When Kanoa Igarashi was three, his dad started pushing him into waves on the south side of the Huntington Beach pier. And although the Championship Tour (CT) surfer -- now age 20 --- is representing Japan this year, he is heavily rooted in his Southern California hometown. So when the Vans US Open of Surfing comes to town each summer, Igarashi has a deep well of local support on the beach.
And for the past few years, Igarashi has done his community proud: After third-place finishes in 2015 and 2016, he brought the event trophy home in 2017, winning the top-tier men's Qualifying Series event over Brasilian Tomas Hermes. "Today is the best day of my life," Igarashi said after his win. Before Igarashi, the last Huntington Beach local to win the US Open was Brett Simpson, back in 2009.
Before the 2018 Open kicks off Monday, July 30, Igarashi discussed his 2017 win and the wave that shaped his career.
The World Surf League: Having grown up in Huntington Beach, how does local knowledge come into play when it comes to competing at the US Open?
Kanoa Igarashi: For me, I feel really comfortable in Huntington. Luck always seems to be on my side when I compete here. Every year I have all my friends on the beach and that fires me up. It fires them up too, to see a hometown boy making heats.
Everyone on Tour is so good. At this point, everyone has traveled around the world and they know how to read a wave. It's more about the feeling that I get when I'm home. It's definitely more of a mental thing. Everything seems to go my way when I'm here.
You've made it to the Semifinals the past few years. What is your connection to this event?
This place has given me so much. I can't even explain it. When I was too little to surf by myself, my dad would push me into waves on the north side of the pier. We would wake up super early in the morning so that I wouldn't be intimidated by the crowds. Then once I got to middle school I started to take surfing more seriously. My goal was to be the first person in the water in the morning, get as many waves as I could before class, and then be the first person in the water after school.
What are some of your earliest memories of the surf scene in Huntington?
I always have this big crew of friends that I surf with while I'm here...about 15 people. It means the world to me to be able to come home after traveling for so long and be able to catch up and surf with them. I just want to make them proud and serve the 714 [the local area code] the best I can. It's always a big reunion when I come home and it's nice to see what they're up to. One of my friends just moved to New York and is doing some work out there. So everyone is going in different directions but we always get together and catch up when we're in town. It doesn't matter how much time goes by. I cherish every moment I have with them.
The talent pool when it comes to this event is so massive. Who do you see as one of the biggest threats here?
Brett Simpson. I grew up watching him win this contest in '08 and '09. At the time I was about 10 years old. Obviously the US Open was an event I would attend every year. I remember being here when Andy Irons did that massive floater. Kalani Robb used to sneak me VIP passes. I remember watching Julian Wilson when he was about 17 years old as well. He was the new kid on the block from Australia. He broke his board one year so my friend and I swam out and grabbed it. I still have that board. It's hanging up in my garage.
What's your game plan going into next week?
I won the event last year and the next day I was already thinking about this year. I don't think people realize how much this event means to me. At the US Open, surfers are rockstars. Huntington Beach is such an amazing place to have an event. It's not about the points or the prize money. It's all about the crowd. That's what I thrive off of. It's what motivates me. Plus, I'm feeling great right now. I'm surfing better than ever and I'm coming off of a roll at J-Bay. I'm just going to take all the momentum and run with it.
After winning last year, what did you do to celebrate?
I'm not 21 yet...so it probably looked a little different than most people thought. I had all my good friends around me. We had a big dinner. It wasn't just a single day...we were still celebrating that win six months after the fact. I have a picture in my room of all my friends running into the water with me after I won that Jimmy Wilson took. I live for moments like that. Prior to last year, a Huntington Beach guy hadn't won since Brett Simpson in '09. After the event the whole town had this glow about it -- like the win brightened the city up.
Any plans leading up to the event?
I'm at home right now. I'm cherishing every second I have here because it doesn't happen that often. I'm spending time with my friends and the people I grew up with. They're really proud of me, which feels good. I'm doing my best to represent Huntington Beach and balance everything. My family and my crew here always comes first.
You can watch the Vans US Open of Surf live on CBS Sports Network (US only, check local schedule), the WSL website, app, and Facebook.