Is Canada's Young Surfing Prodigy Heading for the Olympics?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it only took six years of surf training for Mathea Olin to become a national champ.
By Kelcey Wright
A small trail leads from her home, past a hotel and onto the beach in less than a minute. Dressed head-to-toe in a cold-water wet suit with a pastel pink surfboard tucked under her arm, Mathea Olin, all bright blond hair and crystal-blue eyes, is a frequent presence on the misty shores of Tofino, British Columbia.
She has been called a surfing prodigy since she was 11 years old and upped her stock even further in December by winning Canada’s first gold medal at an international surfing event. But the rising 10th-grader doesn’t dig all the hype.
Sitting cross-legged in front of a turquoise-and-peach-hued mandala tapestry at her parents’ house on an early spring afternoon, Olin thinks back to the moment when she took gold in women’s longboard at the Pan American Surfing Championships in Peru. “Winning and the trophy and stuff doesn’t mean the world to me,” she says. “I feel like getting there with my team and pushing myself heat after heat, and then getting to hear our anthem play up there — that meant the world to me.”
It’s kind of weird when people call me a prodigy.
And while Olin made history that day, the now 15-year-old has loftier goals. Sure, there’s college and traveling the globe, but first she’s determined to climb to the pinnacle of her sport. And when surfing has its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, she’s planning to enter the history books once again.
But there’s a lot of work to do before she’s ready to compete against the best surfers on the planet. Training three times a day, Olin takes each practice at a time, focused primarily, she says, on perfecting her airs and spins and making her surfing “more radical.”
“She absolutely has the potential to reach the Olympics,” says Shannon Brown, Surf Canada national head coach. “But a lot of girls have potential. What she’s got going for her is that she’s so young, and you watch her improvements happen before your eyes.”
Those improvements have been inching her toward dominance in the sport. At this year’s Surf Canada Nationals in early May, Olin defended both her under-16 and women’s longboard titles. And although she posted a series of photos on Instagram after the weekend’s events, she says she doesn’t pay much attention to social media (and get this: she’s never played a video game).
Instead, Olin fills her time surfing every day, heli-skiing and snowboarding in the winter and completing online classes so she can graduate high school early. Raised in a two-working-parent household — her father is a heli-skiing guide and her mother is a masseuse and runs an Airbnb — she also has a job working part-time at a local chocolate shop.
“I feel like I’d rather be outside living in the moment,” she says, sounding almost too zen for her age. But who could blame her? Most of her days are spent on the beach in her backyard or, for a few months per year, in Hawaii.
When I jokingly ask if she’s ever met surfing legend Bethany Hamilton in Kauai, Olin doesn’t blink: “We used to have the movie [Soul Surfer, the biopic about Hamilton, who lost her arm at 13 in a shark attack], and we would watch it like once a week. Now, I actually surf with her quite a bit. One of her coaches growing up is one of my coaches now.”
Hamilton isn’t the only childhood hero turned surfing peer: Pete Devries, an eight-time national champion and fellow Canadian, has also become a friend and mentor.
“Mathea is a great young kid, super focused; you can see it in the way she approaches the ocean,” says Devries, now a pro surfer. “To be so young and to have that focus and drive and really know what you want is impressive. Especially being away from the real surf meccas of the world.”
But he cautions the young surfer about getting too caught up in the competitive piece of the process: “If it becomes too stressful and too much about wins and loses, you can get lost in that side of the sport, and you’ll lose that drive. I’ve seen a lot of young surfers stop loving it.”
Olin has seen the burnout firsthand and is mindful to avoid that end point. Instead, she hopes her journey will lead from the winding, tree-lined path behind her house to the Summer Games in two years’ time.
But Coach Brown brings a hefty dose of reality to that vision, explaining that while Olin is a top-tier competitor in Canada and internationally, qualifying for the Olympics is an entirely different beast. With just 20 surfers from each gender competing in the Games, each country is allowed no more than two athletes. It all depends, says Brown, on which two, men or women, the team thinks will be the strongest contenders to medal in 2020. And with Olin recovering from a back and neck injury, time out of the water can take its toll.
Still, Olin didn’t start surfing until the third grade when her family moved from Canmore, Alberta, to Tofino, one of Canada’s big-time surfing communities. And considering that six years later she’s a national champion — as is her sister Sanoa, the current national champion in the under-12 age group — it’s conceivable that another two years could bring her to Tokyo.
“It’s kind of weird when people call me a prodigy,” Olin says with a smile. “It’s weird, but kind of amazing at the same time. I’m stoked that I inspire people because I know I’m young, but I just want to make the Olympics and pave the path for female surfers in Canada.”
5 Questions for Olin
What’s your favorite book?
The Missing Rose [by Serdar Ozkan]. I love it.
What do you worry about?
After Kauai, I hurt my back and my neck, and I’ve been out of the water since I’ve gotten back. Even though I don’t have a bunch of worries, when I’m out of the ocean I feel like a part of me is missing, and I’m always worrying about not being able to travel and compete and just not being happy.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without?
It would either be my family or the ocean and being able to surf. I think what I literally can’t live without would be not being happy — being able to be outside and do what I love. I couldn’t imagine being in a city and having to go to a public school and sit in a seat all day.
Who’s your hero?
Growing up in Tofino, I’ve always looked up to Pete Devries. Every time he’s on a wave, I literally watch his every movement. Because I get to watch him surf whenever I go out and I’ve always looked up to him, I’d probably say him.
What’s one item on your bucket list?
I would love to be able to travel and meet amazing people, and I really want to go to India and Fiji, and I really want to compete in an Olympics and inspire other female surfers.
- Kelcey Wright, OZY Author Contact Kelcey Wright