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USA Surfing Team Tokyo Games 2020 – Preview

The USA have long been a powerhouse in world surfing, with some of the greatest names in the sport’s history – and indeed THE greatest name in Kelly Slater – coming out of the States. That’s despite the fact that, at the international level, Hawaii competes separately, meaning names like John John Florence and Carissa Moore aren’t technically competing for the US. At the Olympics, that’s not the case. Hawaii and the mainland come together to form one team, and unsurprisingly, it’s a pretty formidable one.

The Team

Given many of the top ranked surfers in the world hail from the USA, it’s no surprise that all four of their competitors at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualified through the Championship Tour. To qualify in this way, surfers needed to finish either in the top ten on the men’s side or the top eight on the women’s side in 2019, meaning that for the men, Kolohe Andino (who finished fifth) and John John Florence (who finished seventh despite missing five events through injury) made it straight through to the Olympics. Slater finished one back in eighth, meaning he missed out because only two men from each country can qualify, though with injury concerns surrounding both Andino and Florence perhaps he is a slight chance of a late call-up – more on that below.

The women who qualified did so in even more comprehensive fashion. Carissa Moore was the world champion in 2019, while the runner-up was Caroline Marks, so they both went straight through. Lakey Peterson must feel pretty hard done by – she finished third in the world that year, only marginally behind Marks, but unfortunately for her that also equated to third for her country and she missed out as a result. Courtney Conlogue also finished seventh and Hawaii’s Malia Manuel ninth, so had there not been a two-person per country limit then this would have been an extremely USA-centric event. 

The Men

As mentioned, there is a little uncertainty surrounding the male representatives for the USA at the Tokyo Olympics. Florence, their top ranked surfer and undoubtedly best hope on the men’s side of taking home the Gold Medal, underwent knee surgery in May and is missing a couple of WSL events as a result. Andino, meanwhile, spent the entire four-event Australian leg of the Championship Tour absent as a result of an ankle injury he re-aggravated in March. The status of both for the Olympics is uncertain, though Florence has indicated he expects to be competing. No such word has come from the Andino camp, and if either of them miss then it will be Slater who slots in to fill the void. That would likely send ratings through the roof, but as blasphemous as it is to say, wouldn’t necessarily give the Americans a better hope of winning.

Certainly not if he replaces Florence. When fit and firing Florence is arguably the best surfer in the world, and it’s probably only Medina who can truly hold a candle to him when they’re both at their best. The 28-year-old is a two-time world champion having saluted in both 2016 and 2017, and in the subsequent years he hasn’t really had a genuine shot at defending his crown. In 2018, he competed in the first five events before missing the rest of the season with injury, and did virtually the exact same in 2019 – after he had finished 3rd, 1st, 1st and 5th in the first four events. 

He started this season looking ready to return to the top with a win at Pipeline, but after a couple of disappointing results to start the Australian leg of the tour he was forced to withdraw due to injury from Margaret River after reaching the quarter finals. He’s expected to miss the upcoming Surf Ranch Pro too, but as mentioned, anticipates that he will be ready to go for the Olympics. If he is 100%, he is a massive threat and could easily be going home with a medal.

Andino, while a terrific surfer in his own right, is a level below Florence, and if he ends up conceding his spot to Slater it won’t be such a big deal for the USA team. However, the 27-year-old has been a consistent presence in the top few spots in the world rankings for a number of years now, having finished 4th in 2016, 7th in 2017 and 5th in 2019. 

He has a dynamic and versatile style of surfing, and if he does make it to Tokyo he is the kind of surfer who may be able to make the most of what might be inferior conditions to those on the Championship Tour. So while he may not be at the level of Florence and certainly won’t be carrying the torch as America’s best hope at a medal, he is still some chance of sneaking into the placings.

The Women

While the men have a solid chance at taking home the medal, it’s the women who look most likely to do the damage for the States. Carissa Moore is the dominant surfer in the world, having won her fourth title in 2019 and now charged her way to a comfortable lead at the top after five events in 2021. So far this year she has made it to the semi-final at every event on the Championship Tour, winning in Newcastle and finishing runner-up at Pipeline.

The powerful regular footer can do it in all conditions, so whatever Tsurigasaki dishes up she will be able to capitalise on it. There are plenty of talented surfers on the women’s side of the draw so she certainly will need to do more than just turn up to win, but there’s almost no doubt that she will head into the event as favourite and it will be a surprise if she goes home without a medal.

Her teammate Caroline Marks is perhaps her biggest threat to the Gold Medal, but equally the 19-year-old could fall flat and fail to make an impact. That’s been the story of her year on the Championship Tour, and given her age it’s not a great surprise. Already the prodigious talent has shown just how good she is at the top level – she finished 7th on the CT as a 16-year-old, and as mentioned finished second the next year to qualify for the Olympics.

It’s only a matter of time until she starts winning world titles, but this year has been a little rocky so far. In the first event of the season and the two most recent (Margaret River and Rottnest Island) she has failed to make it past the Round of 16, though she has been an unlucky loser a couple of times. In the two events sandwiched in between, she was a semi-finalist at Newcastle and won the Narrabeen Classic. Clearly, at her best she is hard to stop, but as with many young athletes in many different sports, finding her best on a consistent basis is proving a challenge. If she brings it to the Olympics, it would be no surprise to see her walk away with the Gold Medal.

Both the men’s and the women’s teams for the USA are super talented and more than capable of taking home at least one medal, and very possibly a Gold or two. The women, however, are unequivocally the more dangerous team, and they may go in as the two favourites to win the whole event. But the men are more than capable of taking home the Gold as well, particularly if John John is fit and firing, making this one of the more formidable national quartets at the Tokyo Olympics.