Bali's Teen Surfing Sensation Has Olympic Dreams
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Asian surfers are starting to get the same recognition as their waves.
By Justin Higginbottom
Rio Waida was cold. He could barely feel his hands and feet sticking out of the wet suit he wasn’t used to wearing. And the water was … different. Not only was it colder, but it looked different. The ocean off the coast of Portugal this April was dark, the coast rocky. Nothing like his white sand beaches at home in Bali — crystal-blue water, no wet suit necessary.
But the 18-year-old surfer from Indonesia still had it pretty good, even if he was out in the first round of that competition. Although Bali is a mecca for surfing, locals rarely get their due on the world stage. Indonesians attending competitions are largely left to fend for themselves when it comes to gear, visas, flights and accommodation. It means the difference between being prepared or not for unfamiliar conditions like those in Portugal. When Waida landed a Quiksilver sponsorship, and the opportunity to travel, he had the whole island cheering for him. And he’s made them proud, rising quickly in the sport’s ranks. The 2020 Summer Games in Japan will be the first to include surfing. And Waida hopes to make it for Indo.
We share the waves. We’re not like Brazilians, hustling and everything. I love surfing with the locals.
When he was 5 years old, soon after he moved with his family from his birthplace of Japan, Waida sat on the damp sand of Kuta beach on the southern coast of Bali, watching his mother and father surf their longboards. They would ride the knee-high corners almost every day, plopping him down on the beach where the hawkers selling T-shirts and coffee to tourists met the ocean. He took up surfing himself soon after. He remembers his first competition well. He was 9, “didn’t know anything” and didn’t make a heat. But Waida must have learned, because at his next comp he came in first for those under 10. And then he was off. Although small enough to require growth hormones as a kid, he had an outsize aggressiveness. His style — with all that power and speed, but with plenty of air — was recognized by Quiksilver. By the close of 2017, Waida was No. 1 in the World Surf League Asia region.
But he is paddling against the tide. Although Asia sports some of the best waves on the planet, competitions are usually stacked with South Africans, Americans and Europeans. There’s a couple of reasons for that, explains Tim Hain from the Asian Surf Cooperative. The first is economic: Who can afford surfboards and travel to competitions? The second is cultural. When surfing talent is discovered in, say, Australia, “they treat it like a real sport and invest in that surfer in hopes they can have a career,” Hain says. That includes high-performance coaching, fitness programs, sponsors — all typically unavailable to Asian surfers.
When Waida wakes up, he texts his friends. What’s Uluwatu like? How are the waves at Padang Padang? Is Padma good? Plans are made. “We’re from Indo, so we have good waves. We share the waves. We’re not like Brazilians, hustling and everything. I love surfing with the locals,” he says. And then he hops on his motorbike, with the side rack for his board, and sets off down small coastal streets often clogged with traffic. If the waves are good, he’ll be out all day. If they’re not? He pauses when asked what he does other than surfing. “Right now … it just depends. … If good swells are coming, maybe … I don’t know,” he says, sounding dejected about even the prospect. It doesn’t really matter. The waves are always good in Bali.
That’s a problem, according to Sam Griffiths, his manager at Quiksilver. One of the biggest challenges for surfers from Bali, says Griffiths, has been getting used to the waves outside their island. But it’s necessary to travel to get enough qualifying points to make it on the World Tour. “Traveling to, say, Cornwall in England to get some points for the [Championship Tour] is pretty daunting,” he says. What’s impressed him about Waida is that he’ll sometimes search out less-than-Bali-perfect conditions to get ready for qualifying series events. That’s dedication. Waida often travels to Australia to work on both his surfing and his English. There, he gets to compete against other top talent — like last year at Kiama beach for the World Junior Tour. “When I competed in that event, I learned there are so many good surfers my age. I learned that I’m not the best. And they’re all hungry.”
The professional surfing scene in Asia is developing fast, Griffiths says. Sponsors are paying more attention. Quiksilver and others have a base in Bali. The Indonesian government announced plans to host 10 qualifying competitions this year, with two in Bali. “Especially with the 2020 Olympics coming up, I can just see those areas really boom,” Griffiths says. It wouldn’t surprise him to see many more Asians on the World Tour and even a champion from the region within the next decade.
Waida is now ranked No. 80 in the world, and cracking the top 100 is a major achievement for any 18-year-old. Hain says Waida is Indonesia’s best hope to reach the top 10 to make the World Championship Tour. But the surfer has another goal on his mind: “Everybody is thinking about the Olympics.” It seems really hard to make it there, Waida opines. In fact, he’s not completely sure how one even does.
- Justin Higginbottom, OZY Author Contact Justin Higginbottom