Qualifying Series for a number of years, he has ramped things up a notch in his late 20s and early 30s, having accumulated a number of good results in recent years. He certainly won’t head in with too many expectations given he will be competing against the likes of Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira, but the Kiwi did once take out Kelly Slater in a competition many years ago, so who knows what he’s capable of?

Ella Williams

Ella Williams’ talent on a board was clear from a young age. She first started surfing in Raglan at the age of four, before her family moved to the Coromandel Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island and she continued to hone her craft there. At the age of 18, she got a last-minute call up to the World Junior Championship courtesy of an injury, and proved she should have been there all along by beating Tatiana Weston-Webb in the final to take out the event.

Since then, however, her career has gone in a different direction to the woman she beat in that final. Weston-Webb is now one of the best surfers in the world and a genuine threat for this year’s Championship Tour title – Williams, meanwhile, has surfed in just one event at that level in her life, having finished 13th as a wildcard at the 2017 Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. 

Her career since turning pro has been spent in the Qualifying Series, and while she has had some success there, the 26-year-old is a level below the best of the best. Perhaps the goofy-footer can outperform expectations, but it would be a surprise to see her matching it with the likes of Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore in Tokyo. 

South Africa

Bianca Buitendag

South Africa has had a number of world-class surfers over the years, but their representation on the Championship Tour is fairly limited at the moment and they’ll fill just one of their allotted quota of four surfers in Tokyo. Initially, that was intended to be two, with Jordy Smith having qualified via the Championship Tour. In early July, however, just a few weeks prior to the beginning of the Games, he pulled out as a result of a knee injury he suffered in training five weeks ago. As a result, their only chance is Bianca Buitendag, who will represent her nation on the women’s side of the action after winning the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games in Africa.

But while the 27-year-old from Victoria Bay on South Africa’s Western Cape might not have qualified through the World Surf League, surfing’s top-tier competition, she does have plenty experience competing against the best in the world. She first appeared on the Championship Tour in 2013 as a teenager and made an immediate mark, earning herself three 5th place finishes and one 3rd place finish over the course of the year to end the season in eighth. 

The next year she went one better. A 2nd place to start the season and a 3rd place to finish it were her best results, but four more quarter-finals appearance wedged in between were enough to see her end the season in seventh place, ahead of names like Courtney Conlogue and Coco Ho. 

She continued to improve in 2015, making the final of three events – though she was unable to win any – as well as another semi-final and a couple of quarters. She finished that year in fourth and appeared primed to launch an assault on the world title the next year, but she dropped back to 12th and by 2017 was only sporadically getting a gig at the top level.

She made just one appearance on the Championship Tour in 2019 and it didn’t go particularly well for her, but her win at the ISA World Surfing Games was something of a return to form, even if at a lower level. 

Heading to Tokyo, she hasn’t surfed competitively for a couple of years and it’s difficult to get a read on her as a result, but based on her surfing from the last few years it’s likely she’ll struggle to match it with the best. Had surfing been introduced at the 2016 Olympics perhaps she would have had a decent chance at snaring a medal, and while she can’t be counted out in 2021, even a bronze would be a surprise.

It’s unlikely that either of these countries will be leaving Tokyo with a surfing-related medal, particularly given the last-minute withdrawal of Jordy Smith from South Africa’s team. Buitendag might be the best chance for both countries while Stairmand also heads in with some good form behind him, but if any of them manages to snare a medal it will be a surprise.